Wednesday, July 29, 2020

These Precedented Times: Lessons from the Church's response to the Spanish Flu in 1918.

 


We tend to make the assumption that our current moment is completely unprecedented. I mean, how many times have we recently heard or used the phrase, "We're living in unprecedented times!"  The more I read though, the more I begin to question that assumption. I believe there is actually a precedent for these times. Of course, the unique blend of pandemic, social upheaval and economic downturn does make our times particularly intense and challenging. One commentator said that we are living through a combination of the 1918 Spanish Flu, the 1929  Great Depression and the 1960's Social Revolution. But if we listen closely to history, we will find some very helpful precedents for these times. They are not identical, but they are similar enough to provide helpful warnings and encouragements to us. 

The British poet, Steve Turner once wrote, "History repeats itself. It has to. We never listen." Now is our time to listen to the precedent of history, so that we do not repeat it. Now is also the time to take courage from history.
 
This article is the result of some research on precedents in pandemics by my friend and colleague, Kristine Nethers, a history teacher with her Masters degree from Stanford University. We asked Kristine to do some research on cultural and historic trends around pandemics. This is a teaser for her larger research project which is an outstanding piece of work. While the scope of her study begins broad, it narrows in to the Church's response to pandemics and scattering. This is a fascinating excerpt, used with her permission.
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There are stark similarities between the Church's response to the “Spanish Flu”  in 1918 and the Covid-19 crisis of today as detailed below. It is estimated that 50 million people died world-wide from the Spanish Flu, with approximately 675 000 of those deaths being in the USA. 

12 Historic Church Responses to the “Spanish Flu” of 1918-1919 (USA)

1. (Most) churches shut down. 
As state and local governments began to comprehend the scope of the crisis in their jurisdictions, they called for churches to shut down (along with schools, theaters, etc.). Some churches remained opened in defiance of local orders. Research suggests that most churches were shut from early Oct. 1918 to early December 1918, while some cities had bans on public gatherings until January 1919. The research is unclear about how churches dealt with the second wave. 

2. Churches quickly improvised with “home worship.” 
Churches provided sermon notes and hymn notes and worship materials during the shutdown. Some local newspapers printed sermons in their local editions. Pastors provided theological framework for this time as extended Sabbath and a way to disciple one’s family. 

3. New technology was quickly utilized to connect safely. 
Telephones were the Zoom of the day! Homebound people used the phone to greater degrees to connect during the shutdowns at the end of 1918. Home phones were becoming more popular in the 1910s, but the infrastructure was limited so cities urged citizens to limit their telephone use to emergency only as to not overload the system. 

4. Church leaders called an end to the ban on church gatherings and defended the church’s role in promoting the well-being of the community.
There are several examples of church leaders calling for an end to government bans on gathering beginning three weeks after bans were put in place. A Catholic clergyman in Baltimore pleaded on the vital role that churches play in the community by saying, “I am told that a number of calls upon our physicians are simply the result of nervousness, or the consequence of alarm. This might be considerably allayed by the reassurance of religion, and discreet words from our priests given the people in church.” 

5.  Services were amended for greater safety.

 A Catholic Bishop in Detroit stated they would be “willing to have their edifices fumigated between meetings, to cut the services to 45 minutes, to employ special ushers, who would eject persons who coughed or sneezed and to require all worshipers entering a church to wear influenza masks” if their city allowed them to reopen.  

6. Some argued that banning of church gatherings was a violation of the First Amendment. 
Many church leaders went to court to argue that the First Amendment right to ‘peacefully assemble’ was violated. Research suggests that courts by-in-large upheld the government’s right to ban public gatherings for health reasons to reasonably enforce those bans . 

7. End times were predicted.
 
Church leaders were predicting that the pandemic would usher in Jesus’ return  with numerous Doomsday theories.

8. Tithes & offerings went down. 

Appeals to continue giving and to resource a benevolence fund were called for.

Church leaders appealed to their congregations for giving and sought to help those who had been affected financially. The Southern Baptist denomination called for a “A 75 Million Campaign” in response to the pandemic. While they fell short of that goal, their combined giving towards missions was 10 times higher than it previously been in any previous year. 

9. Outdoor services were held as a response to government bans.

Some churches pivoted quickly to outdoor services, some to the ire of local authorities. 

10. Church leaders were divided about reopening and “grumbling” was common. 
Not all church leaders and churchgoers were in the same accord about church re-openings and “grumblings” among Christians ensued.  

11. God’s protection of people against the disease was called into question. 

One D.C. pastor provided this response, “The fact that the churches were places of religious gathering, and the others not, would not affect in the least the health question involved. If avoiding crowds lessens the danger of being infected, it was wise to take the precaution and not needlessly run in danger, and expect God to protect us.” 

12. Pastors were extra busy. 

A Milwaukee, Wisconsin newspaper reported that church closures did not “leave the city’s ‘pastors with any surplus of leisure on their hands.’ With the faithful encouraged to engage in ‘home worship’ and read sermons published in newspapers, Protestant and Catholic clergy were instead devoting more of their energy to pastoral care and sick calls.” 

 Used with permission  Kristine Nethers  © Manna Publishing 
     
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Does any of this ring a bell?! There are so many stark similarities between their pandemic and ours.

So, what can we learn from the Church's response to the Spanish Flu? 

1. First, a pandemic is an opportunity for innovation and we must seize it instead of resenting it. Whether  new modes of communication, new forms and precautions for gathering, or new ways of expressing care, the church must be faithful with it's message but flexible with its methods. In fact, while the pastoral cohesion becomes more difficult in the scattering of pandemic, gospel innovation can result in the advance of the gospel into new frontiers. Church members should adapt and commit to the new innovations instead of using the change as an excuse to drop out of regular fellowship.

2. Grumbling at God, each other and our leaders is a besetting sin of God's people in crisis, and we must beware of it. History teaches us humility and gratitude. We are not in a completely unique or unresolvable situation.  God’s people have experienced these times before, God has got them through it and He will get us through too. Be gracious to your pastors who are in the busiest and most highly criticized season of their ministry lives. 

