Joanne Lee Wong
WORSHIPPING TOGETHER VS STAYING HOME
This Sunday morning, my husband and I chose to stay home rather than attend church.
Now, we are by no means paranoid about COVID-19, and we openly walk around mask-less and continue our daily activities without giving any second thought to casual interactions with others. Since, however, he had no pulpit duties today, we thought we would exercise prudence and stay away from the congregational crowds.
After all, our Roman Catholic brethren here in Singapore have suspended masses indefinitely, as have megachurch City Harvest Church and Adam Road Presbyterian Church. Some have taken to live-streaming services for those who wish to stay home. I suspect more will also join their ranks after this weekend.
It makes total sense since two churches have already become COVID-19 clusters where multiple people have contracted the Coronavirus. First, it was The Life Church & Missions Singapore which currently has five patients, then Grace Assembly of God this week which came down with 16 cases, including Pastor Wilson Teo, becoming the largest cluster in the country so far.
[Update at 9:30pm: Two more new cases have been reported today also linked to the Grace Assembly of God cluster, bringing the total number of believers affected there to 18. Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer.]
Closer to home, Paya Lebar Methodist Church also has one 71-year-old grandfather contract the virus although, God willing, it remains an isolated case for that community.
Still, many church leaders have spoken out with confidence. Singapore’s Methodist Church head, Bishop Chong Chin Chung told Channel NewsAsia: “The Government has said that we shouldn’t be too paranoid. The authorities are putting in place ample protective measures, so the congregation shouldn’t be worried if they want to come for Sunday service.”
Meanwhile, the National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS) advised churches to proceed with regular services with “strict” implementation of Government-issued control measures.
As normal, worrying humans, many I know - myself included - have observed all these developments within the Christian community with consternation. So is it safe to congregate? Is it not? Temperature-taking measures and travel declarations are all well and good, but COVID-19 can apparently spread before a victim shows any symptoms.
Should I stay prudent and remain at home or exercise faith in going to church? And, knowing the risks involved, is that faith or is that blind faith?
The Christian media has added to the confusion. Well-meaning articles have been published encouraging believers to continue gathering as it is important for churches under persecution to value being part of the body of Christ. Some quote Hebrews 10:24-25:
“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
They say gathering is an expression of our faith (Psalm 133); gathering is an expression of our love (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11); and gathering is an expression of our hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17).
I admire such writers. I really do. Their faith and confidence in the Lord are inspiring and I’m sure many people are blessed by their words of encouragement.
But for those of us who prefer to err on the side of caution, for those of us who perhaps place too much store in science and not as much as we should in God, these words ring slightly hollow. Must we go to church to show God we know we are 100 per cent protected by the blood of the lamb? What if we either cannot overcome our concerns or simply do not want to put ourselves and/or our loved ones in a vulnerable position for a whole variety of reasons?
Quite apart from how our fellow Christians might judge our faith, more importantly, what would God think of our faith or lack thereof?
My family chose not to go to church today. My parents will be travelling in two days’ time and preferred to self-quarantine in the lead-up so they could declare openly that they had not been in contact with anyone with exposure to the virus. My brother works in a hospital so he would rather not circulate anything he may have inadvertently picked up. My sister just returned from a week-long work trip and similarly did not think mingling at this time was advisable. My husband works in nursing homes and makes personal calls to the sick and elderly, so both of us thought it best to stay away.
It did not, however, stop my husband and me from having our own little session at home this morning. After discussing a passage totally unrelated to this topic, he asked me to pick a worship song to sing.
Out of nowhere, or perhaps precisely from a certain Someone, an old song popped into my head. It was a 1988 Integrity’s Hosanna! Music song by David Morris I used to sing as a teenager called Let Us Exalt His Name.
I had not sung it since the late-80s but, when I had been at an all-time low last year, it had come back to me while on a short vacation when I had attempted to pray for the first time after a long period of silence. Later, when I wanted to add it to one of my Spotify playlists, my memory of the song had escaped me and it did not cross my mind any further.
Until God put it in my heart again this morning.
