‘Essentials’ in a Pandemic

Perhaps you are aware of the “essential controversy”—meaning the umbrage some Christian leaders have taken because the state has determined that only grocery stores, medical facilities, gas stations, and the like are considered “essential” services.  By implication (it is argued), the state is saying that religious services are “not essential,” thus forbidding worship and other religious gatherings.

This has offended some in more sacramental traditions, especially some conservative Roman Catholics, but also a fair number of Pentecostals.  They argue that corporate worship is essential, and for some the receiving of communion is especially so.  The feeling is that if at a time like this church is not seen as essential, and allowed to operate like these other services, it will seem even less so once the crisis is over.

This is poppycock. And shows a great deal of confusion among believers who should know better.  Of course corporate worship is essential. But when the state talks about essential services, it is not doing theology.  It’s not talking about all the dimensions of human life, but only those that concern the physical well-being and safety of its citizens. This is one of its proper concerns.

For the Christian, especially those in sacramental traditions, there is no fundamental divide between the spiritual and the physical.  That is the point of the incarnation, after all, when God became flesh and dwelt among us.  It was an act of divine blessing, making holy all of our physical existence.  To care for and preserve human life, then, becomes a divine calling.  It’s the reason Jesus spent so much of his energy healing people of their physical infirmities—it was a demonstration that the tangible, physical world God created is to be treated with the deepest respect and care.

Thus Christians, of all people, can applaud the state for anything it does to contain a virus, even if that means temporarily closing down religious gatherings.  For the state is more or less doing the work of Jesus at this point, working for the health of every one of its citizens.

This does not mean corporate worship is no longer considered essential—of course it is!  Is there any Christian on social media who is arguing that virtual worship and virtual prayer meetings are sufficient?  In fact, sheltering in place has made us more aware than ever of the inadequacy of virtual gatherings and of the absolute need to be physically with other believers. On the one hand, these virtual gatherings deeply encourage us.  At the same time, they only exacerbate the longing we have to be physically together again.

This is not a new phenomenon, this longing:

Dear brothers and sisters, after we were separated from you for a little while (though our hearts never left you), we tried very hard to come back because of our intense longing to see you again.     — 1 Thessalonians 2:17

Why Jesus Fasted from Worship

And then there is this: Even in normal times, we sometimes temporarily forsake something essential.  Fasting is the best example.  We give up that which is physically essential for our survival to deepen our relationship with God.  Solitary retreats are of the same species.  Jesus himself did both, fasting alone for 40 days and nights, forsaking corporate worship (for at least five Sabbaths) and food, both essentials.  It is not much of a stretch to say that, by God’s providence, we are today asked to fast from corporate worship and the sacraments for a time, and that this will not decrease our faith but only allow us to ground ourselves deeper in him.

How can this be so?  Here’s one aspect: Fasting from corporate worship forces us to recognize that God is to be met not in just some ethereal space of the mind and heart, but most deeply when we are in the company of his friends.  This helps us see one continuing consequence of the incarnation, that is, of how God makes himself known today.  Worship is not merely fellowship on steroids—otherwise any gathering would do. Worship is not a spiritual pep rally, where we are privately lifted into God’s presence while enjoying the therapy of praise choruses. Instead, worship in the presence of other human bodies is that mysterious event in which we find that loving God and loving the neighbor are not really two commands but one, that one cannot be had without the other.

It’s Not About Us

And that leads us to one more dimension, which has little to do with us.  The act of refusing to meet is an act of love for our neighbor.  We abide by the state’s order first and foremost because it’s a way to help prevent the spread of a disease that can devastate the lives of millions. How can we love our neighbor at a time like this?  We can willingly give up something essential, like corporate worship and the receiving of the sacraments, so that we won’t inadvertently make life more risky for our neighbor.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted in his The Cost of Discipleship:

If there is no element of asceticism in our lives, if we give free rein to the desires of the flesh (taking care of course to keep within the limits of what seems permissible to the world), we shall find it hard to train for the service of Christ. When the flesh is satisfied it is hard to pray with cheerfulness or to devote oneself to a life of service which calls for much self-renunciation.

In the end, I think our complaints about having to forsake anything at any time boils down to one thing. We mask it as concern about creeping secularism or the freedom to worship or lack of faith in God’s protection. But, if I may hazard a guess based on my own weaknesses, for most of us, we just loathe self-renunciation.

And yet self-renunciation is about the essential act of faith, beginning with forsaking sin and evil at our baptism. Despite all the bad news surrounding recent events, it doesn’t take a theology degree to understand that this is an opportunity for self-renunciation like none other. 

