In this post:
|The Bulletin for||The ‘Taking Faith Home’ Handout for|
The Elders and I met this last Tuesday and have decided that we should not meet in person for worship right now. This decision was not reached lightly or casually. In the interests of being as transparent as possible, I thought it would be appropriate to walk you though the thought process on how the elders and I make these decisions.
Let’s start with the obvious. I want to meet in person. You want to meet in person. I miss seeing my friends and church family. I know you do too.
I feel isolated during this time. I’ve restricted my travel, gone without seeing my friends and family, canceled a vacation. I would like a little of my old routine back. For years, I have gathered weekly with other Christians to hear and soak up God’s Word, to draw comfort from my community.
There’s also one of the commandments that emphasizes this:
The Third Commandment: Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it. (Small Catechism)
I know that God wants us gathering around His Word. Jesus tells us that “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20, ESV)
And yes, the church services are currently being broadcast by radio. But it’s not the same. And there is a concern that when this whole virus thing is over and done, people may be so used to listening to the radio only that they won’t come back to church in person.
On top of this – currently most of the people getting sick are between 20-60 years old. We do not want to neglect the spiritual care of our more mature members, who ARE staying home and being careful. At this time, we do not know of any church members who have COVID-19. We all have heard or seen other churches in other towns opening.
With all of this being said, isn’t it reasonable that we have a church service with social distancing, and masks, and there may be a risk to gathering but those who are uncomfortable about it can stay home, and those who really miss the church gathering can have it again?
After all, God is in charge of all of this, and He tells us to worship. So let’s do that.
Is that about how you’re feeling? I’ve done my best to give a fair representation of what I’ve heard over several conversations. There is a strong desire for routine, community, and comfort, and a growing feeling of isolation and being lost or forgotten.
And I want you to hear very clearly that I and the elders feel every one of those things with you.
Going strictly from what we see in our own daily life, we too are eager and ready to open church doors again. To embrace the community of believers.
So why aren’t we doing this?
In April, guidelines were given by a Federal Task Force on three conditions that should be satisfied before public gatherings happen again.
- There should be two weeks where cases of COVID symptoms are decreasing.
- There should be two weeks where people are tested for the virus, and the percentage who test positive decreases.
- Hospitals should be able to treat all patients without crisis care. In other words, that they have room, staff, and facilities to treat those who are sick with both regular injuries and with COVID.
So, are those conditions met?
- We don’t have good information on the first condition. We don’t know how many cases of COVID are showing symptoms or not.
- We do have information for testing. The very short version is that infection rates are increasing rapidly. In Wharton County, there have been over 8,900 tests performed. Over 1000 people have tested positive, just in our county. Nearly 400 of them are in Wharton, over 500 are in El Campo, over 100 in East Bernard.
- In early June, 58 people had tested positive, or 5% of everyone tested.
- From April until now, 11% of everyone tested has tested positive.
- Just looking at tests from this last week, 27% of the people tested are positive.
- Right now, we have higher infection rates than every county around us: Austin, Brazoria, Ft. Bend, Harris, Jackson, Matagorda, Victoria, AND Waller have significantly lower percentage of infections than Wharton County. When you hear of other Lutheran Churches opening – they are in a different county than us and have a different set of circumstances around them!
- If our members were to get sick and need a hospital, they would most likely be transferred to a hospital in the Sugarland/Houston area. A group of hospitals that include CHI St. Luke’s, Harris Health System, Houston Methodist, MD Anderson, Memorial Hermann, Texas Children’s, and UTMB report that they are at 98% capacity in their ICUs, with roughly 1/3 of the cases there for COVID. Oak Bend Hospital told the elders on Tuesday that they have 6 beds available, from a total of 30 in the ER and however many they had in their COVID ward.
What all these numbers tell us is COVID-19 is being spread in the community. The only way to stop the spread of a virus is to change a community’s behavior – hence the need to physically distance, wash hands, and wear a face covering.
And if members get sick and need hospitalization – currently there are very few places to go for care.
If a member gets infected without symptoms and passes on the infection to another, but that person gets sick and needs hospitalization – there are few places for that person to get care.
In both cases, the medical staff that care for COVID patients in the hospital put their own health and lives at risk even with all possible precautions being taken.
