The other morning, I was reading Ecclesiastes 3.
“For there is a time for everything...a time to be born, a time to die...a time to plant, a time to uproot…”
Usually this passage is read to be a comfort at funerals, because it affirms that there is a time for everything - including mourning. Normally, it’s tremendously encouraging. Everyone nods solemnly as they agree - this is not a time to dance, to celebrate, to rejoice, but a time to grieve, mourn, and embrace.
But as I read Ecclesiates 3, I imagined preaching the passage, and I realized there was at least one line with which not everyone would agree.
“A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing.”
Some Christians would argue it’s time to refrain from embracing. There is a pandemic rapidly spreading that has claimed the lives of many. They cite studies of hundreds of thousands of deaths, of scientists and doctors claiming masks save lives. The loving action, they would argue, is not to hug your loved ones; but to wear a mask, to socially distance, to avoid assembling and gathering.
Other Christians would argue it is a time to embrace. We must not live in fear of a pandemic with a low mortality rate, nor cave to governmental demands that threaten rights. They cite studies of the pandemic being less lethal than it seems, argue that news outlets have inflamed hysteria or been inaccurate. The right action, they would argue, is to make the choices you see fit; to provide a space of normal fellowship for those who so desperately need it; to live your life.
One pastor I know said, “This is different than anything I’ve experienced. Normally when I say something in a sermon, I only offend people on one side of the spectrum; now, when I say something, I offend people on both sides.”
The pandemic and election have made for a fractured, divisive atmosphere. Christians argue, often publicly, whether it’s a time to embrace or to refrain from embracing. And it is an important argument; we must be cognizant both of the devastating loss of life from the pandemic, as well as the devastating loss of quality of life that many have experienced from the shutdowns. We must be cognizant both of the importance to do something to curb the spread of the virus, while wary of government overreach. We must be cognizant of the risks to physical health, and to mental health. It is for those reasons I would argue that, whether you believe it is a time for embracing or refraining from embracing, there is something it definitely is time for:
It is a time for nuance. A time for grace.
I’m a pastor of a church in a small town that’s barely been touched by Covid-19, in a state that’s been royally pulverized by Covid-19. Accordingly, I see people on both sides of the spectrum; those who argue it’s time to get back to life as normal, and those who argue we must be more cautious and vigilant. I think there’s Christian freedom to make a case for different responses; you can be risk-tolerant and be a Christian, and be cautious and be a Christian; you can be a Christian and be skeptical of whether news reports are inflaming mass hysteria, or be a Christian and be convinced the government hasn’t done enough to mitigate the virus; there is space for a lot of reactions. As Christians, we must stand for our beliefs, make coherent and Scriptural arguments for them, and contend for what we believe is right.
But we must not do so while making a mockery of the other side.
There is a Christian case to live a risk-tolerant lifestyle. “God has not given us a spirit of fear” from 2 Tim 1:7; “we must obey God rather than men” from Acts 4; “Let us not stop meeting together” from Hebrews 10. The value of in-person fellowship and living our one life on earth for an eternal cause can both be cited to support living a life in defiance of Covid.
There is also a Christian case to live a cautious lifestyle. “Loving your neighbor” can be cited from the gospels, protecting your neighbor by wearing a mask and socially distancing; “obeying the governing authorities” can be cited from Romans 13; “Giving up your rights” for others can be cited from Romans 14.
There is even a Christian case, I believe, to vote for Joe Biden; to vote for Donald Trump; and to vote third-party. Respected Christian leaders, pastors, and friends have articulated where they stand exceptionally well, pointing to Scripture and reason to support their choice. Is one of those choices the actual right one? Yes. But to be honest, I’m not sure which. And I think we all need both the conviction to argue which we believe is the right choice, and the humility to admit we could be wrong...and at least, that others might have better intentions and motivations than we give them at first glance.
You must stand for whichever case you believe is faithfully Christian. But there is no Christian case to point at the other side, make a straw-man argument, insult, and decry. Our speech is to be “seasoned with salt;” we are to do good “especially to those of the family of faith;” most importantly, “to be one.”
A few weeks ago, while preparing to preach a sermon on unity, I read an excellent article on The Gospel Coalition’s website: “Church, Don’t Let the Coronavirus Divide You.” The full article is well worth the read, but I found one segment especially helpful, as it described the church’s desperate need for what the author called, “Counter-cultural Nuance:”
It’s the path that prizes both courage and prudence, and avoids both pollyannaish and doomsday responses. It means we can be skeptical of some aspects of the lockdown without resorting to outrageous conspiracy theories, and we can honor governing authorities (Rom. 13) while engaging them in civil pushback when necessary. Countercultural nuance avoids thinking the worst of people and concedes that the other side of a debate is sometimes right, just as we are sometimes wrong. Nuance often results when humility and patience combine.
I’m a pastor of a church in a small town that’s barely been touched by Covid, in a state that’s been royally pulverized by Covid. Accordingly, I see people on both sides of the spectrum; those who argue it’s time to get back to life as normal, and those who argue we must be more cautious and vigilant. I think there’s Christian freedom to make a case for different responses; you can be risk-tolerant and be a Christian, and be cautious and be a Christian; you can be a Christian and be skeptical of whether news reports are inflaming mass hysteria, or be a Christian and be convinced the government hasn’t done enough to mitigate the virus; there is space for a lot of reactions.
But a true Christian stance - while it robustly argues for what it believes to be faithful to Scripture - also seeks to be respectful, understanding, and gracious to other Christians.
It is possible to live cautiously, without living in fear.
It is possible to live a risk-tolerant lifestyle, without living irresponsibly.
It is possible to vote for Joe Biden, while grieving the rights of the unborn.
It is possible to vote for Donald Trump, while decrying his moral character and believing it poses serious risk for our country.
What if instead of jumping to conclusions, we offered the other person a chance to explain themselves first - and really listened?
What if instead of assuming the worst, we assumed a fellow Christian’s response was motivated by Scripture - and checked to make sure our own is as well?
We must stand for what we believe is right. When we disagree on what is right, we must stand for that, too. But we must do so in such a way that shows the world that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that God loves us; we must do so while being one.
Whatever you believe it is time for - it is also a time for nuance, and for grace. It is a time for treating each human being, no matter how dangerous or delirious we think their response is, as made in the image of God, being formed into the image of Jesus Christ. Let there be space for someone to live a far more cautious lifestyle than you, without it meaning they’re living in fear. Let there be space for someone to live a far more risky lifestyle than you, without it meaning that they’re irresponsible or don’t care for others. Challenge each other on it. Make sure Scripture motivates your mindset. Find the facts, determine what you believe, act in accordance with your beliefs, and invite others to do what you believe is right. And do it without mocking, insulting, or demonizing the other side, because wrong as it is, there’s likely good in it. Every Christian has the Holy Spirit in them. There will always be Christian debate; that’s what has formed most of our unshakable beliefs, from church councils to board meetings; and there always should be Christian debate. We should admit we might be wrong, and own when we are; we should take seriously that others might be wrong, and challenge them to reflect on their approaches.
But let us do so with grace, because when we do, we show the world that Jesus is the Son of God.
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