Posted in Church, Morals & Manners | Tagged | 7 Comments


As readers of this site know, when I retired, I was in the midst of a media flurry. The cause was my December 19 editorial questioning Donald Trump’s moral fitness for office. Since I wrote that as editor in chief of Christianity Today, it aroused substantial interest across the world. I’ve had requests from not only major US media, but also print and video outlets in Japan, France, Canada, and others. They have all seemed eager to talk to an evangelical who questions a controversial president heartily supported by so many evangelicals. They are also interested in learning more about evangelicals.

I’ve tried to be accommodating, as my schedule has allowed, because in nearly every interview, I was able to give insight into current evangelical life to reporters unaware of its nuances, and sometimes I’ve been able to talk about the Christian faith to unbelievers. To be frank, I’ve not been particularly enthusiastic about all of this (well, except talking about our Lord), but I felt that providence had opened a door and it was my duty to walk through it. I was also convinced there would come a time to move on.

Well, that time has come–or better the time to move back to what I’m really interested in, what I believe is the core calling at this stage of my life: trying to increasingly understand the dynamics of the spiritual life. At times, that pursuit will attend to politics, but I rarely feel compelled to write about this intersection–I’m just not that interested in politics, to be frank. But I’m fascinated with the relation of faith and culture, and that of the individual believer and the church–and especially in what’s going on in the deeper recesses of our souls.

This Lent–and the forced retreat demanded by current pandemic–have helped me refocus, or better, remind myself of what I need to be doing in the next stage of my life. In the coming weeks, you’ll see changes to this site to match this new focus, and I’ll explain those as they evolve.

In the meantime, if you are interested in my emerging thoughts on the dynamics of the spiritual life, you’ll want to register to receive email updates–just go to the top of the right column on the home page to subscribe.

More to come….!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Why I Believe Mr. Trump’s Caustic Speech Is Not Mere Bad Manners

<a style=
Photo by Daniel Sandvik on Unsplash

[I’m reposting this from a year ago because of its obvious relevance this week–mg]

As I watched a recording of the Evangelicals for Trump rally on January 3 in Miami, I couldn’t help but admire one speaker who has worked tirelessly for pro-life concerns at California State University at Fresno (California). And I was grieved that the school’s administration tried to block their efforts at making their views known—and that it took a lawsuit for her student group to enjoy the right to present their views to the student body.

Examples like this energize Mr. Trump’s evangelical supporters, so much so they wonder why many pro-life Christians are so furious with the president’s public moral bearing, especially how in his Tweets and comments he insults and mocks his opponents. “When the lives of hundreds of thousands of babies in the womb are at stake,” they say, “why make such a big deal about the president’s bad manners?” They go on: “So he has a few rough edges; we need a leader who will stand up to the liberal bullies and rough them up a bit if we’re going to defend life in the womb and freedom of speech.”

I grasp the logic here, but I wonder if these Christians have thought deeply enough about the nature and power of speech, and how destructive is the culture of contempt the president is fostering. They seem to subscribe to the aphorism, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”—that is, actions count, but words are ephemeral and in the end don’t matter all that much.

That to me is a view the Bible does not support, and it fails to appreciate that Mr. Trump’s caustic speech will in fact hurt us more than do sticks and stones. Let me show why I think this, and do so in a way that conservative Christians I hope can appreciate.

All Have Sinned…

Let me begin by acknowledging that contempt for one’s political enemies did not start with Mr. Trump. I’m not sure when exactly it ascended as it has, but all of us now are tempted by this manner of speaking. Certainly Mr. Trump’s opponents are not guiltless, with the most notable example being Hillary Clinton’s dismissal of many Americans as “a basket of deplorables.”

And if we are honest with ourselves, we each have to confess that we’ve succumbed to the temptation. I know I have to fight this temptation to disparage others every day, and I’m not always successful. Even if I manage to refrain from caustic words, there is often a speech going on inside my head that is not exactly respectful of those with whom I disagree. So let’s at least acknowledge this sad reality, and that in the end, it’s not someone else’s fault but only our own.

The Trouble with Trump’s Tweets
And yet we live in a society that breathes the polluted air of contempt, and our nation is led by a man who, instead of working to clean up this caustic environment only adds more poisonous fumes to the mix. This only makes our battle with contempt that much harder.

