Tongues are tinderboxes (and typing fingers are lighter fluid) - used for good and ill
I've avoided saying/writing much on current affairs recently because I didn't think it would be pastorally helpful. The last thing I want is for people to associate faulty human assessments with the eternal enduring wisdom of Christ. Even if clear delineations were made between human thought and divine wisdom, nuance is a sad fatality of much current-day communication, hampered even more so by the medium of writing that, as-of-yet, has not included facial expression and twinkles of the eye (though, emojis are having a good crack at that). Please don't think that something of a silence on the current affairs challenging the Church is a lack of care or willingness to engage, think of it as measured silence.
In a time when there's hour long press conferences in several states every day, an endless news cycle, and a vapid torrent of "information" on "social" media, a little measured silence all round would probably go a long way. We should all take to heart this wisdom:
"The one who has knowledge uses words with restraint,
and whoever has understanding is even-tempered" (Pr 17:27).
"Those who guard their lips preserve their lives,
but those who speak rashly will come to ruin" (Pr 13:3).
It seems as though the ones who talk the most and the loudest get heard (after all there's some weird people with big platforms), yet for us to follow suit and copy them is probably not becoming for the Christian. Perhaps it is time for us to get tactical and use our collective restrained and guarded words of hope and healing in a targeted way. Knowing that we have limited resources, limited opportunities to be heard and limited time, the way we use our words in the midst of the milieu ought to be constructive and Christ-oriented.
So take the following reflections as a series of curated thoughts, which are meant to help us to that goal, none of which are intended to be ex cathedra (I have a standing desk after all). They're not authoritative conclusions, but rather postulating and considering, hopefully in a way that others find helpful. I am the first to sin with words, toward my family and to you, so please forgive me if I err, and please don your flame-retardant coveralls so that the sparks don't catch.
The crackpots may be right
We find ourselves in the midst of ongoing "shake up" in life. Pre-2020, a.k.a. the "Before times," we would scoff at the idea that in Australia soon: people would be arrested for going to church; visiting the grandparents across state lines would be illegal; it would be an offence to leave the house without a government sanction; people would be refused entry to businesses/events on the basis of whether or not you've elected to undergo a certain medical procedure, and; the governments would be effectively on hiatus.
Yes, the way that previous paragraph was written is deliberately incendiary. Whether or not you believe that all such methods are justified given the circumstances, we can all agree that "alarmists" aren't as crazy as they first sounded. We may also be able to agree that if such drastic things can take place so easily then possible future "alarmist" ideas may come to fruition as well.
What is the point? The paradigms of this world have feet made of clay and iron - they can and will crumble, it's just a matter of timing. All the societal systems and technologies and authorities are contingent on the patience of God. The things we take for granted can come to end end at any moment, even our own lives. So whether these COVID days are a mere "totter" in the unfolding of history, or they turn out to be a time of toppling the current order, it is unwise for Christians to live as anything other than sojourners in a foreign land. Today we could be under Nebuchadnezzar, tomorrow Belshazzar, Darius next week and Cyrus next year.
Christ is the constant - He is the one who comes out on top. He is the one who will fill the whole earth. His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom. You can't get into it with medicine, or public policy, or two weeks quarantine - it is only entered by faith, through grace, and in Christ.
While we may have very good reasons for caring a lot about the political and legislative affairs of our country, we should be somewhat unsurprised if it all goes up in smoke, or at least changes significantly, because this has happened time and time again before. Jesus warned us that all kinds of such shenanigans would take place before He came back.
If the world is utterly changed from the one we knew before 2020, it does not change the mission of the Church or the foundation of our faith.
"Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come" (Mt 24:12–14).
Separation of Church & State... except when it's convenient for the state to interfere...
The old colloquialism that is adopted from the United States when maters of morality meet legislation (e.g. same sex "marriage", abortion, divorce, etc) is that the church should keep it's nose out of politics and stop trying to influence the country. Despite this being a misuse and misunderstanding of the concept of separation of church and state, it is nevertheless promptly forgotten when the knife is cutting the other direction with the state meddling in the operations of the church.
Unfortunately for Christians in Australia, we don't have convenient constitutional provisions to point at when the state government gets uncomfortably involved in religious affairs.
In theory in Victoria we have a Bill of rights which protects the movement of people in and around the state; religious practice as part of a community in public; and peaceful assembly. I say "in theory" because the fact that such rights can be suspended indefinitely should communicate to us that they are really kind of token ideals and not rights at all. The very idea of rights was born out of a Christian view of humans being made in the image of God, but we live in a society that doesn't recognise either God, nor the idea that there are some things the civil government does not have jurisdiction over.
