Pastor Dan has written a pastoral letter regarding COVID-19. This letter addresses some common questions he has received concerning the pandemic and our response as Christians. We pray it is helpful to you.
Download the letter here (PDF, 100KB): https://bit.ly/walla-pastoral-letter-covid
Re: A pastoral letter reflecting on COVID-19, vaccinations, and lockdowns
To God’s people in Walla Walla, Alma Park, and surrounds:
As a pastor, I am often asked questions about COVID-19, vaccinations, and lockdowns. I speak to these topics at leadership meetings, in sermons, at the church door after a worship service, and during pastoral care visits. So I have decided to collate some of my reflections on these topics as a resource, primarily for God’s people in the Walla Walla Lutheran Parish, though I am happy for these reflections to be shared wider.
Not everything can be said in a letter, so I provide this as a starting point for discussion. There are plenty of other helpful resources available (see the list at the end of this letter), as well as many unhelpful and even harmful resources! I understand some may not agree entirely with my point-of-view; this is expected and okay. (One of the reflections below is concerning how we as Christians should act when we disagree). I pray this letter is a helpful tool as you reflect further on our times and God’s work in your life.
Is our situation unprecedented? The last few months and year has been difficult and tumultuous, to say the least. Our times have often been described as “unprecedented” in news media. Yet perhaps this situation is not as “unprecedented” as advertised. As Qoheleth, the Teacher and writer of Ecclesiastes, says: ‘There is nothing new under the sun’ (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Human society has been afflicted with plagues and pandemics in the past: Scripture records many such instances (e.g. Exodus 7–11; Psalm 91:3–6); Martin Luther lived through a plague in 1527 (see further resources below); Australia suffered severely from the Spanish flu after WWI; etc. While perhaps not unprecedented in history, this is certainly the first time the younger generations have experienced a significant world event. So perhaps instead of “unprecedented,” it could be more helpful to say that COVID has been a “revelation,” it has revealed things to us — the veil has been removed to show us the world as it truly is, the dirty glass we look through has been wiped a little cleaner (1 Corinthians 13:12). Now we see the world more clearly, and what we see is a world that is sick and broken: we cannot agree how to live; we like to blame others; our leaders are fallible humans; we are caught up in systems of oppression; we bicker and fight; people get sick and die; we are in need of rescue. Yet all of this has been true since the dawn of time and the Fall (Genesis 3). But the good news (or “gospel”) is that Jesus Christ is the Promised One of God who has come to rescue us!
Reflection question: What has God revealed to you this past year and a half?
As a Christian, how can I understand the virus? Simply put the virus is a manifestation of sin. This is the most helpful way I have found to understand the virus. See sin infects the entire world. Sin attacks our bodies with sickness and death. Sin devastates the land with weeds and natural disasters. Sin corrupts our leadership structures and governments. Sin divides our families and churches as we deal with conflict and disagreements. Sin infects you and me.
Reflection questions: How has the pandemic shown you sin in the world? How has COVID shown you the sin infecting you?
The whole world seems out of control, what should I do? Although things might seem out of control, by faith we confess that God is sovereign and in control. Read Psalm 8; Psalm 24:1–2; Psalm 46; Job 38–42; Mark 4:35–41. We confess in the Creed that God the Father Almighty is “maker of heaven and earth.” Jesus Christ, as true God and true man, has been given authority and power over all creation. Through Christ, God has made and sustains everything (Colossians 1:16), and he says to us “do not be afraid.” (Revelation 1:11–18). As humans we want control. But this pandemic has revealed how little influence we have in world events. Believing that God is in control, despite appearances to the contrary, is what it means to have faith — ‘faith is confidence in things unseen’ (Hebrews 11:1). If God is in control, and we are not, then this means these events are being used by God to accomplish his purpose.
Reflection questions: What purpose could God be accomplishing through the pandemic? What is God up to in your life?
Is God still in control of the government? Some circles are beginning to heavily criticise the handling of the pandemic by our government. As a democratic country, citizens have a means to freely express their views to elected officials. Yet at the same time, Scripture says that God has appointed our leaders. He has established the various governments around the world, including here in Australia. St Paul writes: ‘Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.’ (Romans 13:1). Remember that Paul wrote this about the Roman dictatorship, parts of which were the most brutal and corrupt government the world has ever known! At times, confessing that God is in control of the government is a hard saying. We may (strongly) disagree with an approach taken by our leaders or decisions made by our government. Yet Scripture encourages us to recognise that these leaders and authorities are established by God to protect us and our communities. The various stories of Old Testament kings show us that, although flawed (see below), the ancient Israelite rulers and kings were established by God and used for his purposes.
