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by Derek Allen

In March, April, and May, our church staff braced for a wave of Covid-19 cases to sweep through our church family. It never happened. In fact, for the first three months of the Covid-19 outbreak, our church family of about 1500 only experienced a handful of coronavirus cases. As far as we know, none of those cases were spread at one of our events. Two weeks ago, that all changed.

Like most churches, we moved to an online-only format in March, but as soon as our governor and state department of health gave us the green light, we started meeting in socially distanced services. A few weeks into those services, we had a coronavirus scare, but it was short-lived and impotent. One of our staff members was exposed to someone who later tested positive for Covid-19, and our entire staff was with the exposed staff member in a two-hour staff meeting a few days later. The exposed staff member tested positive so we had the rest of our staff tested.

Everyone else tested negative. No one, including the one staff member who tested positive, showed any symptoms. We breathed a collective sigh of relief, and many of us, including myself, came away from that experience more convinced than before that the only real threat we faced from Covid-19 was the threat of our services being shut down again. Then it happened. The first phone call came on a Friday from a staff member. “Bad news. I’ve got a fever, body aches, and 6 out of the 11 symptoms on the CDC’s checklist.”

The next week was filled with phone calls and text messages about symptoms and tests and who had been exposed to who. By midweek, we learned that the virus, which would eventually work its way through about half of our staff, had spread to some of our volunteers. Almost two weeks after that first phone call, we are still waiting to find the end of the virus’ spread among our church family. This has been extremely challenging as a pastor and leader, and I hope I can share my experience with others who might learn from our mistakes dealing with Covid-19. Here are five lessons I learned.

1. There is a second wave. While I’m not going to get into the debate about the national and international second wave of Covid-19 cases, the second wave is real for our church family. In fact, this is really the first wave. We didn’t see anything like this in March, April, and May, but what we are watching now can only be described as a wave of infections spreading through our church.

2. It happens fast. One week from the time I received the first phone call reporting symptoms, we were aware of more than a dozen people showing symptoms. What was even more shocking was that we could track four generations of transmission from the original person. We are two weeks in, and the numbers are growing at a faster rate now than they were last week.

3. Assume every sniffle is Covid-19, and act quickly. Like most churches and organizations, we had been following the recommended steps of isolation, testing, and notifying those who have been in contact with anyone who tests positive. We’ve learned that the tests take too long, and false positives are possible along with false negatives. We’ve experienced both. We’ve also learned that most Covid-19 cases mimic other common illnesses and even allergies in the early stages. The phrase, “I thought it was just allergies” has been heard all too often among our staff in the past two weeks. At first, we followed the health department guideline of quarantining anyone who had been within 6 feet for more than 15 minutes of someone who is showing symptoms. Now, we quarantine anyone who even walked by the same building as someone with symptoms. If we had acted quickly to quarantine the entire staff, we would have cut our church-wide cases by at least 50%.

4. Covid-19 is a serious illness. Some of our staff experienced a day or two of mild symptoms, but several are still dealing with severe fever, fatigue, breathing problems, and other symptoms. It has been a harrowing and demoralizing journey for our team, and the first symptom reporter has just started feeling some relief in the past few hours.

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Chatting with buddies at the bar or coffee shop helps us think more clearly, and that’s sorely missing right now

By gathering in community spaces and chatting with friends and strangers, we really are solving the world’s problems.

Humans don’t just desire complex forms of human contact, from the intimate contact of love to the more distant contact of political order. We cannot do without it.

When Southern Methodist University announced in March that it would close campus after spring break because of the global pandemic, I was teaching a course on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian in Germany in the 1930s and ’40s who was eventually put to death in a concentration camp for his anti-Nazi activities. As we continued to abide by the shelter-in-place orders, my students and I, forced to meet exclusively online, commented several times about how poignant it was to read Bonhoeffer together during this time. By the last quarter of the term we were reading Bonhoeffer’s prison writings, many of which are weighty meditations on the challenges of forced loneliness. Bonhoeffer’s writings, from his early works to these later ones from prison, emphasize how important sociality is for human beings.

It’s stunning that, surrounded by the terror and murder of the Nazi regime, Bonhoeffer spent so much of his time writing not about murder and war, but about these basic forms of social life. As Bonhoeffer saw it, even before the mass murder began, the Nazis posed an existential threat to human flourishing because of their attempt to flatten out human relationships. From the beginning of the regime, Hitler insisted that everything must be Nazified — church, family life and even bowling leagues. There were no distinct places with their own integrity, goals and practices. There was only Nazi space.