So while we desire to gather and follow the Third Commandment (Honor the Sabbath Day) we also balance this with another commandment.
The Fifth Commandment: You shall not murder.
What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need. (Small Catechism).
Our congregation is part of the community of believers. We are also part of a larger community within Wharton County. In our actions we strive to and must care for both.
Right now our neighbor needs us to not spread this virus.
Our desire to gather together again is so we have community to combat the feelings of isolation that come from a situation that is outside any of our experiences or memory.
Our desire to care for the community compels us to continue physical isolation, while finding ways to nurture and comfort our church community.
We are balancing the Third and Fifth commandment.
Is God in charge or not? Will he not protect and care for us? Yes, he absolutely is and will! But he has also in his mercy given us doctors, health officials, and experts on viruses, pandemics, and diseases to advise and guide us in our actions. We have reached out to medical staff who deal with COVID, and every one has pleaded with us to take the upmost caution.
It is after intense discussions that the Board of Elders and I this last Tuesday night decided that it is not appropriate to gather in person right now, as we seek to fulfill our obligations to care for our neighbor. We will continue to broadcast over the radio and offer the Lord’s Supper as ‘drive-through’ service to honor the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
As your pastor, I cannot adequately convey to you the intense sorrow I feel with this decision. I have spent countless hours since March reading reports, lab studies, and guidelines. I have consulted with other Pastors, doctors, health care workers to try to understand enough to guide the congregation through this time.I have prayed, cried, grumbled, and been humbled before God. I have wept with stress and with shared pain with those who only want to gather with their church family again.
If you are feeling neglected or left alone, if you feel you have not been cared for by your church, please hear my apology. If as Pastor or as elders we have not cared for your spiritual needs, please accept our repentance. We remain dedicated to your care and are striving to not let any member ‘fall through the cracks’. If you are in especial need, I ask you to call, email, text me. I have been and will continue to phone members to check in with them. If I have not gotten to you yet (or recently) I ask your pardon and understanding, but also your forgiveness.
In our Immerse Bible readings this week, there’s a quote on page 158 (2 Corinthians 8:1-9) that can apply to us here and now. Paul writes about how the Macedonian church in the midst of ‘severe trials’ and ‘extreme poverty’ still generously gave funds to help poor Christians in Jerusalem. He then encouraged the Church in Corinth to act similarly.
“But since you excel in so many ways – in your faith, your gifted speakers, your knowledge, your enthusiasm, and your love from us – I want you to excel also in this gracious act of giving.
I am not commanding you to do this. But I am testing how genuine your love is by comparing it with the eagerness of the other churches.”
Even now, I ask that you continue to hold fast. Even in physical isolation now, we are bound by common circumstance and our Lord Jesus’ love for us into a holy community that cares for each other and the secular community of Wharton County. I am constantly looking for the three conditions of reopening to be met. As soon as they are, I will be working towards opening the doors and inviting everyone to gather in celebration.
I remain your servant in Christ,
Rev. R.W. Lutjens
As part of our own exposure to God’s Word, a group has started to read Immerse: Messiah again. This will allow us to read through the entire New Testament in 16 weeks, with an average of 30 pages a week.
This week we are reading pages 158-190 our books. We will then meet on Monday evenings at 7:00pm via video chat and phone for our discussions of the readings.
Anyone is still invited to participate with us. If you need a new copy of the book, please reach out to me, as I have several extra copies in my office.
For those participating, there are lots of resources available here: https://www.tyndale.com/sites/immersebible/messiah-resources/ , including an audio recording of the readings, if you prefer to listen.
There’s also an introductory video for this week’s readings, which can be found on the page above, or right here: https://youtu.be/OOEefWXT6bQ
Everyone is welcome to send an email to me at any time during the week with any questions, concerns, or insights you find. I can either answer them or bring them up during a weekly meeting.
For our video chat, here’s the information from the software we’re using for this:
Please join my meeting from your computer, tablet or smartphone.
You can also dial in using your phone.
United States: +1 (571) 317-3112
Access Code: 841-954-213
New to GoToMeeting? Get the app now and be ready when your first meeting starts:
If you use the computer, tablet, smartphone, you’ll be able to see me and anyone else using a webcam. You *don’t* have to use a webcam if you don’t want to. If you prefer to just call in, use the phone number and access code.