3. We should beware of jumping to Doomsday conclusions, especially simplistic end-time or conspiracy theories. Too many folk have profited off fear-mongering and Christians' gullibility at times like this, and while the Church must live in anticipation of Christ's return, we will lose our witness if we become fixated with how and when that return will take place. 

4. Be slow to politicize pandemics.

Of course,  convictions around government infringement on freedom of worship run especially deep, and these are valid. But when these convictions cause Christians to disregard the reality of a pandemic, or become cavalier with safety precautions, we put other people in danger and damage our witness. The exercise of civil disobedience should be a last resort, not a first reaction,  and a willingness to lay down our freedoms temporarily out of love for our neighbors may very well be better in the long term for our gospel witness. 

5. This too shall pass! 

These times are not completely unprecedented and they are not permanent. Of course, there is likely to be a new normal after pandemic, but let's not overstate that by saying, everything is going to spiral down into an apocalypse! Remember, the Roaring 20's followed a year after the Spanish Flu which  was a surge of economic prosperity, positivity and culture.  Humans are remarkably resilient and adaptable, and God is faithful.  As the writer of Ecclesiastes wrote, "There is nothing new under the sun." God brought His people through the Spanish Flu and He will bring us through COVID-19. 

(My next blog will be about learning from the Church in Antioch after the Diaspora)

Saturday, July 11, 2020

The Wisdom of Trees: Finding Perspective in the Forest



 
I grew up on the edge of a Eucalyptus forest. When our community had cut down this giant invasive species from Australia, another indigenous forest sprang up quickly and beautifully in its place. It was like the Garden of Eden. My grandfather, an avid botanist, put brass plaques on the trees inscribed with their Latin names. They are still there today. My first real scar came from exploring in that forest as a young boy. It was a deep gash next to my left shin bone from a burst bottle after a forest fire. I have grown and changed since that day, but the scar remains.
 
My first call was also in a forest, this time a Redwood forest across the Golden Gate Bridge. The year was 1990 and I was 18. I know that God met me and marked me that day in Muir Woods, calling me to live and preach his gospel in California. So much has changed since that day, thirty years ago, but the call remains, much like the scar.    
 
Because of this, I view my return to Redwood forests like a pilgrimage. Much like one might visit the church where they had been baptized or married to re-affirm their vows, I visit the Redwood forests, carrying more scars and hopefully more wisdom, longing to re-affirm my vows and make sure of my calling. As John Muir, the father of national parks himself once said, "To walk in a Redwood forest is to enter natures' cathedral." 
 
And God began to speak to me about the wisdom of trees. 

 
These trees are evergreen because they have a root system. 
       
 
'Blessed are those whose delight is in the law of the Lord and who meditate upon it day and night, they are like a tree planted by streams of  water, whose leaf does not wither....'  (Ps 1:2)
These trees are evergreen because their root system has found a water source. This means they can  go for months without rain. Similarly, God is able to nourish us through His Word in dry seasons, but it will require more than skimming through the latest sermon podcast.  When I meditate on His word I am filling my mind with God's noble themes and promises. When I delight I am pressing them down to the deepest parts of my soul until my soul finds joy and rest. The Word of God is sufficient to communicate the presence of God to the people of God, nourishing them like a stream to a dry tree. 
 
These trees have endured because they understand seasons.
 
                    "Whose leaf does not wither and who bring out their fruit in due season." (Psalm 1:3) 
Note that being Evergreen does not deny that some seasons are more fruitful than others.
Even Evergreens bring out their fruit in season. I do not only fret because I fear I may die in a drought. I fret because some seasons are less fruitful than others. Like this season of pandemic and protest and scattering. The fruit is less visible. Trees do not fret over the carpet of leaves that God spreads on the winter floor. Trees know that health in winter looks different to health in spring. Even Evergreens, whose leaves do not wither in winter, do not fret when there is no fruit in winter. Some seasons, success means leaves not fruit. Trees know this. And we humans must learn from them.

 These trees have not broken because they have leaned.

 It is one thing to be rooted. It is another to be brittle. For these statuesque trees to have         
 stood upright for millennia, they will have swayed and stooped in the wind, like sailors  
 finding their sea legs after a voyage. Trees offer a new definition of strength beyond rigidity. 
 They are rooted, yet somehow, flexible. If I buckle before the winds of cultural pressure, perhaps I am not rooted enough? But if I am too stubborn to bend, to humbly listen, to willingly learn, to lean, I have a fragile strength that will shatter in time. 

In fact, I believe God is calling us to lean in unpredictable ways as the wind of His Spirit blows. 
 
People who view us through a purely political lens may be confused. 

"You're telling people they can sing from behind their masks? You must be conservative!"

"You're speaking against racism? You must be liberal!"

"You're calling people to honor law enforcement? You must be Republican!"

"You're telling people they must wear masks? You must be Democrat!" 


"No, we are just being like trees, planted in God's Word, leaning as God blows by His Sprit."

Rooted yet flexible. 

Faithful, yet unpredictable. 

With the wisdom of trees.


        

           

         
         
          

Saturday, June 13, 2020

A Guarded Heart or a Hard Heart? a quick self-test on emotional health during emotionally charged times




                     


                Above all else guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.  Proverbs 4:23

                                                                                                                                                                      
If you have a beating heart, chances are your heart has taken a beating these last three months. In this age of outrage, divisiveness and social media trolling, we've all taken emotional hits from friends, family, church or work colleagues. Perhaps we've lashed out in retaliation and given as good as we've got?  Many relationships have been strained or even severed in these polarizing times. Cancel culture seems to be winning. Because of this, most of us feel emotionally raw, or worse, numb. Our emotional health is at severe risk during these emotionally charged days. 