Bonhoeffer was concerned about the loss of these spaces because he thought they do more than simply connect us with others. Rather, these spaces actually help us think. It’s easy to conceive of thinking as a human activity best accomplished in isolation. But on Bonhoeffer’s telling, it is by inhabiting these social spheres that we learn to think well.

For instance, if I ask myself whether my responsibility as a father means that I should pick my son up early from school in order to spend more time with him, I also have to ask if in so doing I would be failing to fulfill my responsibilities at work. This sort of very ordinary moral question, and the ordinary form of moral reflection that accompanies it, depends on the difference in space between work and home. Without that kind of difference, our ability to think is diminished.

Bonhoeffer combined a long tradition of Christian theology with the more recent insights of sociology when he argued that humans need multiple different kinds of social relationships — or spaces — in order to flourish. Humans want good home lives and work lives, and we depend on good political order to make those possible, but we also need other places where we gather and converse with friends and strangers alike. These are what sociologists sometimes call “third places.”

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As followers of Jesus, we are people of the truth. Falling for (and spreading) conspiracy theories does not honor the Lord, but it does cause people to question our judgment.

On Christians Spreading Corona Conspiracies: Gullibility is not a Spiritual Gift

Image: Photo by Engin Akyurt on Unsplash

The current global pandemic has created a bumper crop of conspiracy theories.

Sadly, Christians seem to be disproportionately fooled by conspiracy theories. I’ve also said before that when Christians spread lies, they need to repent of those lies. Sharing fake news makes us look foolish and harms our witness.

We saw this in the last election when some of the troll factories focused on conservative, evangelical Christians. Here we go again.

What now?

First, we need to speak up— particularly to those fooled yet again— and lovingly say, “You need to go to trusted sources.” Social media news feeds are not a trusted source. That’s why we created, to provide credible information for pastors. But, there are plenty of credible news sources— generally from outlets that do not have a track record of conspiracy peddling.

Second, God has not called us to be easily fooled. Gullibility is not a Christian virtue. Believing and sharing conspiracies does not honor the Lord. It may make you feel better, like you are in the know, but it can end up harming others and it can hurt your witness.

Yet now we are dealing with a new flood of conspiracy theories. Look at the list on Wikipedia, or just search for yourself using a few keywords. They are as diverse as they are strange.

And Christians are sharing them. Again.

Mistrust of Media and Government

I understand the mistrust many Christians have toward the media and government. Pew indicated that the most likely people to believe the virus was created in a lab were Republicans, who tend to be the most religious—and most distrustful of government.

However, this mistrust too often leads believers to become more gullible, rather than more discerning.

God’s Word calls us to be “wise, not unwise” (Eph. 5:15).

We need to be discerning and thoughtful in our beliefs—and in what we share with others.

If you want to believe that some secret lab-created Covid-19 as a biological weapon, and now everyone is covering that up, I can’t stop you. If you want to believe one of the dozens of conspiracy theories already circulating, that’s your call. But if you do, what will you do when people start believing that the vaccine is also part of this conspiracy?

Similarly, we see some Christian leaders hyped up the idea you are being persecuted if you ignore the current guidelines and try to gather a thousand people together for worship in the pandemic. We saw a few pastors making a spectacle of themselves at Easter when we should be making much of Jesus.

Are there some issues? Yes, some mayors and a governor or two have done and said foolish things. Those actions are already being pushed back in the courts. In a global crisis, some overreact and others respond to them, and they back down. This is not a deep state conspiracy.

Furthermore, China has neither been helpful nor transparent, and more details need to be demanded. Legitimate questions can and should be asked (and are being asked!), but there are stunning and bizarre conspiracy theories about biological warfare, nefarious vaccine plans, plots to wipe out religious liberty, 5G cell towers spreading disease, and so much more.

They fill up the social media feed of many self-identified Christians. Again.

One of the reasons I wrote Christians in the Age of Outrage: How to Bring Our Best When the World Is at Its Worst is because Christians are becoming outraged about things that are not true. The end result is they are being easily fooled and join into ideas that can bring real harm, particularly when we do develop a vaccine that can bring substantial help to our communities.

We who know Jesus as Lord ought to do better. A lot better.

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Ed Stetzer

We have all been stirred by the events surrounding the death of George Floyd as well as the protests happening across the country. To better understand the reaction to his death, to think about how we can respond as believers to the protests, I interviewed my colleague and friend Esau McCaulley. The following multi-part series will walk us through that important interview. You can listen to that interview on my Moody Radio show, Ed Stetzer Live, right here. This is part one of four.

