May We Pray

May we pray that brothers and sisters in Christ—and church leaders especially—would give grace to one another even in the midst of our differences as we face these challenging times.

May we pray that our churches would become sanctuaries for the fearful, the lonely, the otherwise unaccepted, the spiritually undecided and curious, the hurting, and everyone needing the hope of the good news of Jesus.

May we pray that our pastors would find the encouragement, patience, friendship, and wisdom they require while providing care to their congregations and communities.

May we pray that our neighbours would turn to Christ as the one source of peace and hope in this tumultuous season.

May we pray that the people of God would be free to follow their consciences and obey the dictates of their faith while also respecting governing authorities.

May we pray that our governing authorities and political leaders would have the discernment and willingness to balance the various concerns of their constituents while making decisions surrounding COVID.

May we pray that our gracious Lord and God would see fit to hasten the end of the pandemic, the restrictions we have to follow, bring healing to people and relationships that have suffered as a result, and do so in a way that brings glory to his holy and wonderful name.

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Amen and amen.

Vaccine Mandates, Authoritarianism, and the Spiritual Malaise of the West

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.

C.S. Lewis

 The modern State exists not to protect our rights but to do us good or make us good — anyway, to do something to us or to make us something. Hence the new name ‘leaders’ for those who were once ‘rulers’. We are less their subjects than their wards, pupils, or domestic animals. There is nothing left of which we can say to them, ‘Mind your own business.’ Our whole lives are their business.

C.S. Lewis

Authoritarians rarely recognize their own authoritarianism. To them, authoritarianism looks like simple virtue.

― Ben ShapiroThe Authoritarian Moment: How the Left Weaponized America’s Institutions Against Dissent

As I write this, the country of Austria is in complete lockdown to stem the rise of COVID. Initially, it was a lockdown of the unvaccinated; now it’s for everyone. But the really astonishing point with respect to Austria’s measures is that on February 1 vaccines are mandatory for everyone. Not only health care workers or those in vulnerable care sectors. Everyone. Hopefully there is the possibility of certain kinds of exemptions, at least. As it stands, invitations for vaccinations to the unvaccinated will be sent out. Those who do not comply will receive fines upwards of $4000. Apparently the double vaxxed will also be fined if they refuse getting a booster shot. The government will begin requiring all of its citizens to receive a specific kind of medical treatment–whether the person in question wants it or needs it or not. And it will seek to penalize those who opt out.

I gather that other European nations are considering similar measures. Australia is using what I would describe as extreme measures, including sending people to guarded quarantine centers and denying legitimate vaccine medical exemptions. Other smaller nations, like Micronesia, have already mandated that it’s entire adult population be inoculated. Of course, there are many places where certain sectors of a population are now required to be vaccinated, including health care workers who were touted as heroes during the pandemic when vaccines weren’t even available.

In what possible world is this remotely ethical? And even though US President Biden’s vaccine mandate for all businesses with more than 100 employees has been stopped by the courts for the time being, the current (but outgoing) mayor of New York City has just mandated that all private business employees have to be vaccinated. Shortly after President Biden announced his mandate, theologian Peter J. Leithart wrote a thoughtful article over at First Things regarding Biden’s mandate. As other experts and medical professionals debate Austria’s measures (see here, here, here, and here), others suggest that even mandatory vaccine passports are not necessarily an effective means of dealing with a pandemic. Indeed, both proof of vaccination measures and mandatory vaccines often lead to deeper mistrust of governing authorities and social division. Neither is good for any nation. One wonders about the long term effects not only of COVID itself, but the measures various governing authorities have taken to ameliorate its impact.

In a recent article at The National Post, Chris Selley writes: “We have been living with uncommon restrictions on our freedoms for the better part of two years now, of course, and some of them even made sense. But too many people enjoyed slapping those restrictions on the unwilling, and governments that score points off limiting freedoms tend to get a taste for it, regardless of the circumstances.” Once our governments have exercised this kind of authority with respect to vaccinations, what makes us think they won’t do so in other ways? Do we honestly attribute that much benevolence and competence to those in power?

Here’s the thing: No government policy, especially policies that buck up against individual rights and require coercive measures to be implemented, will ever receive 100% buy-in from a population. No amount of persuasion, incentives, or penalties will convince all those who are adamantly resistant. There will always be people who say, “No.” Perhaps very rightly so. That in itself should tell us something about how we ought to approach such situations.

Because the obvious question is this: When a government puts such a measure in place, how will it enforce it? Or what will it do with or to those people who refuse to comply? It’s not as though people who choose to remain unvaccinated have committed criminal offenses. They have made a very unpopular medical decision. Often such decisions are incredibly well-researched, thoughtful, and deliberate. Not everyone saying “no” to the COVID vaccines are anti-vaxxers or conspiracy theorists. Unfortunately, in our current cultural climate, sharing one’s independent research and thinking on such issues often is seen as, to coin a phrase, “misinformation.” That term–misinformation–becomes a catch-all excuse to dismiss legitimate concerns over the vaccine mandates and even concerns some have over the vaccines themselves. Some of these concerns are genuine and cannot be simply slapped with the label “misinformation” and remain unheard.