I sat with a friend and mentor last night who had received particularly stinging critique from both ends of the political spectrum as he had tried to respond as a Christian leader to the COVID-19 crisis and the protests following the brutal death of George Floyd. From my point of view he had done so with great courage, empathy and wisdom but his critics didn't see it that way. While he spoke about a feeling of fatigue from the relentless waves of criticism, he was remarkably buoyant. In fact, while I had received less severe criticism than he, my heart was more raw than his. Perhaps it's because he had learned to guard his heart?  

I find the above Proverb so helpful in this regard. It compares the heart to a well that is fed by an under-ground spring. This is a metaphor that Jesus spoke of twice in the Gospel of John when he talked about the Holy Spirit. "If anyone believes in me it will be like a spring of living water welling up from his heart to eternal life." (John 4:14) John's commentary on this statement was that Jesus was referring to the Holy Spirit who would be given when Jesus ascended to the Father.  (John 7:39)

While the spring of the Holy Spirit is what imparts life to the heart of a believer, it is the believer who must take care of the well into which the spring flows. We must guard our hearts above all else, not allowing anyone to throw trash down the well so that the pure water gets bitter. Guarding our hearts is like putting a grill  or a grate over the top of a well. The difference between a guarded heart and a hard heart, for me, is that a hard heart has got an iron-clad lid over the well. Nothing can get chucked in, but neither can anyone draw any life out of it. A guarded heart doesn't allow any trash in, but allows life to be drawn out of it, and because it is guarded, the water is pure, not bitter. 

The Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians, "I pray that your love may abound in all knowledge and discernment." (Phil 4:11) That is as good a description of a guarded heart as I've heard: to love with discernment. In essence, I want to try and help us to discern whether we have unguarded hearts, hard hearts or guarded hearts. The more common terms for these heart postures may be co-dependence, independence and inter-dependence.

A. How do I know if I have an unguarded heart?  (Co-dependence)

  • I experience massive joy from people's encouragement and massive despair from their criticism. 
  • I will give of myself willingly but feel resentful if it is not met with praise or gratitude.
  • I allow people's opinions of me, either positive or negative, to be the core shaper of my identity. 
  • I apologize just to keep the peace even if I don't think I've done anything wrong. The main thing is that we can maintain our relationship.
  • I am extremely vulnerable with my emotions to anyone who will listen.
 
B. How do I know if my heart has become hard? (Independence)

  • I view encouragement with suspicion and am very defensive if people critique me. 
  • I will only give of myself if there is something in it for me.
  • I simply don't care what anyone says or thinks about me. God's opinion is the only one that matters.
  • I never apologize or forgive.  That is a sign of weakness. If you wrong me you're dead to me.
  • I will never be vulnerable with my emotions in case people judge me or take advantage of me

C. How do I know if I am guarding my heart in healthy ways? (Inter-dependence)

  • I am able to receive encouragement with sobriety and criticism without plunging into despair
  • I have found a way to give of myself without being overly dependent on gratitude or praise
  • I am attentive to the ways in which people experience me, but I am shaped most profoundly by what God says about me.
  • I am willing to say sorry if I have wronged people. If I cannot see that I have sinned but that you feel sinned against, I am still able to own the fact that I have hurt you. I will be slow to reconcile if there is not true repentance and forgiveness in a relationship. 
  • I will be vulnerable with my emotions to trustworthy people who can help me to be more healthy.

More than ever now, we need the well of our hearts to be filled with  the Spirit so that thirsty people can draw on the life of God in this wilderness season. But for this to happen we need to guard our hearts, engaging in healthy inter-dependence rather than unhealthy co-dependence or independence. 
Which heart are you? 


 





Monday, May 25, 2020

Enough Already: The Wisdom of Brene Brown and why it's not Working for us in Lockdown.

Frankly, I admire Brene Brown. The renown academic, best-selling author and celebrated podcast host has an earthy, unforced wisdom that reaches way beyond the ivory tower of academia and into the worlds of Ted Talk and Netflix. She has a unique way with words and seems comfortable in her own skin, which may be the key to a career that has unlocked its own industry. If you google Brene Brown, what pops up first is 'Etsy quotes by Brene Brown.' That's telling.  Her quotes have sparked an Etsy craft craze which is a sure sign that her truisms have found a home in our collective psyches. They seem to resonate broadly with men and women while avoiding the shallow cliche' of a Hallmark card.



I was surprised to hear that Brown's teachings had reached the shores of my homeland, South Africa. I suppose I shouldn't have been. While listening to a podcast by our old physiotherapist friend turned life coach, his guest referred to Brown's concept of worthiness.  "As Brene Brown has said, too often we connect our self worth with our net worth. This Covid-19 pandemic has robbed most of us of our net worth and therefore we feel robbed of our self worth. But we need to realize that earning lots of  money, having a big retirement,  a big house and a new car should not define our self-worth. We are enough without those things." The podcast guest was referring to the more pithy saying by Brown, "I matter because my story matters. I am absolutely enough." Brown's quote explores our universal yearning for a sense of worthiness, insisting that humans do not need to achieve or acquire in order to be deemed worthy. "No matter what gets done I am worthy of love and belonging and joy."  

Being absolutely enough is a beautiful, Etsy-worthy idea. In fact, it's a Biblical idea that humans are endowed with value and beauty because they, more than any other species in creation, are unique image bearers of their Creator. Their worth cannot be achieved or earned any more than a pot could tell the potter what price tag it should carry. Our worth is determined by our Creator and cannot be negated or diminished by created beings. In that sense, Brown has unearthed a great truth for our striving, self-worth culture. In that sense, we are absolutely enough.



The problem is though, that Brown's mantra about being absolutely enough is a half truth, because it underplays the nagging sense of unworthiness we all feel to some degree. Why is it that so many of us have felt frustrated by our lack of productivity in lockdown, unable to breathe and enjoy the slower pace of life forced upon us by quarantine?  Of course, there are the obvious reasons of  economic loss and uncertainty, but deeper reflection will reveal a low-grade hum not silenced by stimulus check or payment protection plan. Our self-worth is so tightly bound up with our work, our planners and our vision flip charts. Being absolutely enough is a nice idea until the laces get ripped out of the boots of progress.