We see daily the effects of the horror and shame of racism that continues in America. Watching George Floyd pinned down, a knee to his neck, until he no longer had breath, and as bystanders called for the police to let him up, will not be easily forgotten.

Nor should it.

“I Can’t Breathe”

Videos of the officers and their treatment of George Floyd have gone viral globally. We have since seen the termination and arrests of all four officers involved including Derek Chauvin, the officer whose knee caused Floyd to cry, “I can’t breathe.” We pray for justice on behalf of a man who died needlessly and cruelly.

We saw the unrest that followed. We’ve seen protests in cities across our country. Many of the protestors, seeking to do so peacefully, were also opposing others who invaded the protests, inciting riots. We heard articulate calls for peaceful marches from Mayor Bottoms of Atlanta.

She called on protestors: “What I see happening on the streets of Atlanta is not Atlanta. This is not a protest. This is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. This is chaos.”

Social distancing measures were quickly forgotten as thousands gathered in cities nationally, portending a potential spike in the coronavirus in the middle of the outcries for justice.

We saw Ahmaud Arbery killed in February, followed by the arrest and murder charge of father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael. On March 13, just as the pandemic’s impact was beginning to be fully realized, Breonna Taylor was killed when police executed a search warrant for selling drugs. Now, captured on video, Floyd’s helpless body on the ground, with a knee to his neck, brought back painful images for people of color of abuse, and even of lynching in our history.

Interpreting What We Are Seeing

Depending upon your preexisting narrative it can be hard to process this. You might be thinking, “Well, this happened because of ________.” I don’t know what ________ is for you, but I believe whenever there is a community that is hurting or experiencing unrest, the first thing that we can and should do is listen to people in that community. I don’t know what it is to be a minority in America. That’s why this series will focus on the thoughts of those who do.

In the past, following Ferguson, I posted articles that featured thoughts from pastors of color who can help us understand. After Ferguson, I thought, Why do white evangelicals, or whites in general, poll with a different reaction than African Americans?

Listening to African American Leaders

We’re being provoked to love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24) by African American leaders.I launched a series called A Time to Listen. The subtitle was “Listening to African American Evangelicals on Race.” These were followers of Jesus, Bible-loving, gospel-proclaiming African American evangelicals who had a different reaction to Ferguson, and likely today as well.

Again, I think that’s a good time for us to listen to our sisters and brothers in the African American context. In this series we hear from Esau McCaulley, an evangelical New Testament scholar and a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. Esau is fairly new to the faculty at Wheaton College and has become a friend.

Esau’s book Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope will be released in November of this year. I believe you will understand more clearly and be more sensitive personally to the issues of our time because of what Esau has to say.

Ed: Can you start with your own personal journey?

Esau: I come from a family of ministers. My grandfather was a black pastor; he still is a black pastor. He’s retired, but he still preaches. Black preachers never retire. I have aunts and uncles who are in the ministry. I grew up in a largely African American neighborhood and I knew about the gospel.

I also grew up in Alabama in a racially divided city. There is a black part of town, and there’s a white part of town. I know what it’s like to be treated differently. I was pulled over by the police for nothing other than driving while black.

I have been searched and humiliated in a variety of ways. Part of what it meant for me to be a Christian growing up in America was making sense of the fact that, especially in a place like Alabama, we all believed or claimed to believe the same gospel about who Jesus is. But it seemed that some of the white Christian brothers and sisters who believed in Jesus were also the people who were oppressing us.

Or when something happened in our community, they were often slow to partner with us in pushing back on that oppression.

Ed: But, when a lot of people hear that and knowing your age, they might ask, “How would you see oppression in the ’90s?”

Esau: Here’s one of 15 stories I could tell. I’m driving from my home back to my college, about an hour away. A cop starts following me. I have a seatbelt on, and I’m following the law completely. A friend of mine is in the car with me. The policeman follows us for a couple of miles. We went from one city to the next. The city went from 50 miles an hour to 35 miles an hour. The cop pulls me over and says, “You had a sudden change in speed, so I pulled you over.”

I said, “Well, we went into a speed zone.” He asked, “Where are you going?” I said, “We’re going back to our college.” He says, “Well I don’t believe that you go to that college. Can I see…” Not your regular ID, which you had already given to him. He asked to see our college ID to prove that we were actually going back to the university. It’s a largely white university. He also said he needed to see my friend’s ID, although he was in the passenger seat and wasn’t driving.

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Isaiah Colton ThompsonIsaiah Colton Thompson, religious studies and history major

Isaiah Colton Thompson, a senior with a double major in religious studies and history at Cal State Fullerton, discovered his primary subject, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a most unusual way … courtesy of a trashcan and an engaging professor. (Bonhoeffer was a German evangelical pastor, theologian and anti-Nazi dissident. His influential writings focused on Christianity’s role in a secular society.)