(Full lyrics here)
As my husband and I sang it together, it brought me a huge measure of peace that our decision not to go to church today was more than acceptable to God.
The lyrics are taken from Psalm 34 and the opening two verses that I found so centering, especially in these times of sickness and disease, go:
"I will extol the Lord at all times; His praise will always be on my lips. I will glory in the Lord; let the afflicted hear and rejoice."
Further down, verses 5 to 7 also gave me succour:
"Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame. This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; He saved him out of all his troubles. The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear Him, and He delivers them."
Given my previous thoughts on a certain popular preacher's recent irresponsible sermon on "Why no virus can come near you", it was comforting to be reminded that God's angels do indeed protect you as long as you believe in His provision - and not just when you are in the company of other believers. Also, that those who look to Him are never covered with shame and we do not need to feel guilt-tripped into going to church by anyone.
But it was the words in between, verse 3, that gave me pause:
"Glorify the Lord with me; let us exalt His name together."
Together. Verse 3 says together. Does that mean we should not be abstaining from corporate worship then?
So I did what I always do when I am uncertain. I research.
Psalm 34 is one of King David's, entitled "Praise From The Cave". Several webpage hops later, I found myself on bible-study.org's commentary on Psalm 34.
The context is 1 Samuel chapters 21 and 22. Out of jealously, King Saul had pursued and threatened David's life, forcing him to live as a fugitive on the run from the law. David, out of desperation and loneliness, sought refuge with the Philistines, then feigned insanity to protect himself when they realised who he was and ejected him from their midst.
The bibly-study's.org commentary says:
"I will “bless the Lord at all times” comes easily in the day of prosperity. But David sang his song in the night of adversity. When God’s people are afraid, they should worship. When they are filled with panic, it is time to praise. When worry overwhelms, the time for worship has arrived (Ephesians 5:20). This is one of the greatest invitations in the Psalms to all the people to join together in praise."
There was that word "together" again. My research, it seemed, was not exactly validating the peace I was certain came from God when I had sung the song based on this exact psalm.
David Goes To The Cave of Adullam By a follower of
(James) Jacques-Joseph Tissot
But the more I just let my intuition wash over me, the more I was convinced the peace I felt was real God-given peace.
Because, surely, as David ran alone as a fugitive from Saul, then later when he was rejected from Abimelech and his people, surely those words of praise were already on his lips? Yes, he sang that psalm together with the other societal pariahs in the cave at Adullam, but I am quite sure verse 4 was already something he clung to when he was on the run, all alone with his fears.
"I sought the Lord, and He answered me; He delivered me from all my fears."
And what does bible-study's.org have to say about verse 4 in particular?
"The promise of God is (Seek and ye shall find, Knock and it shall be opened unto you). What a wonderful feeling to know that God has heard your individual prayer, and answered your request. Of all of the literally millions of people on this earth, God heard my prayer. What a miracle in itself. Fear is lack of faith in God. We must not fear the things of this earth. Fear, only God."
Maybe I am just justifying my own decisions in these uncertain times, but I believe God hears the individual prayer of my solo heart even when I am alone and not surrounded by His people. As much as the Body of Christ is an organisation made up of many believers, and that there is undeniable power in numbers, I do not believe God discounts our prayers and petitions when we are by our lonesome - whether by circumstance or by choice.
So while COVID-19 continues to be a danger to our communities, let us take heart that whatever our decision may be - to go to church because physically being with God's people gives us comfort, or to stay home because being away from crowds appeases our natural worries - we can still exalt His name together.
Because being together does not exclusively mean being together physically in person, it also means being together in spirit.
So if you stayed home from church today, do not feel unworthy. Instead, take some extra time out during your day and sing a few worship songs - perhaps learn this Psalm 34 one (YouTube video above) - and know that as you exalt His name, you do so together with many of us who are doing so similarly from our homes too.
Joanne Lee Wong is a writer, wife and corgi mum. She’s not a bible scholar, teacher nor church leader - just a former journalist and member of a Methodist congregation who struggles reconciling her faith with everyday experiences. All views expressed are her own.