The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Posts Tagged ‘love

Social distancing and gathered worship

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What now? What next?

As expected, everything is shifting quickly. What I wrote just a few days ago may still be helpful in principle, but the practice is now challenging. In the UK, the government has given vigorous advice not to attend social gatherings (still only counsel, though strong counsel). I understand that in other parts of the world religious gatherings have been forbidden (by clear command). I expect, too, that everything will shift again quickly, and keep shifting, and we shall have to keep thinking out and applying our principles.

Please bear in mind that I am not suggesting here how we are to interpret these events, nor how we are to preach to them. That, perhaps, is for another time. This is about our attitude to meeting together under the present constraints.

It is important to remember, before we consider anything else, that government counsels and commands under these circumstances are not religious persecution as such. They may not be welcome, and we may be instinctively and strongly averse to them, but we should not put them, at this time and under these circumstances, in the wrong category. The governments of the world are, by and large, doing what they ought to be doing as ‘good’ governors, seeking to take care of those entrusted to their oversight. While I appreciate that almost no secular government has any real sense of what real Christianity involves, and that they lump all ‘faith communities’ and ‘religious gatherings’ together, I do not think we should instinctively resent these strictures.

Taking into account what I said before about respecting the counsels and commands of the civil authorities, I wonder if it actually makes things less complicated if we almost strip that issue out of our consideration.

What if we boil it down to this? “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mk 12:29–31). Both of these will intertwine in this discussion.

Keep in mind, too, some of what we said before about principles of Christian liberty, and what it means to extend to others a proper freedom to act in accordance with an instructed conscience. This is difficult, because a member might not necessarily believe that the elders have chosen the wisest course, but should still be willing to embrace that course (provided that there is no question of the elders recommending something sinful, which may be a discussion that is required). None of us have the liberty to lord it over the consciences of others, and we must not allow our liberty to shackle others. You do not have the liberty simply to ignore your elders or trample upon the souls (and bodies!) of others, any more than you have the liberty to raise your fist against a government seeking to do its job well in a nightmarish environment. In this, “do not let your good be spoken of as evil” (Rom 14:16).

The key points in the UK are as follows:

  • everyone in the UK is now being advised to avoid “non-essential” contact with others and “unnecessary” travel.
  • people are also being asked to work from home “where they possibly can”, and avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and social venues (in a question in the House of Commons, this was explicitly applied to gatherings of the church.
  • people are now being advised to stay at home for 14 days if they, or anyone in their household, has either a high temperature or a “new and continuous cough”.
  • people in at-risk groups will be asked within days to be “largely shielded from social contact” for 12 weeks.
  • the UK is to scale up coronavirus testing in the coming weeks.
  • from tomorrow, mass gatherings will no longer be provided with emergency workers.

Notice this is still only governmental advice. It is currently counsel not command. How, then, ought churches to respond to this? (I recognise that in other countries, this is already a done deal, and that counsel has become command.)

First, what does it mean to love God?

As I suggested before, believers should commit to doing all we can to obey God’s commands and embrace the privileges of the saints. We must plan and prepare to make the most of every opportunity for this, now and under any future circumstances. To love God means to desire him and to delight in him, and that is nowhere more fully expressed than in the gathered worship of the church. There we hear his voice; there he lifts up the light of his countenance upon us, and gives us peace. That means a predisposition to gather together to worship him. The first four commandments require us to place God first, to put our trust in and worship him alone, to honour his name above all things, and to serve him with our time and energy on six days of the week, and to gather with his people on the day appointed for his worship, when not providentially hindered from doing so (I think it is worth pointing out both elements of that, not least because we have to contend with the government imposing certain restrictions not just on the one day but on all the days, and we might at least consider whether or not we are being consistent).

But, we are not a social gathering in the casual sense of the phrase. There is a vital spiritual dynamic at work which God’s people cannot afford casually to neglect. For these reasons, I do not think that we should quickly assume that absolute cancellations are the only way forward. At the same time, we are a gathering in which we will have quite prolonged and close contact, under normal circumstances. That will carry us to our concern for neighbours below. Even then, we should remember that many of us are likely to get this disease, or have already got it, and may be able to meet again afterward before too long, if we recover. We should remember the witness we bear to those around us by how we live, and what our priorities are.

Love to God does require a proper respect to the government that he has appointed, within the terms of the fifth commandment (which has application to the way in which we both exercise and respond to God-given authority). Among the things which we should do on the Lord’s day is to pray for our government.