We see it most clearly in athletes, don't we? I'm reminded of the line from the movie, Chariots of Fire, in which Eric Liddel's rival said before his 100 yard Olympic sprint, "I have ten seconds to justify my whole existence." More recently, in the final episode of The Last Dance, the ESPN documentary about the Chicago Bulls' championship team of the 1990's, the interviewer asked Michael Jordan,"Were you maddened or gladdened by retiring after winning your sixth NBA championship? Jordan's response. "Maddened. I should have won seven."
Would one more really have been enough though?

Apparently, feeling absolutely enough is more illusive than Brene Brown would have us believe.
 Our need to justify ourselves, not so much through one more good work as through one more great achievement, is a stubborn streak in the children of Eve.

I find I lack the authority to convince myself that I am absolutely enough. My self-talk sounds hollow to my Jordan-shaped soul that feels unworthy no matter what I achieve. I need the Author of my life to silence my repeated strivings to justify my existence and prove my worth. I need Him to speak a better word than the word of Brene Brown. I need Him to justify me with Jesus' work so that I can finally rest.

 John Greenleaf Whittier, the Quaker poet, wrote so poignantly about our need for God to silence the hum of our strivings to be enough in his 1872 hymn, "Dear Lord and Father of all Mankind."

"With that deep hush subduing all
Our words and works that drown
The tender whisper of Thy call,
As noiseless let Thy blessing fall
As fell Thy manna down.

Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress
And let our ordered lives confess,
The beauty of Your peace."

I am not absolutely enough. But when Jesus drops the still dews of quietness into my striving soul,
I am able to whisper, "He is enough for me."
Which may not get onto any Etsy store wall hanging, but it's a truth I'm willing to hang my hat on. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Our Way Back to In-Person Gatherings

If the last few months have shown anything, it is that the church cannot be stopped. Even if we cannot meet in person, we are still the church. Come what may, we will always be the people of God. Worship, evangelism, the preaching of God's Word must continue. The gates of hell will not prevail against the church (Matt. 16:18). Southlands Brea, you have been formidably generous, compassionate, creative and brave during these strange and uncertain days as Jesus has empowered you. I've seen Him glorified through you in a myriad ways these last two months and I am filled with gratitude and love for you.

Still, it is good to lament what has been lost with the absence of in-person gatherings, and it is right to long for the day when we can gather again. We are blessed to live in a time when technology allows us to gather virtually and stay in contact easily, but nothing virtual can fully replace the embodied gathering. So, as we anticipate what it will look like to resume physical gatherings, I want to call us to do so with a posture of prudence, patience, courage, and love.

We have spent many hours as an eldership team praying, talking and consulting with wise specialists within and beyond the Church in order to come up with a plan for in-person gathering. These have included the Pacific Justice Institute, One Table Pastor's Forum and the Orange County Board of Supervisors.

The Plan consists of our Posture, Precautions and  Plays for In-Person gathering.  

I. A Posture for In-Person Gatherings

Prudence will continue to guide Southlands Brea as we discern the right way forward. Prudence means wise and thorough planning, with special care for the most vulnerable populations in our community. Prudence also means partnership with and submission to governing authorities (Romans13). Rest assured, we will take great care to abide by the guidelines of the government and err on the side of reopening only insofar as the authorities allow.

Patience must also guide us in the days ahead. Patience with a timeline that might be too slow for some. Patience with a process that will doubtless be clunky. Patience with leaders feeling the pressure of this complex situation. Patience with the fact that much will be different about church, even when we can gather in person again. And above all, patience with one another as we humbly, gently bear with one another in love (Eph. 4:2).

This coming season will require not only prudence and patience, but also great courage, in a season of great fear. Our courage will not be cavalier, but we want to remember, even amidst the new precautions around gathering, that God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of love, of power and of a sound mind. (1 Tim 1:7)

As we begin to implement the plans outlined below, let’s prioritize Christlike, sacrificial love—a love that leads us to harmony amid genuinely disputable matters (Rom. 14). Some of us will feel comfortable attending physical gatherings at the earliest opportunity. Others of us may need to stay home and watch online for an extended period of time. Various levels of comfort will exist everywhere in between. We must love and respect one another, wherever we stand. At a time of great cultural division and anger, let’s be a community characterized by unity and love—glorifying God and demonstrating the truth of the gospel in honoring one another with an abundance of grace. 

II. Precautions for In-Person Gathering 

1. Plan and Prepare (in accordance with the Pacific Justice Institute)

A. Observe CDC and Federal Guidelines

Visit the CDC’s website (www.cdc.gov/coronavirus) for relevant updates on coronavirus and social distancing. We will prepare to observe social distancing during essential “life-supporting” services, including, but not limited to, religious assemblies, wedding ceremonies, and funeral services (the Indoor Service) The CDC advises that part of social distancing is limiting face-to-face contact with others and staying at least six (6) feet, or about two (2) arms’ length, from other individuals unless the individuals or family live together (Households).

B. We will Clean and Disinfect

We will review and follow relevant CDC and state guidelines to clean surfaces and the building interior that will be used for the Indoor Service. Were will follow these full cleaning procedures before and after every service or other use of the indoor space.

2. Social Distancing and PPE (Personal Protective Equipment)

C. Guidelines for Attendees
We will post notice to invitees (including pastors, staff, and volunteers) to observe social distancing throughout the entire Indoor Service, and: We will maintain at least six (6) feet of space between Households; and wear masks or face coverings as described by the CDC (Face Coverings).
Speakers and worship leaders will wear masks to the meeting, but will take them off for the moment of preaching or leading worship.

D. Use PPE during the Indoor Service.
Federal guidelines suggest Face Coverings be worn in public places during all phases of the pandemic. We will make hand sanitizer available in the building; the CDC recommends sanitizer have a minimum of 60% alcohol.