Reflection questions: If God has established the government, how am I called to respond to this belief? What can I do to support my leaders and government? Have I recently prayed for my leaders by name?
Can I disobey the government when they use force to coerce me against my will? Already, the government has made various restrictions and mandates for the sake of public health e.g. wearing masks indoors, temporarily closing public buildings, curfews, etc. In addition, there are on-going discussions about the “Road to Freedom” and the link to (double) vaccination. The government has and will coerce many people. That said, I believe God is always at work through the government. Lutheran theology has what is known as the “Two Kingdoms” doctrine. This teaching recognises that God works in the world in two different ways: through temporal and spiritual authorities. Christians are ruled simultaneously in both ways — we are always under both temporal and spiritual authority. God rules in both “kingdoms” or “realms,” but the way he acts in each realm is different. In the temporal realm, God rules (through appointed human offices such as the government) by force and “the sword.” Such force is wielded to subdue and contain sin and evil. But the sword hurts! At times it coerces, threatens, forces people to act in certain ways for the common good. This is an alien and foreign way of working for God, yet he does it by necessity to protect us and the world. In the spiritual realm, God rules (through appointed human offices such as pastors and elders) by the Word. This is God’s preferred way of working — through the church (i.e. his people) — to proclaim forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation to all creation through Jesus Christ. Actions freely available to Christians who disagree with their democratically elected government include things such as writing letters or meeting with elected representatives, peaceful protests, etc. There may be certain (extreme) situations where the government clearly behaves contrary to God’s Word and acts of civil disobedience may be required (though we would do well to listen to what history teaches us about such situations). I personally do not feel we are — at present — in a situation here in Australia that requires civil disobedience. My main reason for this conclusion is that most of the current restrictions are short term, temporary measures instituted for the common good.
Reflection questions: How might God be using the government as his sword to curb the effects of sin in the world? How do you feel/respond to God working on you in this way? Do I (as a Christian) have a right to disobey the God appointed government simply because I disagree with their policies? Under what circumstances might it be necessary (for a Christian) to engage in civil disobedience?
How should I think and talk about my leaders? Although appointed by God and used by God to accomplish his (alien) purposes, human leaders are just that — human! Leaders are fallible. They are not perfect. They make mistakes. They are asked to make difficult judgement calls. They don’t always get these calls “right” (at least in our opinion). At times they need to weigh up and balance the effect of helping one group of people at the expense of another (we might be in the group that is helped, or the group that needs to pay the price). Those in government are called to make broad regulations and laws that apply to, at times, millions of people, making it near impossible to tailor them to specific circumstances e.g. your life. This may sometimes appear cold and calculating, referring to people as numbers or statistics. At times leaders in government may make decisions that are self-seeking. Yet, despite these flaws, I believe God is still at work through our leaders to accomplish his purposes. Therefore, the Fourth Commandment reminds us that ‘we should not despise our parents and authorities, nor provoke them to anger, but honour, serve, obey, love, and esteem them.’ (Small Catechism). Therefore our understanding and speech about our leaders should be honouring, loving, and esteeming whenever possible.
Reflection question: Although appointed by God, where have you seen our human leaders fail? If our leaders have been appointed by God, how should we treat them and speak about them? Am I honouring and speaking about my leaders as God’s appointed workers?
Do you have a helpful way to view the current situation? In some circles, the discussion around COVID restrictions has begun to focus solely on the taking away of freedoms. This view may be summed up as: “The corrupt government is taking away my constitutional rights and freedoms.” It is true that God working through the sword has coerced our actions, reducing our freedom. Yet framing the situation in this way can bring great anxiety. Cognitive reframing is a mechanism to intentionally rethink the way you understand a situation or view an event. Reframing can present a new perspective, bringing peace to anxious thoughts. Instead of focussing on the loss of freedom, the situation could be reframed: “God is at work to protect us.” Or “God is calling me to submit to his authority.” Or “God is giving me an opportunity to show love to my neighbours by denying myself.”
Reflection questions: How do you frame the current situation and COVID restrictions? Is this framing helping or hindering you? If necessary, how could you reframe your understanding?
