By Cheryl Magness
“Jesus has overcome this world of sin and death and, during these times of tribulation, gives us His peace. The reality is that this life is fatal 100 percent of the time, but we who have faith in Christ Jesus know what the future holds,” said the Rev. Trevor Mankin, an LCMS pastor in Seattle who tested positive for the new coronavirus, or COVID-19, in early March. “Let this world’s tyrant rage. Our victory has been won. All thanks and praise to Jesus, the kingdom is ours forever.”
Last week, as the number of COVID-19 cases steadily rose, and “social distancing” became the norm around the world, Mankin and his family were at home recovering from the virus.
Mankin, who is pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church in Seattle, thinks he might have contracted the coronavirus on March 1, when he visited an elderly parishioner who was hospitalized with pneumonia. On March 2, that parishioner tested positive for COVID-19, and Mankin immediately went into isolation. He experienced his first symptoms — a scratchy throat and 102-degree fever — on March 9 and immediately contacted his doctor.
The positive test result came back on March 11. The next day, Mankin’s wife, Lisa, also received a positive test result. The Mankins believe their daughters have had the virus too, but the children’s symptoms were mild enough that they did not require testing or a doctor’s care.
Mankin, an asthma sufferer who had recently recovered from bronchitis, had a more difficult recovery than his wife. He is doing much better but is worried about his congregation, which now has five confirmed COVID-19 cases, including one member who has leukemia. “I am very worried about her and about our older members,” Mankin said. “These are unnerving times, and sometimes it seems life will never get back to normal.
“But then I remember that maybe things shouldn’t get back to ‘normal’ because ‘normal’ isn’t normal. This world, despite all its beauty, isn’t the kingdom our Father built for us. It’s a world turned upside down … suffering under the weight of our sin.
“We may feel anxious or afraid, but the words of our Lord in the Gospel of John offer peace: ‘In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world’” (John 16:33).
Worshiping from a distance
The national coronavirus guidelines issued by President Trump on March 16 include a call for Americans to avoid congregating in groups of more than 10 people. The measure poses a dilemma for churches, where life together consists of gathering regularly to hear God’s Word and receive the Lord’s Supper.
To abide by the 10-or-fewer guideline, many LCMS churches are offering online-only services. Though not ideal, online services allow those who cannot gather in person the opportunity to hear the Word proclaimed and to join in singing and praying.
“It is certainly not state-of-the-art,” the Rev. Wayne Huebner, pastor of Salem Lutheran Church in Affton, Mo., said. “We’ve got risers stacked up with a couple of tripods, a cable that looks like it’s from Thomas Edison and a laptop that’s probably 20 years old.”
Before the pandemic, Salem had not livestreamed services but had offered audio recordings of its services. On March 18, however, Salem successfully livestreamed its midweek Lenten worship on Facebook and YouTube. The church will continue, for the time being, to livestream all its normally scheduled services.
“I think there’s value in doing [all the services] live,” Huebner said. “People that are used to worshiping together will still be together, except at a distance. … Doing the Bible study live means that people can comment and ask questions live, which you can’t really do if the class is recorded ahead of time.”
Huebner advises other churches that are trying to figure out how to stream their services that “audio is more important than video. You can put up with grainy video if the sound is clear. On the other hand, you can have [excellent] video, but if the sound is bad, it’s unwatchable.”
Huebner acknowledged that the current situation poses significant challenges but said, “That doesn’t mean that we are separated from our Lord. He is with us always, to the end of the age.”
It’s that assurance, Huebner said, that sustains the church during times like these. “There is a lot of news right now about what we are not able to do. … At Salem, we are asking, ‘What can we do?’”
‘What can we do?’
It’s a question that is echoing across the Synod. The Synod’s offices, entities, publishing house, districts, churches, Recognized Service Organizations (RSOs), colleges, seminaries and schools continue to study and plan for how best to carry out their work during the widespread shutdown.
