Hope and Changes in Response to COVID-19

Mar 12, 2020

I realize that this is a longer letter, but I would encourage you to read to the end. If you can’t, or have to read it in snippets -- be advised that after much prayer and discussion with all the Highrock churches and after meeting as The Board last night, along with the Highrock Network of Churches, we have decided to suspend in-person Sunday services and all gatherings of 25+ people at least until March 25th, at which time we will re-evaluate the situation and make plans accordingly. In the interim, we will be exploring ways to ensure we remain connected to each other, including but not limited to having virtual services and creating a phone-tree connection plan for prayer, check-ins, and spiritual care.   
The primary job of the Church has historically been two-fold: witness to the resurrection of Christ as hope in the face of darkness and death, and to be the spiritual body of Christ — be a spiritual community — at work for the Gospel in each other’s lives and in the world. 
Grounded in this mission, the Church has a long history of running into cities at times of pandemic while other officials have fled. During the pandemics that swept the Roman Empire during the 2nd and 3rd centuries, while civic leaders and even medical professionals fled for the countryside to protect themselves, Christians remained in the cities to care for the sick and dying. The resurrection of Jesus made these Christians unafraid to die, which freed them to love their neighbors sacrificially.
And because Christians were not afraid of dying, they were able to love in exceptional ways, leading to an explosive growth of the Gospel. This is a powerful testimony of the love of Jesus on full display, and I want us to live in this power today.
So I want us to be faithful and unafraid like we see in the witness of the early Church, but our day and age requires some different measures to truly be a witness to the world. 
It’s also important to note that the early Church didn’t really look like the Church today. Their gatherings were held as smaller clusters of individuals meeting in homes dispersed across wide geographic areas, which meant that transmission of disease among Christians would have also been slower. If the church gathered in large masses of people like we do today, it’s entirely possible that the transmission of disease would have sped and multiplied, rather than be contained and healed.

And unfortunately, Native American history right here in Massachusetts has shown us just what this looks like. Entire nations were decimated all because European settlers unwittingly (and tragically, sometimes even purposefully) spread disease among the vulnerable people they interacted with. Some estimate that as much as 90% of the people native to this land died in the pandemics brought on by new European colonists.  

So in this light, I also appreciate that gathering together might very well actually do more harm than good since our gatherings might work to advance the progress of the disease, rather than alleviate suffering. And so getting together for together's sake, might actually work contrary to the love and care of Christ we all know.
This is particularly important in our context at Highrock North Shore. Going into last week, we already had a number of attendees who are immunocompromised at varying degrees. Similarly, we have a significant number of people who are in the most at-risk demographic. Other Highrock churches are in similar positions. 
Given this reality, the pastors from all ten Highrock Churches spent nearly two hours in deliberation hoping to discern the most faithful course of action. We are fortunate to have in our network many area experts, including the leader of the medical team advising the governor, a team leader of the MIT/Harvard COVID research team, the team leader advising the local area hospitals, as well as many doctors, nurses, and staff on the front lines of health care. 
They have all been sharing their latest information with us and the majority consensus (not unanimous, but majority) is that the best way to serve our neighbors is to help slow the spread of this virus so that medical facilities and professionals are not overwhelmed by more patients than they can care for. 
We can do this by avoiding gatherings of more than 25 people, and even in smaller gatherings practicing “micro social distancing”, which includes remaining at least 3 feet apart and frequent hand washing.
Given all this information, and after meeting with The Board last night, after much prayer and discussion Highrock has decided to suspend in-person Sunday services and all gatherings of 25+ people at least until March 25th, at which time we will re-evaluate the situation and make plans accordingly. In the interim, we will be exploring ways to have a virtual service. This means that smaller things (the partnership class, youth group, moving out of FBC this Sunday) are all still ON, but larger things (Sunday services, Shabbat dinners, etc.) will be on hiatus. 
While I am saddened by the prospect of sacrificing many of our beloved and meaningful regular gatherings, I wonder what new invitations God may be giving you personally and us collectively in this season. 
Consider the church in Japan. Many Churches have been forced into virtual gatherings during their quarantine, but some have found that this allowed many of their neighbors to join them who might have been reluctant to show up at a service in person. Many new people are finding Jesus this way.  Imagine if God opened new doors for the Gospel even if we are all stuck behind closed doors! 
Similarly, along with pastors and staff from the other Highrocks, we are exploring new ways to connect virtually, including possibly having all the Highrocks join for a Sunday service (or multiple), and potentially offer other opportunities of connection and prayer throughout the week. 
Additionally, at Highrock North Shore we are in the process of creating a “connection tree” so that each Highrock household has someone who is connecting with them to make sure everyone who calls Highrock home has someone praying for and connecting with them.  We want to make sure everyone has a place to share practical needs that are arising out of this, so we, as a church might consider ways we can support one another tangibly.
We will send out more information about all of this in the days ahead. 
Lastly, I’d like to offer some suggestions as you consider how to tend to your spirit as you Connect with God, God’s People, and God’s Purposes during these unusual days. 

  1. As always, be intentional about checking in on each other. If you have needs, share them with others in your small group, your circle of friends, or the Facebook Community Board so that we can be a body together. Love one another as we have been loved.
  2. Make sure your consumption in the next week is not just of news feeds but also that you have a diet rich in prayer and scripture. News media usually does not calm fears, however, God and God’s word, does. Consider God’s word to Joshua in Joshua 1 — “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Remember that in all times, including this one, that courage is not the absence of fear but choosing not to bow to it. 
  3. Similarly, consider Philippians 4: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” In times of trial, believers have long known that gratitude to God and kindness toward others reorients our heart and mind toward hope. Use this as an opportunity to give thanks to God for simple and practical things we might otherwise take for granted that God has provided for us.
  4. Make sure to think critically about the news sources you are digesting. Are they reliable and from expert opinion? How much of what you are consuming is hype over reality? Given our personalities, some of us are prone to downplay or overplay news. Be self-aware of your own propensity and exercise maturity, infused with wisdom from the Spirit of God.
  5. In the next few days ahead ask how God might use you to be a non-anxious presence and place of hope in your own life and circles of influence. The early church was known and grew rapidly in part because in times of plagues much worse than COVID-19. They were known to be people who ministered to and took care of the sick and poor and showed great courage. What are some creative ways God may want you to do the same today? 
  6. Be thoughtful and prayerful. Pray for those of Asian descent who may be experiencing racism because of this. Pray for those who are affected by the economic roller coaster and the volatility of the stock market. Pray for small business owners who don’t have the margins that big companies sometimes do. Pray for teachers who spend every day in a petri dish. Pray for those who have pre-existing health complications or who might be at greater risk.
  7. If it pertains to you, use this time as an opportunity to instruct your children (or neighbors!) in the hope of the resurrection we have because of Jesus. It’s true that until Jesus returns, our bodies will continue to see disease and death, but that is NOT the end of the story! Remember Paul’s word to the Corinthians: "Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory. “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers and sisters, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

Finally, I want to say THANK YOU to the many medical professionals, researchers, and community leaders at Highrock who are laboring for the Lord and are on the front lines against this pandemic.  If some of the rest of us have extra time at home over the next few weeks, let’s use some of it to pray for those who are working even harder to protect everyone else, and in many cases, facing much greater risks. 
But above all, remember that God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and a sound mind, for the same Spirit that rose Jesus from the dead lives in you!
With all Christ’s affection,