“I was meeting with one of my professors, Bradley Starr, to discuss my broad research interests,” he recalled. “When I mentioned Bonhoeffer, his eyes lit up. He literally reached into his trashcan and handed me a magazine that was advertising a recently published work on Bonhoeffer. I ordered the book, found an area of interest and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Thompson was looking forward to visiting Washington, D.C., this spring as his senior thesis on Bonhoeffer and the lessons from Finkenwalde Seminary had been selected for display at the Council on Undergraduate Research’s annual “Posters on the Hill” event, which takes place in the nation’s capital. It was abruptly canceled in light of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

A virtual poster session is scheduled for Tuesday, April 21 at 9 a.m. on Twitter. For more information , visit the Council on Undergraduate Research.

“I was surprised and incredibly pleased that my poster was selected,” Thompson said. “Sixty projects were selected, from across the nation, out of 400 applications. The point of the event is to demonstrate the research being performed in universities across the country and encourage further funding for these programs.”

Thompson’s project was the only one selected from the state of California for this honor.

At CSUF, there are many programs that benefit from federal funding, including the Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program, Sally Casanova Pre-Doctoral Scholar and the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, all programs that Thompson is involved in.

“Programs of these kinds are incredibly important as they support low-income, first-generation and underrepresented students who want to complete their degrees in higher education,” he said. “Participating in this event not only would have allowed me to promote my research … but would have enabled me to endorse the very programs that encouraged my research.”

The Problem of Discrimination in Nazi Germany

Thompson was particularly interested in “the lessons from Finkenwalde Seminary.” The focus of the seminary was the problem of racism in Nazi Germany.

“During the 1930s, Hitler called on Nazi-supporting Christians to bring Germany’s churches under the ideals of the Nazi state,” Thompson explained. “This included race. The seminary at Finkenwalde resisted those ideas and taught a counter-narrative to combat targeted discrimination. Bonhoeffer directed the seminary and taught many of the classes.”

Many, including Nazi-supporting Christians, held the people, the land and the leader of Germany in high esteem. They believed Germany was called to a special path of victory and triumph. In pursuit of this path, certain groups of people were targeted because they did not fit “the ideal” that Germans had in mind. Bonhoeffer, however, saw the flaw and addressed it directly in lectures from Finkenwalde.

The Power of Resistance

“Ultimately, the research reveals the power of resistance,” Thompson said. “And it looks at the influence of nationalism on race. Because the Nazis held the ideals of the state in such high regard, they justified sacrificing human beings for those ideals. It also focuses on a deeper issue — the power of ideas.

“Because of my research, I often wonder about the everyday influences that impact my thinking. Where do these ideas come from? Who produces them? Bonhoeffer and the students at Finkenwalde remained cognizant of the ideology of their leaders … and strongly resisted this world view.”

Lessons for Today

Thompson believes that some of the lessons of Bonhoeffer resonate today.

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This timely response to a global pandemic was penned almost 500 years ago.

Sixteenth century Reformer Martin Luther wrote almost 500 years ago about responding to pandemics. When Luther was confronted by questions about how to respond to The Black Death Plague, he responded in words that should serve to inform our approach to the pandemic crisis our nation and the world is now facing today.

In a letter to Rev. Dr. John Hess, found in Luther’s Works, Volume 43 p. 132, as “Whether one may flee from a Deadly Plague,” Luther writes:

“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash no foolhardy and does not tempt God.”

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by Brian Rosner

I started 2020 with five New Year’s resolutions and seven anticipations, things I was eagerly looking forward to, such as special social occasions and travel. I won’t comment on my progress on the resolutions — my brother-in-law reckons New Year’s resolutions are a to-do list for the first week in January, and I don’t want to confirm his cynicism. But I will report that five of my seven anticipations have been canceled, with the two in November and December looking less likely every day.

For some of us, the personal cost of the coronavirus will be huge; for others less profound, but still troubling. But one form of suffering will afflict us all — namely, the experience of disappointment. With everything from meals out and sport to weddings and funerals being canceled, “cancel culture” is taking on a new meaning. No one will be immune from disappointments, the displeasure of having our anticipations unfulfilled.

For a case study in coping with disappointment in the context of isolation and social distancing, we find a surprising source of help in Dietrich Bonhoeffer — the pastor, author and church leader who was active in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.