Dr. Rebecca Schmidt, director of LCMS School Ministry, said that the key is “staying connected.”
“School closings range from two weeks through the end of the school year,” Schmidt said. “District by district, leaders are working closely with early-childhood licensing agencies, state departments of education and the Centers for Disease Control to support and advise schools. … Education executives in each district are networking electronically to share information, resources and ideas for guiding schools through this unprecedented event.
“The expectations for schools are changing daily, but everyone is working together to provide continuous education at home for families.”
Both LCMS seminaries and the institutions of the Concordia University System (CUS) are taking steps to adapt to an educational reality they never expected. Students are being sent home for anywhere from a couple of weeks to the remainder of the semester, and classes have largely shifted to online only.
CUS President Rev. Dr. Dean O. Wenthe said that student welfare is the chief priority, and that CUS schools are responding “in the confidence that Christ’s redemptive love — so clearly on display in His passion this Lenten season — bestows that calm and peace that only the Prince of Peace and the Lamb of God can provide.”
Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, President Rev. Dr. Lawrence R. Rast Jr. wrote in a public email on March 12 that “though vigilant, we are neither anxious nor troubled. … We have full confidence and reassurance in Christ, as well as the responsibility to serve those given into our care. …
“We look forward to a quick but safe return to normalcy when the seminary community can again be gathered together to be engaged in theological discourse and to be nourished through God’s gifts of Word and Sacrament.”
New ways of serving
LCMS Disaster Response is finding that the COVID-19 situation may offer Lutheran Early Response Teams, or LERT, unusual opportunities to serve. Instead of deploying to “muck out” homes after a hurricane or chop up tree limbs after a tornado, LERT volunteers are being encouraged to help make phone calls to check on church members, shop for those who can’t leave their homes, or pick up and deliver meals.
RSOs are also having to adjust. Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch in Minot, N.D., is a residential treatment and educational center for at-risk children and their families. President and CEO Joy Ryan reported that the ranch, “like everyone else,” is “navigating one day, and sometimes one minute, at a time.”
“COVID-19 did not wipe out the trauma or pain that our children are suffering,” Ryan said. “In fact, … the changes in schedule and activities actually exacerbate the anxiety and fear our kids live with every day.”
Ranch personnel are taking many of the same measures as everyone else — suspending travel and group activities, screening visitors, and taking extra care to sanitize hands and surfaces — while continuing, Ryan said, to do everything they can to help at-risk children and their families “succeed in the name of Christ. Even with COVID-19.”
God is our refuge and strength
Shortly before this story went to press, both St. Louis city and county announced “stay-at-home” orders through April 22. The LCMS International Center is closed to the public and almost all staff are working from home under business-continuity contingency plans. Despite the challenges, the work of the Synod to aid the districts, circuits, congregations, schools and people of the Synod continues.
Information about COVID-19 for LCMS congregations, schools, families and individuals is being continually compiled and updated at the Synod’s coronavirus resource page, lcms.org/coronavirus.
On March 13, in a pastoral message to the Synod, LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison said, “You all know Luther’s great Reformation hymn, ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.’ It’s his hymn version of Psalm 46.
“But you may not know that it was written during the plague in Wittenberg in 1527. ‘A mighty fortress is our God, A trusty shield and weapon; He helps us free from ev’ry need That hath us now o’ertaken” (Lutheran Service Book 656:1).
“Your times are in the hands of the Lord (Ps. 31:15). Your days are numbered by Him (Ps. 139). In fact, the very hairs of your head are numbered (Luke 12:7). You have only the resurrection to look forward to (John 11:25). And you have the glorious apostolic promise: ‘All things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose’ (Rom. 8:28).
“I plead your patience as we all struggle through this, along with our nation and the world. I do know this: that crosses always drive people — including us — to Jesus. Count on it. We’ll update you soon.
“The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you His peace. Amen.”
Posted March 26, 2020