Whatever case is made for vaccinations, a case weakened by their waning protection and a seemingly continual need for “boosters,” medical decisions are still personal decisions. For those who attempt to make analogies with seatbelts or other such laws put in place to protect citizens against one another, the difference here is that receiving a vaccination means putting a substance inside of one’s body. And a law that restricts external behaviour is not the same as a mandate requiring a specific form of medical intervention. What’s frightening is how these mandates are only actually possible because governing authorities continue to maintain a state of emergency, whether warranted or not. Otherwise, legally and constitutionally such mandates would likely be untenable. My question is: what is the standard for a state of emergency? On what basis can a government maintain a state of emergency and what are the specific conditions for lifting it? And why aren’t more people vocal with such obvious questions?

As a Christian (and as a pastor), I am concerned over the expectations some have of churches with respect to vaccine mandates. For example, the Salvation Army is now dealing with a shortage of volunteers and with losing some staff because of its mandate that anyone working or volunteering for the organization must be fully vaccinated. I know there are churches of all sorts that are requiring all of their staff to get vaccinated and are checking people for proof of vaccinations in order to attend Sunday worship services. While I understand that even Christians and Christian leaders are doing their best to navigate these challenging waters, the decision of some congregations to turn people away from corporate worship, Christian community, and, perhaps most importantly, the hearing of the good news of Jesus on the basis of vaccination status is a deeply troubling one. If we consider how for the better part of two years we’ve complied with mandates involving masks and social distancing, and have done so without even wondering about the vaccination status of others, wouldn’t we rather continue following those guidelines than exclude someone–anyone–from attending a church service?

One of my biggest concerns is this: When it comes to vaccine mandates, what’s going to happen in towns, cities, countries, workplaces, churches, and in families around the world between those who see things profoundly differently? You don’t have to look very long to find hateful, even aggressive language being used of those who are unvaccinated. Once COVID moves from being a pandemic to endemic, what will the vaxxed and unvaxxed do with one another? Will those who were vaccinated resent the unvaccinated? I suspect the more heavy-handed the measures, the more severe the consequences will be for the population in question. I wonder if governing authorities and health officials are even asking such questions. COVID is not the only pandemic afflicting our globe at the moment.

Throughout this post there are links to several articles and videos. But one of the videos I watched recently is actually below. It is an interview with a man named Paul Kingsnorth. I thought it worth placing right here in the post itself. It’s an incredibly thoughtful conversation that probes more deeply than pretty anything you’ll get in the news. One of the fascinating aspects of the converation are the philosophical and spiritual themes that are drawn from our response to the pandemic. For instance, they discuss the “apocalyptic” nature of the pandemic, but probably not in the way most would expect. They actually use the word “apocalyptic” in the theologically correct way! And they talk about how western civilzation no longer has a story or narrative which everyone shares and how this connects to the extreme polarization we see in our world. And agree or not with the analysis, I think you’ll at least find it thought provoking. People who think differently than what we see and hear in mainstream media are often worth giving a listen.

Hear me: I understand full well what is happening around the world with respect to COVID. I have no desire to underplay the seriousness of the pandemic or the heavy grief of the lives lost. I am not an “anti-vaxxer” or prone to fall for conspiracy theories. I don’t tend to jump to conclusions or make rash judgements. I am, I think, a measured thinker, willing to consider different points of view. But I confess that I am less than trusting of governing authorities, mainstream media, and large pharmaceutical corporations (who are pulling in billions of dollars through these vaccines but have almost zero accountability). And I only wonder if some of the measures we have taken to save ourselves from the virus will not only not accomplish that end like we’re told they will but will end up costing us in ways many have yet to realize and appreciate. What price are we willing to pay? And what lies beneath our willingness to pay it?

Churches, Vaccine Mandates, and How to Frame Our Thinking

As various government authorities impose vaccine mandates on sections of our population and on different workforces, what are Christians to think? I personally know churches that require proof of vaccination to attend Sunday morning worship services and others that utterly refuse to do so. There are people who are not part of any faith community who cannot understand why all churches don’t check for everyone’s vaccination status at their doors. Without getting into the weeds of the mandates, their legitimacy or illegitimacy, I want instead to share an article that perhaps gives some perspective on how to frame any discussion we have on such matters. It’s written by Wyatt Graham and called “Do not Be Conformed to Virus Culture.”

What I Don’t Know and What I Do Know

Are churches that refuse to abide by COVID guidelines making the right decision or the wrong decision?