In his tweets and comments, Mr. Trump habitually ridicules, describing his opponents as “unhinged,” “crazy,” “lying,” “disgraced,” “losers,” “crooked,” “phony,” “fake,” and people “of low I.Q.” He mocks political enemies with demeaning nick names, like calling Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas.” His comments, which rage every day of the year, are the epitome of contempt for other human beings. (See this online list for a depressing compilation.)

At last Friday night’s rally, Mr. Trump spoke of the need to love one’s neighbor. He clearly means only some neighbors. Other neighbors he delights in despising. To me, this is not, as many of my evangelical friends like to say, a man with “some rough edges,” but someone who is threatening to unravel the last threads of decency in our culture. And I believe this will only have disastrous consequences for many evangelical concerns.

What Does the Bible Say About All This?
My evangelical friends seem to have forgotten the many sobering biblical sayings about the great power of the tongue. Like:

There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. —Proverbs 12:18 (ESV, and below)

The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. —Luke 6:45

I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak. —Matthew 12:36

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. —James 1:26

In the Book of James, in fact, we find the most sobering passage on this theme:

A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it! It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell. (The Message translation, 3:4-6)

Is this not a near perfect description of what is happening in American culture today? Donald Trump may not be the cause of this, but he certainly throws gasoline on the fires that rage across our land.

An atmosphere of sanctity hung over much of that Friday event, with many pious words coming out of the president’s mouth about matters of faith. But as James put it long ago:

The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth! (3:7-10)

Again, this sounds like it was written yesterday, just for us.

It is not an accident that the Bible calls Jesus “the Word of God,” a Word that became flesh and dwelt among us, an event we Christians have just celebrated again. It is through the Word that redemption comes to our world, the Word that was, as John put it, “full of grace and truth.” Such phrases have overtones and nuances about which books have been written.

And yet at the simplest level, in describing Jesus as the Word, John is inferring that all our words have the potential to participate in grace and truth, that is, in the very life of God. This is why the Bible, from cover to cover, is so concerned with how we use words. How we speak can drive us and our communities toward life in God, or drive us far from it, as far as Hades itself.

This has specific import for Christians, of course. But it also speaks about the nature of language itself, no matter who is using it. From a Christian point of view, the degree to which a culture’s public conversation traffics in muck, the more godless it becomes. No, we’re not to expect any president to be our pastor in chief—of course not. But we can rightly expect that our leaders use language that treats others with respect, and even honors them when they do good things for our land—even if we disagree with their politics. Language that tries to bridge our differences, that fosters some level of unity in the midst of our diversity. Language that harkens to our nation’s greatest ideals and thus inspires us to let our better selves shine forth.

Who Should Disciple Us Here?
Our conservative Christian friends deeply worry about the degradation and even possible death of American culture. That’s what “Make America Great Again” is all about. What they don’t recognize, in my view, is that when our nation’s leader speaks with disdain and contempt about those with whom he disagrees, he’s making America worse. And even more troublesome: he’s discipling all of us to do the same. He’s teaching us by example how to treat our political and cultural enemies—and let us Christians in particular note: his example has nothing to do with love of enemies or turning the other cheek. He is modeling a speech that not only puts his soul in danger, he’s putting the soul of the nation in peril.

Let me note one specific consequence of this. If we ignore or even cheer on this culture of contempt, what do we think will happen to us and the life of the unborn when Mr. Trump’s opponents end up in power, as they inevitably will? Will they not treat the unborn and those who champion their cause with a revengeful contempt that we can now only imagine, and will not the whirlwind of their disdain demolish any judicial gains that Mr. Trump has made? I fear it will be so if we don’t change our ways.

I’m not questioning the politics of my friends, for I can still imagine an argument that justifies a vote for Mr. Trump, especially given alternatives. But it is mighty difficult for me to fathom how so many ardent Christians can suggest that his caustic public speech is a mere quirk of personality, and—according to the Scriptures we claim is our final authority—not something profoundly dangerous for the life of the nation.

So this is one reason I argued in my editorial that Mr. Trump is morally unfit for office. I certainly am in no position to judge his relationship with God– though I admit that some of my language seemed to suggest that. Who of us does not have a great deal to confess to God when it comes to personal failings? To be sure, we are getting a peek into the troubling state of Mr. Trump’s soul, for as Jesus notes, “for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” But in these conversations, I’m mainly interested in Mr. Trump’s public character, in his public actions and, in this case, his public words when he acts as president.

I’m sure some readers will disagree with my assessment here, and I welcome comments—as long as they rise above the culture of contempt 🙂



Posted in Character, Leadership, Morals & Manners | Tagged , , | 59 Comments