3. Physical Layout of Interior Space

E. We will modify seating arrangements, if necessary, to accommodate social distancing. We will reduce total seating for each Indoor Service, if necessary, to facilitate social distancing.

III. Four Plays for In-Person Gatherings

In the coming days, as the state of California “reopens,” Southlands Brea will begin to offer a mixture of online and in-person experiences.

Out of concern for those who are vulnerable and appropriately cautious, we will continue to create meaningful online experiences of Sunday worship, community, and equipping.

Once California officials give the greenlight for some in-person church gatherings to commence again, Southlands will begin offering meaningful in-person experiences for those who want to participate in them, as outlined below. These in-person experiences will happen in accordance with the guidelines provided by federal health officials.

Just as an offense will call a play based on what the defense shows them, we will be reading the moment and understanding the guidance of state and local officials as we call these “plays” for future gatherings. It is important to note that we will likely be calling multiple plays at any given time, allowing us to most effectively serve all members of the Southlands Brea community. These plays are not linear in their progression and we believe this model will allow us to nimbly adapt to any changes that may come our way in the coming weeks and months.

While we expect our in-person gatherings to feel more “normal” as we progress in the reopening process, like the rest of society, the way we interact with each other may look a little different for a while. We’re going to continue to modify the parts of our services that required physical contact before (such as communion, prayer groups, greeting each other with handshakes), and we’re doing everything we can to keep our facilities clean and safe. Even if you see more face masks (and a lot more hand sanitizer), when we gather together again in-person, we hope it will feel like coming home. 




Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Heal our Land: Praying and fasting through an old passage with new lenses


Today we are praying and fasting for 24-hours as a church, and joining with a number of other churches who partner with us in the Advance Movement Western Hub. I want to invite you to join with us today.  There will be two opportunities for gathered prayer, one at 9am on Southlands' Facebook live and one on a Zoom call at 5pm tonight. You can contact kristine@southlands.net for the Zoom ID.

"Fast?" you may protest. "But, my whole life feels like a forced fast!" It's true. We have been forced to fast from community, freedom, restaurants, gym, from work and gathered worship these past five weeks. Why add to the pain?  In the words of C.S. Lewis, because, "Pain is God's megaphone. God whispers to us in our pleasures, but shouts to us in our pain."(The Problem of Pain)  Essentially, we are fasting because God has our attention. We know He is speaking to us and working among us through this trial. In the words of my friend, Carl Tuttle, we don't want to waste the pain.

Our theme for prayer will be the well-worn, oft-quoted verse from 2 Chronicles 7: 11 "If my people who are called by Name will humble themselves and pray and seek my faced turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and restore their land.” 

A quick context of chapter 7 shows us that King Solomon had completed the temple and the palace, and was now dedicating the temple to the Lord. At the dedication, the fire of God’s presence filled the temple so that the priests were overwhelmed and fell on their faces, singing, “He is Good, His faithful love endures forever.” One night after the dedication of the temple, the Lord appeared to Solomon saying that if there was drought or plague and God’s people humbled themselves, turned from their sins and sought His grace, he would hear from heaven, forgive their sins and heal their land. Then God warned Solomon that if he turned to worship other god’s, God would uproot His people and reject the temple. So, this passage carries a wonderful  promise, but it is given with a condition and a warning. Tragically, Solomon’s palace, which was even more grand than the temple, was the place in which Solomon amassed wealth and many wives and concubines, turning to worship the gods of his foreign wives. There was a tug-of-war between Solomon’s temple and his palace, between the glory of God’s name and the glory of Solomon’s name. Tragically, the palace won out. Solomon did not heed God’s warning about idolatry and so his kingdom was uprooted and the temple destroyed. We have this as a warning even as we trust God for better things for our lives. 

Here are some ways we can pray though the passage:

1. CONFIDENCE  "If my People who are called by my Name…seek my face....I will hear from heaven.” This passage, when read through a New Testament lens is for the Church, God’s people called and saved by Jesus’ name. His is the Name above all names, above sickness, above fear, above death, loneliness and lack. When we pray, we pray with confidence in His Name, knowing that the Father always hears his Son. God is attentive to our prayers, as this passage promises. He will hear from heaven. So let’s pray with confidence. 

2. LAMENT: God gives a vivid description of drought, famine and pestilence in the nation in verse 13. “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence.” We can easily sense the economic, social and spiritual famine in our state and nation at this time, with the enemy devouring faith, community, family and peace like a locust devours a crop. Think of how addiction is destroying people. Think of how a life of frenetic busyness is destroying community. Think of how political tribalism is destroying a sense of, ‘One Nation under God, Indivisible….” Think of how secularism and consumerism are destroying the priority of Sabbath worship and rest.  Something has to change! It is a healthy thing to lament that our nation has lost its way and is far from God and His presence.

 3. REPENTANCE : This prayer though, perhaps more than any in Scripture, calls God’s people to look inward, and say, “Something has to change in us!” If we humble ourselves and turn  from our wicked ways, God will hear from heaven, forgive our sins and heal our land. God wants to heal us so from idolatry and compromise  so the we can be a healing agent in the land. 

As Francis Schaeffer wrote in his prophetic book, “No Little People,” in 1972, “The central problem of our age is not liberalism or modernism, nor the threat of communism or rationalism [nor, I would add today, postmodernism or  consumerism or sensualism or whatever].  All these are dangerous but not the primary threat.  The real problem is this: the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, individually or corporately, tending to do the Lord’s work in the power of the flesh rather than of the Spirit.  The central problem is always in the midst of the people of God, not in the circumstances surrounding them.” [1]

 In every one of our lives there is a tug-of-war between the temple and the palace, between building for God's glory and building for our glory God is using this crisis to expose idolatry in our lives, Very often, the good things that have become ultimate - idols like productivity, control, security and comfort. Let’s allow the Holy Spirit to search our hearts and see if there is any wicked way in us and lead us to repentance.