I don’t know.

Are government authorities who fence in a church building or issue large fines for such refusals exercising power illegitimately? Are they violating the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by their actions?

I don’t know.

Is this really an issue of religious freedom or is it confusing such freedom with the traditional means of exercising our religious freedom?

I don’t know.

How do we know for sure when such freedoms are being unfairly restricted or even violated?

I don’t know.

Should the same guidelines exist for all situations and places and organizations?

I don’t know.

However, what I do know is that at a time like this there aren’t easy answers.

What I do know is that many government authorities are doing their best to protect citizens. What I do know is that not all governing authorities are the same–from province to province or state to state. We can’t equate what’s happening, for example, in the US or some parts of the US and look at our situation here in Nova Scotia through that lens with accuracy. What I do know is that there are examples of COVID restrictions that seem inconsistent, confusing, or applied unfairly. What I do know is that there are plenty of people acting in good faith, in churches and in the government, who are not on the same page.

What I do know is that followers of Jesus and churches are called to obey governing authorities unless they are telling us to disobey God. What I do know is that being able to protect and have religious freedom is important in a free society. What I do know is that it’s not always clear in this situation what it means to obey or disobey God’s word. What I do know is that Christians ought to be willing to do whatever it takes to love our neighbors. What I do know is whatever we do as disciples of Christ and as communities of faith will be our witness to our neighbors.

What I do know is that many of us are quick to give our opinions and slow to listen. What I do know is that people on all sides of an issue can get emotional, frustrated, and argumentative. What I do know is that all that’s going on in our culture right now is leading to division, polarization, and disunity. What I do know is that we often end up in echo chambers where all we hear is what we already agree with. What I do know is that social media platforms such as Facebook drive us apart more than bring us together. What I do know is that none of this is good for any of us.

But most importantly, what I do know is that the God in whom I believe is the Creator of each one of us. What I do know is that he calls us to love one another, even when we profoundly disagree. What I do know is that being a follower of Jesus involves laying down our lives, carrying our crosses, and sacrificing our desires for the sake of others. What I do know is that even those of us who are Christians don’t always want to do this or are willing to do this. What I do know is that we–including Christians–need the gospel of the kingdom, the gospel of repentance and forgiveness, and the gospel of Jesus more than ever. What I do know is that without it we have no hope, no peace, and no way forward as we live in this difficult and confusing time.

Pastors

There are a lot of other pastors in the area where I live. I have had the opportunity to get to know a number of them. Some of them have become good friends. And let me say this: they are all wonderful, gifted, and passionate about their calling. Though all are pastors of local churches, they are also very different from one another. Sure, there’s always overlap among pastors with respect to gifts and skills; but there’s also a distinct variety of gifts and passions. I had coffee with a pastor yesterday whose gift, I think, is in the area of encouragement and personal evangelism. I know another pastor who’s been serving in our area for more than two decades and is incredibly musical. So while pastors often get painted with a broad brush, they are as different from one another as any of us are from those around us.

So I think this is all wonderful. But it’s also a challenge. Because every individual pastor is serving an individual congregation. We have to be careful not to expect each pastor to have all the skills of the other pastors we know. If you admire another pastor’s evangelistic gifts, you can’t automatically assume your pastor is similarly gifted. Of course, we’re all called–pastors and church members–to do the work of evangelism (2 Timothy 4:5). Yet we all know pastors and other believers who most definitely have the gift to share their faith and compel others to follow Jesus.

But even though not every pastor has the gifts or skills of every other pastor, that’s where the rest of the church comes in. Consider these words:

And he himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into maturity with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness.

Ephesians 4:11-13

Hear that? God gave the church pastors and other leaders to equip the saints for the work of ministry. This is important. Even if your pastor can (somehow!) do everything well, they shouldn’t be responsible for doing everything (much less everything well). That prevents other believers from exercising their God-given calling. It keeps the church from being the church. Most importantly, it actually prevents individual Christians from growing into maturity.

Our Lord never intended any one pastor to be a “jack of all trades,” so to speak. Unfortunately, some pastors are control freaks. The addage, “If you want something done right, do it yourself,” is their calling card. If they can do it, they think they should. However, pastors ought to be in the business of helping other believers discover and use their God-given talents. What any one pastor can’t do themselves, they look for in other people in their church.

Your pastor can’t do everything. He or she can probably do some things especially well. Other stuff they can learn or figure out how to do. The rest is up to the other members of the Body of Christ. So if you’re ever discouraged that your pastor isn’t very good at administration or seems musically tone deaf or maybe isn’t the best preacher you’ve ever heard, focus on their strengths. Maybe his or her gift is pastoral care or discipleship or counselling. Then consider how others in your church can be equipped, invited, and encouraged to bring their gifts forward to complement those of your pastor. Your pastor will be glad you did.