A few weeks ago my mother-in-law came to Nashville to visit Laurel and me. One of our conversations turned to a hymn that has come to irk me. We were talking about how I would deal with the hymn if I was leading a congregation. If a member wanted that particular hymn sung, would I allow it?
I spent most of the conversation explaining why I wouldn’t allow the hymn sung during a service. It comes into theological conflict with the direction I would be leading the church. In fact, I believe the hymn, or at least how many people understand the hymn, is in conflict with the trajectory of the biblical narrative. It minimizes the mission and hope that Jesus promoted.
Needless to say, I felt justified in my defense. It’s not like I would plan to criticize someone who asked for the hymn to be sung, or look down upon those who sing it. I almost welcomed the opportunity to start a fruitful and kind discussion about the meaning behind the hymn and the teachings of Jesus.
This was all hypothetical, a great exercise to toss around what-if scenarios. But now, here we are, in the midst of a pandemic which is changing many hypotheticals into real concerns.
In reaction to COVID-19, we are faced with difficult decisions of how to respond as Christians and churches. Before many churches moved to online, we were faced with the question of communion. Here is an act where, depending on how you practice communion, potentially hundreds of people come into contact with the same object and then immediately touch their face. Do we adjust our tradition to protect our members, or do we step forward in faith that disease won’t travel via the church? And do we have to apologize for our decision?
Do we forgo a friendly handshake with our fellow brother or sister in Christ? Is it easier to complain about a change in our routine rather than face the reality that maybe our 60 seconds of greetings during service has become surface level interactions to check off the fellowship box?
As services move online, do we really need to sing in a room, alone or with our family, or can we just tune in for the sermon? Is participation necessary for a church service, or can I watch an online service without getting out of bed, just like I watched Netflix the night before?
As these hypotheticals begin to take real form, I have begun to reconsider my position on that particular hymn. I think that my planned course of action might be wrong. My concern led sound theology to stand above the other. This is the same thing that Jesus criticized the Pharisees for.
On another Sabbath, Jesus went into the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was shriveled. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. But Jesus knew what they were thinking and said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Get up and stand in front of everyone.” So he got up and stood there.
Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?”
He looked around at them all, and then said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was completely restored.
One of my professors said that sometimes, we sing for the other. That hit me. Sometimes, we change our way of connecting with God so that others can better connect with God. Sometimes we sacrifice our preferences and comforts for the other. Is it better to release our particular tradition to save life or cling to our selfish ways and put others at risk?
I had always asked that question religiously, but now that is a very physical question too. I like taking communion and the physicality it brings as we step into communion with God. I like shaking hands and hugging my church family to physically reinforce that we are one body. I like going to church and being in community with fellow Christians.
These are comforts, and I also see them called for in Scripture. But so was honoring the Sabbath. Jesus reminds us the purpose of Scripture. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:37-40)
Honor God with every part of yourself. Respect and cherish one another as you want to be. This is what Scripture calls us to do. This is what Scripture teaches us to do. When we make these two things are our goals, then we will do good instead of evil and we will heal instead of destroy.
So I had to ask myself, would forbidding some singing a hymn to God be doing good or evil? Would it be helping them honor God with all that they have? Would it be respecting them and their way of connecting with God? I came to a fruitful decision: No.
It is no secret that COVID-19 is reshaping our society. God has created us to be resilient and we will adapt, I have no doubt in that. As we are adapting, we will come across countless crossroads, opportunities to honor God and respect others or to honor ourselves and disregard others. My prayer is that we hold each other accountable to doing good instead of evil. That each of us strives to heal instead of destroy. In this trying time, I pray we learn to how to sacrifice personal comfort for each other.
Comment with any thoughts, ideas, or questions! I would love to hear what you think!