Furthermore, love to God requires us to preserve his reputation, as it is carried by the church, both positively and negatively. We do, perhaps, need to take account of the fact that religious services of some kind proved a catalyst for major outbreaks in both New York State and South Korea. We must therefore avoid giving the impression that we are creating or exacerbating (even deliberately) an otherwise avoidable problem.

Loving God also means honouring his ability to bless us outside or beyond the ordinary means that we typically use for our spiritual wellbeing. Would we deny that God has, for example, been pleased to sustain the spiritual health of men and women who have been, perhaps for years, cut off from the normal means of grace? Can he not do the same under these unusual circumstances?

Second, what does it mean to love our neighbour?

It means, first, that we ought not to risk our own lives or the lives of others unjustly or carelessly. Whatever faith in God means, it does not mean the kind of bravado that flaunts itself. Whatever we do, we ought to take all reasonable precautions to protect and preserve health and life (in accordance with the sixth commandment). Anyone who does exercise their liberty in meeting should not make the gathering itself, or our behaviour at it, an act of bravado rather than of faith. Temple-jumping is not faith but folly – it is testing the Lord your God (cf. Mt 4.7). So, for example, if you choose to gather, you should observe not just the niceties of social distancing on the smaller scale, but take stringent and even aggressive measures to avoid any risk to health and life.

With this in mind, if you are at risk or a risk, you should act out of love to others, and absent yourself for whatever period is wise. If you are obliged to exercise your liberty in not meeting (with good reason), then you should do all you can to make the most of the Lord’s day, taking advantage of every means to enter into the spirit and purpose of the day. (Indeed, you should consider the best use of any other discretionary time forced upon you.) All those who are manifesting any signs of this sickness, or are within those periods of necessary wariness, should not attend; neither should those who fall within the ‘at risk’ or ‘high risk’ categories. If we can maximise the distance between those who appear to be a risk and those who are at risk, we can act with a clearer conscience.

We also need to think about the positive effect on our neighbours of continuing to worship God. Perhaps, for some, this will be the first time they have ever truly considered their mortality, and they need to know the God who saves. Perhaps the fact that we value God above all things, and place his worship so high on our list of priorities that, even in such a time as this, whether corporately or individually, we will organised our lives around its centrality, will be a blessing to them. Let them hear our hymns of praise sounding from our homes during the week and out of the church on the Lord’s day, even if only from a few voices; let them know that we are praying for them and for others; share with them opportunities to hear the Word of God immediately or remotely!

Elders, in making these decisions, must take into account that different congregations have different compositions. A congregation composed mainly of elderly saints might need to make some more radical decisions than one composed mainly of younger folks. If there are an unusual number of sick people scattered among the congregation, that will have an impact. If there are a number of spiritually immature people (whether a risk, at risk, or just a risk-taker!) who mistake folly for faith, pastoral instruction, admonition and rebuke might be necessary. If there are people of over-sensitive conscience, their consciences might need to be instructed.

It means that we need to use all the means at our disposal to feed the souls of God’s flock and to call sinners to repent and believe. Whether that means personal visits (within safe parameters, including standing six feet down the path!), regular calls, employing available technology to provide audio and video livestreams or recordings, or whatever it may be, we must not neglect to care for one another, body and soul. We need to press home upon men and women the fearful judgements of an offended God, and plead with them to turn from their sins, before a worse thing comes upon them. We need to explain that such horrors as these are the birth pangs of the great and terrible day of the Lord. The greatest love we can show to God and to neighbour is to preach the truth of his wrath against sin and his mercy toward sinners, of the salvation to be found in Christ for all who repent and believe, of the horrors of a looming hell and the glories of a promised heaven.

So, what will that look like for the church I serve? We have already stripped down to the bare minimum in terms of meetings and gatherings, a skeleton of Lord’s day morning and evening services of worship, and a Wednesday night prayer meeting. At this point in time, and unless and until the government’s advice changes again, I am anticipating that we shall do all we can to maintain that pattern, urging those who are a risk and at risk to take care of themselves and others by staying away, and enabling others to gather if they deem it wise and proper. We shall open the doors, probably a little earlier than usual. We shall encourage people to enter as individuals or tight family units, and sit accordingly, following stringent principles for social distancing, sitting apart from each other within the building. For the prayer meeting, we shall pray simply, successively, straightforwardly, and then leave quickly. On the Lord’s day, we shall do what we can to embrace all the normal scriptural elements of worship, but we shall probably do so in a more minimal fashion than usual, without feeling that anything is missing. We shall broadcast or record (both, if possible) our praying to the Lord and our preaching of his truth, so that God’s people can, in measure, enter in. While we appreciate the many good resources out there, I am God’s undershepherd in this place, and this is his flock under my care, and—God helping and sparing me—I am going to preach to the people I know and love until I cannot. When we have finished worshipping, we shall dismiss as individuals and families, giving people time to wash their hands and clear the building one after the other. And then we shall do it again when the next occasion comes.