 4. CONTENDING:  This passage comes with three powerful promises on condition of God’s people humbling themselves and turning from their wicked ways. God says He will  hear from heaven,  forgive our sin and heal our land. Let’s contend for healing from this virus across our land, for a vaccine, and for a wise return from isolation. Let’s also pray for a healing in our land of the family unit, a healing from addiction, consumerism, individualism, sexual brokenness, racism, and political tribalism.  

 Finally, the passage is also a reminder that God’s presence no longer dwells in the temple in Jerusalem but in God’s people. The Apostle Paul writes, “You are the temple of the Holy Spirit.” God dwells in His people, The Church, by His Holy Spirit. The same glory that filled the temple in this passage, now dwells in each and every one of us! (1 Corinthians 6:19) We are a fulfillment of God’s promise to cover the earth with his glory as the water covers the sea.  Begin by contending that God would be glorified in His people; that His presence would be tangible as His people gather and scatter  and that they would recognize that they carry His presence wherever they go.



Wednesday, April 15, 2020

A Crisis of Opportunity




Zoom is now a verb, and while many of us are suffering from Zoom-fatigue as we connect,  I experienced a bit of Zoom-inspiration last week. It was a call between a group of pastors from Orange County and an Aussie pastor called Mark Sayers. I would peg Mark as a kind of prophetic social commentator - a quirky, brilliant, much-needed voice for these strange days. (In fact, he's written a book of the same title.) Mark's podcast, This Cultural Moment and his more recent book on revival, Reappearing Church , have shaped me profoundly this last year. Many of us who embarked on a new decade with an expectation for revival are now wondering whether this Coronavirus crisis is going to cancel or catalyze it. (The Lord knows, it's cancelled just about every thing else.) I was very keen to hear what Sayers would say about that.



On the call, he insisted that crisis was always the seedbed of revival, citing in particular the example of the new York Lunch Time Revival that was catalyzed by the New York Stock Exchange Crash in 1857. During that economic and social crisis, Jeremiah Lanphier's lunch time prayer meeting in New York  grew from 6 people to 2000. Lunch time prayer meetings began to spring up all over the nation and by the end of 1958 it was estimated that a million people had converted to Christ in the America. (About one-thirtieth of the entire population at that time!) As he cited this and other examples of revival out of crisis, he had this one throw away line. "We've all heard that the Chinese word for crisis is the same as opportunity." Upon  further linguistic research, it turns out that the Chinese word for crisis is actually made up of two characters, which mean danger and opportunity. 

This echoes the Biblical truth of a Sovereign God who is able to bend evil for His glory, our good and the good of many, as Joseph said at the end of his life, "What man intended for harm, God intended for good, for the saving of many lives." (Genesis 50:20)  Of course, we know that this crisis is dangerous. It is dangerous for our health, our relationships, our finances, our businesses and our churches. Good grief! It's turned our lives on their heads and we're unlikely simply to boomerang back to normal again. The repercussions will be deeply and painfully felt for some time, of that I have no doubt. 

But, being a prisoner of hope, I want to ask, 'How has this been a crisis of opportunity?
In a myriad ways, I'm sure, but here are nine that I can see.  

1. It's forced us to invest in our most important relationships. I've been saying for some time that our ultra-connected, frenetic lives have made our relational worlds a mile wide and an inch deep. This past month we've  had no choice but to re-connect with those in our family or household. As we worship, pray and sit under the Word, we are likely doing it with these people. Sometimes that has been painful and volatile, but what can we do? We have nowhere to run, so here we are. What if revival began with the Lord healing the breakdown of the family unit during this shelter in place time?  We are starting a few  Zoom  small groups that go through Paul Tripp's course on The Gospel-Shaped Family together, if you would like to seize this opportunity to invest in your family or marriage. Contact me at kirk@southlands.net for more info. 

2. It's given us solidarity as we fight a common enemy.  Despite the conspiracy theories that abound, this virus is no respecter of people. It is not an attack from one nation, class, party or culture against another. While I'm mystified by the refusal of some to acknowledge  the origin of the virus, and even more dismayed by others who weaponize its origin for their racist ends, by-and-large, this virus has provided an opportunity for solidarity across traditional battle lines. We all have a deadly common enemy, which means we are desperate enough to reach across those lines for the common good. As a pastor, I've enjoyed unprecedented unity with other pastors in our city and county during the crisis as we have prayed together, shared best practices on a weekly basis, and essentially just cheered one another on. We need each other!

3. It's made us realize the gifts and limits of technology. If this virus had swept across our world ten years ago we would have been ill-equipped as families, businesses and  churches to remain connected. But I've been amazed at the capacity of people to pause and pivot with technology and am personally encouraged by the staggering increase of the gospel's reach as we have used various social media platforms. That said, as thankful as I am for technology, we are tired of seeing people through a screen. We long for the gift of human touch, for the nuance of body language in our interactions, for the swell of voices raised in song together, for the reassuring murmur of an amen to the preached Word. Screens have made us long for the embodied presence of community, coffee shop and church. Absence has made the heart grow fonder.

4. It's driven us to pray as a first response not as a last resort. There is something about realizing that you are not in control that makes you pray. Very often, in the Western Church, prayer was a last resort when all our best efforts had failed.  Prayer as a first response is now on the rise, both inside and outside the Church, as we realize that our best efforts fall sadly short. Sayers mentioned Exodus 24, where Moses delegated leadership as he and Joshua went up the mountain into the cloud of God's presence for forty  days, as an opportunity for all of us to leverage leadership from a place of prayer.  Whatever we are leading, there is only so much we can do right now in terms of responsible delegation. We are not in control, but He is installed upon His holy throne. Jesus and the Spirit are interceding for us according to God's will. (Romans 8) If we come out on the other side of this more prayerful than before,  revival may be well on its way. 