I've written on a couple occasions about the way that authority is delegated under God means that the state (i.e. governments) shouldn't be telling the church how and when to worship. We should absolutely submit to them, even if it pains us, within their zone of authority, after all, "Rulers hold no terror for those who do right" (Ro 13:3), and "they are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer" (Ro 13:4). But the question is: what happens when they do become a terror to those who are doing right under God, and punish those who are doing good? Well there are many examples of how faithful believers should react in those situations, not the least of which were the Hebrew midwives, King David (before he was king) and the Apostle Paul. Render to Caesars what is Caesars, not what belongs to God.
To be clear for us today, the government is "out-of-bounds" when they make limits about how many people can join together to worship God, regardless whether their rules are specifically targeted at Christians or not: it's just outside their jurisdiction. However as long as we can accommodate their requested limitations while still being faithful to Lord Jesus, we will try. That means that we are trying to operate within the rules, but the rules will not be a barrier to us doing the things that Christ has called us to do.
It is pertinent to remember Pharaoh who tried to limit where and how many people worshiped God - it was not his job to say.
It is a great and noble matter for the state to care for it's citizens by seeking to protect us from a virulent disease (though the irony of murder being legal in Victoria is not lost on me). The evidence of their efforts are obvious: we have suffered the effects of disease at a much lower rate than other parts of the world. Kudos to them for working to provide a therapeutic treatment for the disease to the public free of charge! However good intentions do not justify all, and there are things that are more important than our lives. If the price of protection is being prevented from doing things God has called us to do - then one must make a choice between therapeutic totalitarianism or obedience to Jesus.
It feels like we have for the most part been able to have our cake and eat it too. Right now we're able to wind our way through the rules to still meet to practice hospitality, sing, teach, care, etc. and maybe even practice the Lord's Supper again soon - but these are not guaranteed, and they're not even allowed everywhere in our state right now. Throughout history Christians have often had to choose, and in this twilight it feels hard to know when is the right time to make those decisions. Nevertheless, if it's not today, it may be tomorrow, or next year, or in your old age a couple decades from now. We should be ready at every moment to chose Christ over the fleeting things of this life.
If there was a contagious disease with a high mortality rate present in our town, we would be justified in suspending our normal faith activities so that we don't contribute to the transmission of disease. I would argue that it would be unwise and unloving to meet at that time, and that we would be providentially hindered from undertaking many godly activities temporarily. But the simple fact of the matter is that often there has been little or no disease anywhere near us, yet we are still being legally coerced to act as if there is disease present.
It is one thing to act in love to prepare and protect people when there is an obvious threat, and another thing entirely to force everybody to "love" everybody else by protecting them from a disease that is not here, but may come here. I think something of the "innocent until proven guilty" rule should apply - absent until proven present. We can be prepared and ready to respond if illness comes to our town, but we cannot conduct flourishing human lives under God if we are always living as if everybody is carrying disease at every moment. Governments have had hard decisions so make, and wholesale policies always catch people in hard places, but I think is becoming increasingly obvious that things cannot continue in the way that we have been going. It is good to hear the premier is targeting lockdowns to the areas where the disease is present - I hope that will remain the case. This issue of illness and lockdowns may all blow over in the next couple months, but if it doesn't (like it didn't when 2020 ended), what do we do then? Never shake hands again? Never see our long-distance rellies? Never share meals in homes? How long is too long to wait? When is loving our neighbour through staying away, actually falling into the trap of not being loving at all? I don't have the answers, but I'm pondering these questions.
We do know that risk is inherent to life. To live is to suffer in some sense or another, yet as human agents God gives us the opportunity to manage that risk and respond to the suffering in a way that honours Him. We don't put other's lives on the line unnecessarily and in doing so we show love that puts other's benefit before our own. That said, I'm not sure never-ending liability-minimising and risk-reducing will gain us utopia.
Loving our neighbour may require us to risk our life for their benefit, as Jesus showed with his own life.
As Christians, we have given up our very lives, and in giving them up, we gain a better life in Christ, one that is secured with Him through the veil of death. While we're not to be be reckless with our bodies, we can be free to put them on the line as a worshipful offering to Jesus, by risking death and imprisonment, beatings fines and shipwreck. Giving up what we cannot keep to gain something we can't loose is a Christian tradition as old as Stephen the Martyr.
Christians all over the world often risk their lives to gather in worship (and even sometimes to practice their faith in private), yet I fear we're too coddled and will not be willing to risk a bit of bad publicity and fines to follow through with the implications of our faith if the times comes.
There's much more to postulate and wonder, and despite the length of this article, much has been left out. But, the closing remark is this: Come hell or high water, cling to Christ. If the current state of affairs is only three successive waves on a gusty sea, then great - cling to Christ and rejoice when the squall passes. If it turns out we're two years into a storm that lasts decades, the same rule applies - cling to Christ.
"For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose?... I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. ...
Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then... I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. ...it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him..." Portions of Php 1:21–30.