I have anxious thoughts concerning COVID-19, what should I do? The current situation has rightly caused anxious thoughts in many people. COVID has created much uncertainty in our lives. This uncertainty, coupled with isolation and stress due to restrictions, can have a profound effect on mental health. If you have noticed changes in yourself, or someone else, please be sure to consult a medical professional for help (e.g. your GP). As Christians, we have hope in the face of uncertainty. While some things are uncertain (e.g. when will we go into/come out of lockdown?), we can be certain of many things: we can be certain of God’s love for us demonstrated through Christ, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life of the world to come. In the meantime, there are various simple habits that can help with anxiety. We have already spoken about “reframing” and “constructive thought patterns.” In addition, regular “controlled breathing” is a medically recognised self-help method for anxiety (search “controlled breathing for anxiety” on the internet or look up the book ‘Taking care of yourself and your family’ in the further information section below). If you are having anxious thoughts, it can be helpful to tell someone and it’s always okay to reach out for help.
Reflection questions: Have you had, or are you having, anxious thoughts related to the COVID-19 pandemic? What have you found helpful to deal with these thoughts?
Should I receive a COVID-19 vaccine or not? What does the Bible say? It is not surprising that the Bible does not directly address the question of whether you should or should not receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Our Scriptures were recorded over thousands of years by ancient cultures, and found their current form nearly 2,000 years ago. Yet, as the Word of God, the Spirit does speak to us today through the Bible. Through Scripture, God tells you that you are wonderfully made by him (Psalm 139:13–14), and your body is a gift to be used to please and serve him (2 Corinthians 5:1–10). Therefore we are called to both love God and love our neighbour with our bodies. I cannot tell you how best to love your neighbour — that is for you to decide. I personally have decided that the best way to love my neighbour is to adhere to government public health responses where possible, including mask wearing, physical distancing, isolating while sick, and receiving a vaccination. (After consultation with my GP, I received my first dose of the Pfizer vaccine in early September and will be double vaccinated by mid-October). There is a helpful video and LCA/NZ CSBQ website in the further reading that address specific concerns about the safety and efficacy of the available vaccines.
Reflection questions: In what ways do I already love my neighbour with my body? How might receiving or not receiving the vaccine love my neighbour?
Is the COVID-19 vaccine (or anything COVID related) the so-called “mark of the beast”? In some circles there is concern that the COVID-19 virus itself, a vaccine, or QR codes are the so-called “mark of the beast” in Revelation 13:16–18. Simply put, I do not believe anything COVID related is the mark of the beast. This concern arises from a misunderstanding of the genre of the book of Revelation, and therefore is a misinterpretation. Revelation is a dream given to John (Revelation 1:1,9) and as such it is full of many symbols. One of the best ways to understand these symbols is within John’s immediate context e.g. ancient Rome. Therefore the mark most likely points to Caesar Nero (whose name in Hebrew can be represented by the number “666”). Nero was seen by the early church as one of Satan’s tools for oppressing believers. Those who participated in his economy were “marked” by his number. Although primarily about the early church’s struggle against Roman tyranny, the book of Revelation still has meaning for us today. It tells the story of struggle between God and Satan. The Lamb has been victorious on the cross, yet the full and public acknowledgement of that victory awaits a final moment (or revelation) at the cessation of history. Believers live in the already/not yet tension of this battle which has been won, but not quite over. While victory has been achieved, the defeated and wounded enemy still lurks on the battlefield wreaking chaos. They will be removed when the conquering Messiah/Christ returns to establish his never-ending rule. As baptised believers, we are marked by the cross of Christ, and therefore do not need to fear any other mark. We are justified by faith in Christ, and nothing that we do or someone does to us (e.g. receiving a vaccine or scanning a QR code), can take away our salvation. ‘For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Romans 8:38–39). If you believe you are saved by faith in Christ alone, what human activity can give or take this away from you? Nothing!
Reflection questions: What, if anything, makes you anxious about your salvation? Why do you think this makes you anxious?
Will our parish only allow double vaccinated people to enter our buildings for worship? Our (current) worship practice involves meeting in a public building. Because we meet in a public building, we are subject to public health orders passed by our democratically elected government (or those they appoint). We could, if we choose, change our worship practice e.g. worship in small groups in private houses — this was in fact how the early Christians worshipped, when they were barred from worshipping in the public temple/synagogues and before the construction of public Christian church buildings. (Aside: this is also how Christians worship in many countries around the world today who have governments hostile to the Christian faith). At the time of writing, the public health orders concerning places of worship in regional NSW mandate contact tracing, masks, and no congregational singing. At some stage, the NSW government may pass a law (e.g. by a public health order) restricting attendance at public places of worship to only those who have been double vaccinated. To be clear: this has not been announced or happened yet at the time of writing, but it could happen in the foreseeable future. In such an event, the parish/congregation leadership teams will make a decision on what to do. As pastor, it will be my recommendation to the leadership teams that, in such a circumstance, we continue to offer worship services in a public venue to double vaccinated persons only (as mandated by such a future public health order). But I will also recommend that we create other means for unvaccinated persons to worship e.g. in private houses as small groups, etc. We may have to get creative!