5. It's provided a forum for evangelism as people search for answers.  If a loss of control doesn't lead everyone to pray, it does provoke most everyone to ask questions about mortality, suffering and why life seems unfair and disappointing. Many have seen the frailty of placing their hopes in career, finances, grades, and sporting achievement. They feel anxious, alone and in need of a  Savior. This Coronavirus has caused a serious hang-over from so much of the self-help Kool-aid that we've drunk. People are asking if there's a cure. A posture of  service, hope and care is resulting in some great gospel conversations. For example, we've been watching and discussing our beamed sermons with a family who are not in the church, and there is a real openness to the gospel. Because of this openness we are beginning a Zoom Alpha Course that explores the major questions about the Christian faith. Contact jds@southlands.net for more info.

6. It's been a seed-bed for creativity. Necessity is the mother of invention. I've seldom seen people so inventive as they find new ways to connect, to earn money and problem solve. Maybe this needed agility will keep us from getting stale in the long run? Certainly as a church we have needed to innovate on every level and the crisis has created new voices, new solutions, new songs, new forums and new leaders for such a time as this. One song that my daughter and I wrote  out of the time is from Psalm 91, called Shelter in Place. You can watch it here. Shelter in Place.  

7. It's been an opportunity to recognize our true heroes are servants not celebrities. 
In a celebrity fixated culture, we have become aware of how little most of them can actually do to help us in crisis. The real heroes in this crisis are those who willingly place themselves in harms' way in order  to serve and heal; nurses, doctors, paramedics, law enforcement, grocery staff and other essential services. What an opportunity to honor these servants and to gain a more sober view of those celebrities we've placed upon pedestals. 

8. The Myth of Radical Individualism is being exposed The popular saying, "You do You," is a dangerous idea right now. Those who refuse to isolate, wash their hands or practice social distancing, who refuse to cover their mouths if they sneeze or cough are basically dangerous to the common good. (I'm not going to argue the pros and cons of mask wearing) But you get the idea, the popular myth of radical individualism has been exposed as dangerous.

9. The Household is becoming the primary forum for Christian discipleship More than mere family unity, church at home is becoming the primary place for worships prayer and reading Scripture. This has always been God's intention, but we have tended to outsource discipleship to pastoral professionals,  the result being that we tend to live two distinct  lives - a public religious life and a private secular life. The home is now being redeemed as a place to encounter Jesus and learn about Him. 


10. We've moved from a life of wants to a life of needs. In America we have an absolutely dizzying amount of choices. Rampant consumerism does its utmost to turn our wants into needs and the result is debt and discontentment.   For the first time in many of our lives we have faced a shortage of  basic needs in empty shelves on shops, and it has helped us to recognize many of things we think are needs are not. 


I never want to be immune or unsympathetic towards the real danger and loss brought on by this crisis. But this is a crisis of opportunity. Let us make the most of every opportunity in these evil days. (Ephesians 5:16)  If we do, perhaps we will one day look back on this crisis as the time that God used the Corona Virus to spark the Corona Revival.

Monday, March 23, 2020

"Longing for the Gathering. Longing for the Day." A Guest Post by Kristine Nethers



There are things you grow up learning that you are sure to be true. As an American, you learn that this is the land of ‘milk and honey’, of ‘supersize me’ and ‘if you can dream it, you can do it’. However, much of these identifiers of American life which have always seemed true, seem to be proven false in the last week of the Covid-19 crisis. Stores are out of milk. Restaurants have closed down. There is little to be supersized and if you have a supersize pack of toilet paper, you might as well have won the lottery. There is much we cannot do even if we dream it. The ‘land of plenty’ now seems to be the ‘land of scarcity’.

We all feel that scarcity.

In a week’s time, so much has been taken away: routine, plans, human contact, social nearness, and a sense of normalcy. Sunday morning gatherings have also been taken away. With that comes an end of hearing my brothers and sisters sing in praise together to Jesus, an end to praying together in person, and end to responding to the preached word and partaking of communion, an end to many, many Sunday side hugs. I miss all of it.

I love the embodied gathering of the people of God. I love Sunday church services more than the average person. I go to both services by choice. When on vacation, I visit other churches and am inspired by what I learn. While in New York City at Redeemer Presbyterian, I learned a great way to introduce new members. While at a church in Nebraska, I learned how the church can host an art studio and outdoor garden for the benefit of its city. I realize my love for and fascination with church is outside of the norm. And while I may not be normal, my love of Sunday church gatherings is substantiated in the Bible.

Throughout the Old and New Testament, God affirms the need for His people to be gathered together around his Word. So, if God's desire is for us to gather, how can that desire be denied during this lockdown? It feels wrong because I thought it was wrong not to gather.

Yet, I have not had to look hard to see that longing in the Christian faith is not new, even if it is new to me. Throughout the New Testament, Paul longs to gather with the church. Paul writes to the church in Rome: “For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you - that is that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.” (Romans 1:9-12).


Longing fueled Paul's letter writing. God allowed Paul to long to be with the church of Rome so that he would write a powerful letter that would strengthen the hundred or so believers in Rome at the time and to strengthen millions of subsequent believers for Millenia to come. 

God works powerfully in longing. Paul’s longing for the churches in Rome, Colosse, Thessalonica, Phillipi, Ephesus, Corinth and Galatia resulted in enduring and eternal letters that would empower millions of Christians to know and follow Jesus, to access the power of the Spirit, to be fortified against opposition and to build his Church according to his design.

If Paul’s longing was used mightily by God, could he do something with my longing?

I ask that question as I sit on Sunday morning in my living room. I’m wearing leisurewear, streaming the sermon online and singing along to YouTube sets. My circumstances are sad, but it points me to the hope in his Word, which gives me faith and assurance that God will indeed use my longing.

In my longing, I feel God calling me to use this time to pray and dream. I have much more time to do that as I had before. I don’t want to miss the opportunity. My prayer and dream is for when the church can gather together again. I long to see, in person, the faces of my brothers and sisters. I dream of singing worship songs together with them, even if a few are off-key! I look forward to embracing many with tighter side hugs. I am dreaming that I will again be greeted at the door by our eldest member, who at 94, gives the best hugs in the church. There is much to look forward to as I long.

