Thoughts from the midst of the virus
by Derek Lecakes
Life has changed. We have all been forced to adapt. On March 1, 2020, the first case of the novel coronavirus hit New York. No one could have imagined the impact it would have on our lives in the coming weeks. As time went on, restrictions were placed on gatherings. First, the occupancy limit of rooms was cut in half, then reduced to 50 people, then to 20 people or fewer. Next, social distancing measures encouraged people to maintain six feet of distance between themselves and other people. Lastly, an executive order from the governor of New York placed the state on “pause”: All non-essential workers were to stay at home.
At the governor’s request, the congregations of the LCMS Atlantic District “paused” to prevent the spread of the virus.
We watched the number of positive cases begin to double every two days. Hospitals closed their doors to any and all visitors including clergy and care teams. Funeral homes and cemeteries also quickly changed their normal operating procedures to help curb the spread.
Now, church workers are faced with the real question of how to provide Christ-centered care when they cannot visit or see the members of their congregation or school. Our training revolves around being at the sides of the sick and dying to comfort and console or to celebrate the milestones of life.
In New York there have been over 18,000 deaths. This is not just a number. It includes LCMS Atlantic District church members; it includes those who have attended worship with us and served our parishes. We have seen the virus take sisters and brothers, friends and family. At this point, 28 churches have reported deaths of members resulting from COVID-19. Some parishes have experienced ten to twenty deaths.
We have heard stories of family members dropping off a loved one at the emergency room. The one with the virus is admitted; the family is forced to stay outside. The only contact is by phone. No one can enter the hospital to be by their side.
We have adapted the way we teach, lead worship, care for members and so much more. Video conferencing has become a tool by which we can remain present in people’s lives. It has taken on the role of the classroom and the sanctuary. Each Sunday members gather as family units in their homes to hear the precious words of the Gospel spoken by the familiar voice of their pastor. We begin with the invocation and are immediately reminded of God’s presence with us. Pastors, teachers and others are calling on members by phone, text, social media and old-fashioned letter writing.
COVID-19 has forced us to rethink how we can do ministry when we are forced to be physically distanced from one another. But amid the seeming darkness there are signs of light.
Signs of light
Many LCMS parishioners work on the front lines as doctors and nurses in hospitals. These hospital workers see the worst of this crisis. These saints gather co-workers at the beginning of shifts and call their pastor to offer a blessing over the hospital, doctors, nurses and all workers in that moment. They are being the presence of Christ.
Some pastors gather at gravesides with a small group of family — less than 10 — or sometimes alone to record the interment. The rest of the family participates through video conference; it is one way they can say goodbye. This is a challenge, but in it is the presence of Christ.
There are devotions, family Bible studies and more going out each day from congregational workers via email, social media, text and phone. This is how we can proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ at this moment. It is one more way we can bring the presence of Christ to others.
This situation has been a challenge. It has forced our pastors, teachers, deaconesses, DCEs and all our workers to figure out how to speak the love of Christ into these unique situations. However, the promises that God has made to us have not changed.
What has not changed
The reality of Christ’s death and resurrection means that He has paid the price of sin and redeemed us. In the waters of Holy Baptism, we are rescued from death and the devil.
Luther writes in his explanation of the Third Article of the Apostle’s Creed:
The Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ. (Small Catechism, Apostle’s Creed, Article 3)
This reality that we confess in the creed and elsewhere has not changed. God’s Word has not changed. The promises therein remain steadfast and unchangeable. The Holy Spirit is at work through the Word and the lives of all of us. We must hold to God’s promises as we live out our baptismal promises in this life. The situation has changed, but presence of Christ in God’s Word has not changed as we work to proclaim Him. The living presence of Christ is in His Word, in our worship, in our prayers and in us. As we live our lives, the living presence of Christ is with us.
St. Paul reminds us of the eternal hope that we have in Jesus:
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Rom. 15:13).
The Rev. Derek Lecakes is president of the Atlantic District of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS).