Dear Partners in Mission:
Last week, I wrote to you about how we are living in a “generational moment.” The crisis brought on by the spread of COVID-19 has changed lives and already taken far too many lives. These impacts are both near and far away. In Zoom calls with pastors and lay leaders from our conferences, and in many individual conversations, I and my staff continue to hear of the challenges and the impact on our congregations this crisis is making.
Our NT-NL leaders, along with public leaders at every level of society, have been challenged to make difficult decisions in the face of uncertainty. Decisions we make not only for our own safety and well being, but also that of our neighbors.
The ethic of service to neighbor is central to the theological breakthrough of Martin Luther and the reformers. With no need to appease God’s righteousness, what then is the purpose of our good works? Our neighbor, even the wretched and needy one (Luther has a flair for dramatic language), becomes the recipient of that which we might have done for God.
All works of love, then, must be directed to our wretched and needy neighbors. In these lowly ones we are to find and love God, in them we are to serve and honor God, and only so can we do it. The commandment to love God is wholly merged in that to love our neighbors. – Martin Luther, Fastenpostille, 1525
It is out of love for neighbor that we then find it faithful to stay home unless our services are essential. We pray for and support our neighbors who serve civil society to keep us safe, care for the sick, and provide for our daily necessities. We notice and encourage our political leaders to find ways to provide for those who have lost employment and income in this time.
Care for neighbor in this pandemic means to practice physical separation while focusing on social solidarity. Being kind to self and neighbor, adapting to new realities, and speaking a word of hope and truth into a world struggling with new realities.
Practicing physical separation means that we must make difficult decisions about worship and life in community. It is my strong recommendation and hope that NT-NL congregations would suspend in-person worship indefinitely.
I realize this recommendation includes Holy Week and Easter and that the situation in our many communities varies greatly. Given the wide geography and demographic diversity of our synod and its members, there is no one right answer for each of our 100+ worshipping communities. The ever-changing nature of this crisis makes it vital we remain flexible and adaptive. As such, I have tried in my communications to you to center us on our guiding principle of service to neighbor and proclamation of God’s word to the world in our decisions. By putting our neighbors’ needs above our own personal desires to worship and gather as community, we are being faithful to God’s commandment to love one another.
To assist our leaders in this time, we have provided a number of resources for your community at www.ntnl.org/resources/covid-19. This includes my thoughts regarding “virtual communion;” resources related to worship and a link to congregations in NT-NL already online; guidance for setting up online giving; ideas for Palm Sunday crafts; how to keep your Zoom meetings zoombomber free; and many other helpful resources for you in time.
Additionally, Bishop Sue Briner (SW Texas Synod), Bishop Mike Rinehart (Gulf Coast Synod), and I will be recording and making available sermons for Maundy Thursday (Rinehart), Good Friday (Briner), and Easter morning (Gronberg). These will be made available by the end of this week, in video as well as print format.
We continue to run this marathon together, and we do so for the wellbeing of ourselves, our families, and our neighbors. My fervent prayers are with each of you, and I appreciate your prayers as well. All this we do…