And if we are actively forbidden for a time, for what appear to be good reasons, from meeting even like this? Then we shall consider meeting in the open air, well spaced out. And if that, too, falls under the ban? Then I shall probably go, perhaps with my family, or alone, to the church, and I shall preach my heart out to the saints and the sinners whom I love, even if they are not present, and I will use all the technology at my disposal to ensure that they hear it. And if I am obliged to self-isolate or to stay at home, or fall sick, then I shall either ask someone else, or tell everyone else to stay away, and then go and preach, or I shall find some way to preach at or from my home, so that the saints will be fed and the sinners warned. And if the Lord calls me home, I trust that someone else will take my place, and keep preaching his saving truth. All of this, if the Lord wills.

[A clarification drawn from a note to the church I serve: “Bear in mind that, as a scattered body, we are not trying to replicate what it means to be with God’s people gathered for worship; we are trying to minimise the impacts of our being scattered.’]

In doing this, I trust all of us who are involved, and who cannot be involved, shall be glad to remember that social distance from the saints is not necessarily spiritual distance from God. We shall remember that we may be absent in body but present in spirit, or that others are entering in from afar.

And, I hope, it will impress upon us who have become too accustomed to our privileges and too presumptuous concerning our blessings, that there is nothing on this side of heaven more like the heaven to come than the saints of God gathered in his presence on his day to worship his Name. May days in which spiritual scraps may become the food of our souls teach us to crave the banquets with which once we toyed! May enforced absences teach us the blessing and beauty of the church as she gathers before her God! May it stir up in us, and in many more, an appetite for God and for his Word which shall never leave us, as long as we are left in this world.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 17 March 2020 at 21:26

An expression of love

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Lewis Allen with some helpful and balanced transparency on the role of our emotions in worship:

There’s no real embarrassment in expressing a heart-reaction to the Saviour’s love. We might, one day, realise that we’ve expressed our live to Him so little. Now that would be more than an embarrassment.

Read it all.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 6 March 2012 at 11:58

Posted in Doxology

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The inexhaustible theme of redeeming love

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John Newton, writing in the delightful day when to waste an empty space on your paper would be a crying shame, and fortunately having plenty to write about to fill up the gap:

And now, how shall I fill up the rest of my paper? It is a shame for a Christian and a minister to say he has no subject at hand, when the inexhaustible theme of redeeming love is ever pressing upon our attention. I will tell you then, though you know it, that the Lord reigns.

He who once bore our sins, and carried our sorrows, is seated upon a throne of glory, and exercises all power in heaven and on earth. Thrones, principalities, and powers, bow before him. Every event in the kingdoms of providence and of grace is under his rule. His providence pervades and manages the whole, and is as minutely attentive to every part, as if there were only that single object in his view. From the tallest archangel to the meanest ant or fly, all depend on him for their being, their preservation, and their powers. He directs the sparrows where to build their nests, and to find their food. He overrules the rise and fall of nations, and bends, with an invincible energy and unerring wisdom, all events; so that, while many intend nothing less, in the issue, their designs all concur and coincide in the accomplishment of his holy will. He restrains with a mighty hand the still more formidable efforts of the powers of darkness; and Satan, with all his hosts, cannot exert their malice a hair’s breadth beyond the limits of his permission.

This is He who is the head and husband of his believing people. How happy are they who it is his good pleasure to bless! How safe are they whom He has engaged to protect! How honoured and privileged are they to whom He is pleased to manifest himself, and whom He enables and warrants to claim him as their friend and their portion! Having redeemed them by his own blood, He sets a high value upon them; He esteems them his treasure, his jewels, and keeps them as the pupil of his eye. They shall not want; they need not fear; his eye is upon them in every situation, his ear is open to their prayers, and his everlasting arms are under them for their sure support. On earth He guides their steps, controls their enemies, and directs all his dispensations for their good; while, in heaven, He is pleading their cause, preparing them a place, and communicating down to them reviving foretastes of the glory that shall be shortly revealed.

Oh how is this mystery hidden from an unbelieving world! Who can believe it, till it is made known by experience, what an intercouse is maintained in this land of shadows between the Lord of glory and sinful worms? How should we praise him that He has visited us! for we were once blind to his beauty, and insensible to his love, and should have remained so to the last, had He not prevented us with his goodness, and been found of us when we sought him not.