Reflection question: How have I worshipped in the past? In what ways may I be required to worship in the future? What would be the same or different about these worship services?
There is so much information out there, who should I listen to? If you are able and have the time to process large amounts of information, I recommend reading and listening to a wide variety different sources. As self-seeking humans we prefer to read and listen to those we agree with. Unfortunately this can lead to pockets of misinformation and the spread of conspiracy theories. I believe that public news media and medicine are good gifts from God. Therefore these can be good sources of information. That said, it must be recognised that all good gifts can be abused. Media or medical science might be distorted for selfish political or financial gain. So we must pray for wisdom and discernment. It can be helpful to seek advice from a variety of sources that are known, trustworthy, balanced, and transparent, while being mindful of any biases the source may have. I personally read a range of news items from larger, but disparate, organisations; I trust studies published in peer reviewed medical journals. All that said, if you are finding the flood of information overwhelming, it’s okay to switch it off for a while — go for a walk in the sun instead of checking the news!
Reflection questions: What sources or authorities do I listen to? Are my sources too narrow? How could I listen to a broader range of voices?
I disagree with my (Christian) brother or sister, what should I do? Don’t panic! Conflict and disagreements are normal and expected in our fallen world. My advice is to be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19). Recognise the other as a fellow creature created by God and a bearer of God’s image. See the conflict or disagreement as an opportunity — God can use this moment for his good purposes (Romans 8:28). Seek to glorify God in all you say and do, seek to serve others (by helping them bear their burdens or confronting them in love), and grow to be like Christ (by confessing and forgiving sin, and turning from attitudes that promote conflict). You might like to read 1 Corinthians 10:31–11:1. Recognise the “log” in your own eye before pointing out the “speck” in someone else’s (Matthew 7:5). Do not provoke or be quarrelsome, but be gentle (2 Timothy 2:24–25). Assume the best, and put the best construction on the other (Proverbs 11:27, Small Catechism Eighth Commandment). Speak only to build up (Ephesians 4:29). Finally, recognise your limits (Romans 12:18), for only God can change the heart.
How then should I live as a Christian in the world at this time? What should I do? As Lutherans we often talk about the concepts of Law and Gospel. “How should I live” is a question of the Law — words such as “ought,” “must,” and “should” are the language of the Law, which tells us what we must do. The Law can be summed up simply: “love God, love your neighbour” (Mark 12:28–35). This is what you should do! The difficulty of course is figuring out what this means for you, in the specific circumstances where God has placed you (e.g. as a spouse, child, parent, neighbour, citizen, worker, church member, etc). Thankfully, at baptism God gives us the Spirit of Jesus. The Holy Spirit creates a new heart inside of us, and out of this new heart grows the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23). Therefore, whatever you decide to do, however you choose to live in the freedom of Christ, may you be loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, gentle, and self-controlled. I pray that part of what you do involves picking up the phone to regularly check-in with friends, family, and neighbours!
Reflection question: Have my actions been joyful? Peaceful? Patient? Kind? Good? Gentle? Self-controlled? How can I show the fruit of the Spirit in my future decisions and actions?
I want to learn more, where are some good places to look for information?
A video by Dr James Yun (a clinical immunologist) presented on behalf of the Christian Medical and Dental Fellowship of Australia, https://www.cmdfa.org.au/covid-vaccination
LCA/NZ Commission on Social and Bioethical Questions (CSBQ), https://www.lca.org.au/csbq
Letter written by Martin Luther, ‘Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague’ (1527), https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/may-web-only/martin-luther-plague-pandemic-coronavirus-covid-flee-letter.html
John Ashfield, 2010, ‘Taking care of yourself and your family,’ https://www.bloomtools.com/files/53/TakingCareofYourselfandYourFamily.pdf
Harold L Senkbeil, 2020, ‘Christ and Calamity: Grace and Gratitude in the Darkest Valley,’ Lexham Press, https://lexhampress.com/product/192852
Peace in Christ, Pastor Dan