Already my one-week of longing for the gathered church has given me a greater longing for that Day, when Jesus will gather His Church to Himself. For on that Day, I will at last see Him face-to-face and be gathered into His eternal embrace. I will embrace the saints of all who have gone before. On that Day, all my longings will be no more and all my dreams will be superseded. For all eternity, I will enjoy the gathering of the saints without ceasing as we forever worship Jesus face-to-face. What a Day that will be.
Longing for that Day has fueled my prayers on this day. 
May longing fuel you too.



Friday, March 13, 2020

An Update for our Gatherings during the COVID-19 Pandemic


We wanted to continue to keep you updated in light of our gatherings and the Covid-19 virus. We messaged you yesterday afternoon letting you know that in view of the pandemic we would be gathering this Sunday the 15th March as a church at 9 and 11am as normal, and then moving to church in homes for Sundays 22nd and 29th March. This was in light of the California Dept. of Public heath’s guidelines discouraging mass gatherings in California. As you are well aware, the situation is incredibly fluid. After extensive consultation today with medical professionals, as well as the closure of all schools in Fullerton, Brea and Yorba Linda school districts in what is now understood to be a national state of emergency, we have decided to move our ‘church in homes’ strategy forward to this Sunday the 15th march and next Sunday 22nd march. 

This is not a fear-based decision. It is erring on the side of caution out of love for our neighbors. Because the COVID-19 virus is a-symptomatic and testing for it is very slow in the USA, most health experts agree that not waiting to cancel larger gatherings is key to stemming the tide of the virus, especially given what we know about how a large percentage of people are carrying the virus without knowing they are carrying it. So, we will not gather together as one congregation this Sunday, but will rather gather in homes for at least the next two Sundays, until we have further information. This has been a prayerful decision and we believe it is being done in faith, love and wisdom. We honestly believe that gathering in homes to worship and sit under the word and fellowship is a deeply meaningful way of being the Church and I am excited to see what God does among us in a very unusual situation. 

So, this Sunday 15th March and the next, we encourage you to gather in homes and watch a pre-recorded video of my message from Acts 27/28 on “Contagious Calm in a Time of Crisis.” We are working with leaders and hosts of these home gatherings to equip them to make them as edifying and encouraging as possible. There will be worship resources, resources for children to learn as well as questions for discussion of the sermon. We will be communicating those locations to you shortly via email as well as posting the locations at  www.southlands.net. These will include existing life group locations, but there will also be a few extra locations for those who are not currently in life groups. Obviously, if you are ill or have a compromised immune system you are welcome to watch the sermon on your own from our website or on Facebook, but we encourage you to make the most of this unique challenge by building community in homes if at all possible. Feel free to email joel@southlands.net for any logistical questions.

Thank you for your flexibility and co-operation as we take these unprecedented steps. May the Lord protect and strengthen us for His glory at this time. The Church has always been at its strongest in crisis and scattering, so let’s trust Jesus that he is powerfully at work among us during this time. We are not merely asking that the Lord would help us to survive this crisis. we are asking that he would use it to revive us and the people around us. Let’s be praying together to that end.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

What will Stop us from Outsourcing Prayer to the Pros?


Just about every church has them. If you don't I feel for you. I'm talking about that faithful group of prayer warriors who love to stand in the gap,  bringing the hopes and needs of the church before the throne of grace with dogged persistence and unquenchable faith. They are called the intercessors. I know, they can be intense, sometimes even a bit odd, but they've been an extraordinary gift to me as a pastor. Every week they are praying over the text to be preached that Sunday, fiercely contending for prophetic promises spoken over the church, wrestling for protection over our families and marriages. I've known intercessors to be a bit weird in times past. But not these ones. I wish you had intercessors like ours. They're a bit like the spiritual Green Berets, going behind enemy lines in prayer, like Paul's friend Epaphras who was always wrestling in prayer for the saints to stand firm in all the will of God. (Colossians 4:12)

Still, as grateful as I am for our intercessors, I'm wary of our tendency to outsource prayer to the pros. I remember being stunned in my first year of leading a church when a guy came up to me and asked, "Won't you throw up a prayer to the Big Guy upstairs? I know He listens to you." Come to find out, most people really struggled to pray; with what to say, with distraction and doubt from unanswered prayers. Most of us struggle with prayer. It's why I've spent much time trying to teach people to pray for themselves. I've tried to convince them that God hears their prayers because of Jesus' righteousness, not theirs. I've also fought for a regular culture of gathered prayer, possibly more than any other culture in our church.

And this truth, perhaps more than any other, has been decisive in breaking the habit of outsourcing prayer to the pros. It is that every person who belongs to Christ already has two Intercessors!

"Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God."(Romans 8:26) 

The Spirit intercedes by making petitions for us according to God's will with groaning because of our weakness. What a mysterious gift of empathy.

And as if that weren't remarkable enough, Romans 8:33 tells us that Jesus also intercedes for us.

"It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us."

The sense here is not so much of empathy as it is of interception; of someone going up against an enemy to intercept their attack. We know that Satan is an accuser, who accuses us night and day. Jesus' intercepts Satan's accusations because His blood speaks a better word than any word of condemnation. (Hebrews 12:24)

As the hymn goes,

 "When Satan tempts me to despair, and tells me of my guilt within, 
  Upwards I look and see Him there, who made an end to all my sin, 
  Because my sinless Savior died, My sinful soul is counted free, 
  For God the just is satisfied to look on Him and pardon me."
                   
Here's the thing. When I pray, I become the 4th member of the most dynamic prayer meeting imaginable. God, the Son and God, the Spirit are interceding for me to God, the Father!
Dwell on that.
Why would I want to outsource such a personal, magnificent reality to someone else?
Now imagine how unstoppable we'd be if as a Church we stepped in to that Prayer Meeting together?

This Wednesday at 6:30pm we join to pray at Southlands Chino. It's our all-church prayer meeting called 133. Pre-prayer dinner begins at 5:30pm. 5559 Park Place, Chino, 91710