The Letters of John Newton, “To Mrs. Place,” (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2007), 237-239.

via The Old Guys.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 26 October 2011 at 17:27

The law of love and the love of law

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I liked this article from Kevin DeYoung, concluding:

Preachers must preach the law without embarrassment. Parents must insist on obedience without shame. The law can, and should, be urged upon true believers—not to condemn, but to correct and promote Christlikeness. Both the indicatives of Scripture and the imperatives are from God, for our good, and given in grace.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 19 August 2011 at 08:45

Posted in Christian living

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To love your neighbour you must know your neighbour

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Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 2 April 2011 at 08:08

The last gifts

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For the last few days, I have been visiting a friend dying in hospital. I have known this man for the last few years, and he has gone from being strong in body, mind and spirit to being weak indeed.

What can I do for him now? What can I still give?

Flowers? No, the hospital will not permit them in his room, and he would not be able to appreciate them.

Books? No, for he lacks the strength to hold them and the sight to read them.

Food? No, for he can no longer eat, and only drips of water have gone into his body over the last ten days.

Clothes? No, for his emaciated frame will not need them for much longer.

What can I give? The only things I have left to give are truth and love. I can speak of the love of God in Christ and show love by being there and caring as I can. Not to deny the other things, of course, but this actually helps to set priorities for those who are not on their deathbeds. What do men need more than truth and love? We should not wait until death looms before we give these gifts. The only time to prepare for death is life. Not only must I prepare others, God helping me, but I myself must so live as to be ready to die.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 11 November 2010 at 10:12

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God’s free love, freely returned

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God loves us freely (Hosea 14.4). According to Jeremiah Burroughs,

This is the solid foundation of all Christian comforts, that God loves freely. Were his love to us to be measured by our fruitfulness or conduct towards him, each hour and moment might stagger our hope; but he is therefore pleased to have it all of grace, “to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed,” Rom. iv. 16. This comforts us against the guilt of the greatest sins, for love and free grace can pardon what it will. This comforts us against the accusations of Satan drawn from our own unworthiness. True, I am unworthy, and Satan cannot show me to myself more vile than, without his accusations, I will acknowledge myself to be; but that love which gave Christ freely, gives in him more worthiness than there is or can be unworthiness in me. This comforts us in the assured hope of glory, because when he loves he loves to the end, and nothing can separate from his love. This comforts us in all afflictions, that the free love of God, who has predestinated us thereto, will wisely order all things for the good of his servants, Rom. viii. 29-39 ; Heb.xii. 6.

Our duty therefore is, 1. To labour for the assurance of this free love. It will assist us in all duties; it will arm us against all temptations; it will answer all objections that can be made against the soul’s peace; it will sustain us in all conditions, into which the saddest of times may bring us, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” Though thousands be against us to hate us, yet none shall be against us to hurt us.

2. If God love us freely, we should love him thankfully, 1 John iv. 19, and let love be the salt to season all our sacrifices. For as no benefit is saving to us which does not proceed from love in him, so no duty is pleasing to him which does not proceed from love in us, 1 John v. 3.

3. Plead this free love and grace in prayer. When we beg pardon, nothing is too great for love to forgive: when we beg grace and holiness, nothing is too good for love to grant. There is not any one thing which faith can manage to more spiritual advantages, than the free grace and love of God in Christ.

4. We must yet so magnify the love of God, as that we turn not free grace into wantonness. There is a corrupt generation of men, who, under pretence of exalting grace, do put disgrace upon the law of God, by taking away the mandatory power thereof from those that are under grace, a doctrine most extremely contrary to the nature of this love. For God’s love to us works love in us to him; and our love to him is this, that we keep his commandments; and to keep a commandment is to confirm and to subject my conscience with willingness and delight to the rule and preceptive power of that commandment. Take away the obligation of the law upon conscience as a rule of life, and you take away from our love to God the very matter about which the obedience thereof should be conversant. It is no diminution to love that a man is bound to obedience, (nay, it cannot be called obedience if I be not bound to it,) but herein the excellency of our love to God is commended, that whereas other men are so bound by the law that they fret at it, and swell against it, and would be glad to be exempted from it, they who love God, and know his love to them, delight to be thus bound, and find infinitely more sweetness in the strict rule of God’s holy law, than any wicked man can do in that presumptuous liberty wherein he allows himself to shake off and break its cords. (An Exposition of the Prophecy of Hosea, 654-655)

So, have you been loved freely by the God of all grace? Are you assured of it? Do you love him thankfully in response? Do you plead this love and grace of God in prayer? Do you magnify his love by finding sweetness in the rule of his holy law?

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 5 November 2010 at 12:36

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