Bonhoeffer’s life story is a mixed genre. It started out like a fairy tale. Born in 1906 to a prominent German family, Bonhoeffer was a tall man, possessing an athletic physique and a round boyish face. With his mother’s blue eyes and blond hair, he perfectly fit Hitler’s Aryan stereotype. But any affinity between Bonhoeffer and the Third Reich stopped there.

With the rise to power of Hitler in 1933, Bonhoeffer’s fairy tale took a dangerous turn, transforming into a spy thriller. His opposition to National Socialism began early, when Bonhoeffer gave a radio broadcast on the dangers of charismatic leadership. It was abruptly ended by government censure. For the next ten years, Bonhoeffer worked for the good of his nation, eventually operating as a double agent. Employed by the Abwehr, a division of German Intelligence, Bonhoeffer used his contacts outside of Germany to support the insurgency. A man of impeccable integrity, Bonhoeffer also functioned as the conscience of the conspirators, commending their moral courage and bolstering their resolve.

Along with the spy thriller, Bonhoeffer’s life was a tragic love story. In June 1942 Dietrich met Maria von Wedemeyer. Maria was beautiful, poised, cultured and filled with vitality, but only eighteen years of age — fully seventeen years younger than Dietrich. Bonhoeffer and Maria fell in love. Maria’s father had been killed on the Russian Front and her mother insisted on a year’s separation to test the couple’s feelings. But Maria convinced her mother otherwise and in January 1943, with some restrictions in place, they were engaged to be married. Unfortunately, “happily ever after” is not the way their story ended.

Two key aspirations of Bonhoeffer’s life — the renewal of the German church and people and his plans to marry his fiancée Maria von Wedemeyer — were both cruelly thwarted. In 1943 he was arrested by the Gestapo, incarcerated for two years, and finally executed at the order of Adolf Hitler.

If some disappointments are mild, Bonhoeffer’s were crushing. How did Bonhoeffer handle his disappointments? Although he wrote a number of books, the answer to this question is found in the remarkable letters to and from his parents, relatives, fiancée and above all his best friend Eberhard Bethge, collected and published in the now classic volumes Letters and Papers from Prison and Love Letters from Cell 92. With social isolation ahead for all of us, at least in a physical sense, Bonhoeffer’s prison musings offer sage advice and salient lessons.

First, focus on what really matters. According to Bonhoeffer not all disappointments are equal. He urged an ordering of priorities:

There is hardly anything that can make you happier than to feel that you count for something with other people. What matters here is not numbers, but intensity. In the long run, human relationships are the most important thing in life. God uses us in his dealings with others. Everything else is very close to hubris.

In the strange world of physical distancing, we do well to remember that we don’t have to be relationally distant. There are still ways to cultivate community that don’t involve getting up close and personal physically.

Second, stay cheerful. Bonhoeffer wrote to his fiancée Maria: “Go on being cheerful, patient and brave.” And he told Bethge to “spread hilaritas.” Even amid hardship, a joyful optimism can prevail. Cheerfulness was in fact one of Bonhoeffer’s abiding qualities despite the horrors of prison. In his famous prison poem, “Who am I?” the opening stanza reads: “They often tell me I would step from my cell’s confinement calmly, cheerfully, firmly, like a squire from his country-house.”

Indeed, Bonhoeffer’s letters from prison are surprisingly dotted with glimpses of humour. He quips: “Prison life brings home to one how nature carries on uninterruptedly its quiet, open life, and it gives one quite a special, perhaps a sentimental, attitude towards animal and plant life, except that my attitude towards the flies in my cell remains very unsentimental.” Bonhoeffer and Bethge wrote back and forth over the naming of Bethge’s first child. When the name “Dietrich” was floated, Dietrich wrote back to the couple amusingly: “You still seem to be thinking of ‘Dietrich’. The name is good, the model less so.”

Perhaps those corny coronavirus memes scattered across social media serve a purpose. In Bonhoeffer’s case cheerfulness was no accident of temperament; it was born of his unshakeable confidence in God: “I’m travelling with gratitude and cheerfulness along the road where I’m being led. My past life is brim-full of God’s goodness, and my sins are covered by the forgiving love of Christ crucified.”

Third, embrace optimism. Bonhoeffer’s approach to prison life was not to allow the confinement to restrict his activity. Quite literally, he did not sit still while waiting for his hope for freedom to materialize:

I read, meditate, write, pace up and down my cell — without rubbing myself sore against the walls like a polar bear. The great thing is to stick to what one still has and can do — there is still plenty left — and not to be dominated by the thought of what one cannot do, and the feelings of resentment and discontent.

This is good advice for anyone facing the frustrations of an ongoing disappointment and restrictive circumstances.

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July 2020


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