While the church is unable to meet, Pastor Spencer Brown has written some letters of encouragement to Center City Church.
Growing up, my grandparents had a pool in their backyard. My cousins and I loved playing games in their pool throughout the spring and summer seasons. One of our favorite games was to throw objects into the pool, so that we could dive in to find them. The deeper we threw the objects in the pool, the more difficult the retrieval. As we swam into the deep ends of the pool, the pressure of the water increased and our ears would pop. I learned an important lesson about water: the deeper you go, the greater the pressure.
The same seems to be true about isolation—the deeper we go, the greater the pressure. We’ve now passed our second Sunday without gathering together. Our second full week of practicing social distancing, our second full week with businesses closed, and our second full week of kids schooling from home. The third stanza of Psalm 119 contains the cry of an isolated individual. He’s described as ‘a sojourner on the earth’ (19).
A sojourner or a stranger defines an individual living as a foreigner in an unknown land. The label portrays someone isolated by language, customs, and unfamiliarity. In his isolation, the poet unveils the longing of his soul. He writes, “My soul is consumed with longing for your rules at all times” (20). The word ‘consumed’ is a unique word in the Bible, used only twice in the Scriptures, both in sections of lament (The only other occurrence is Lamentations 3:16). In Lamentations, the author uses the word to describe teeth being crushed on the gravel.
The psalmist, likewise, feels crushed, but in this case, crushed with a longing for God’s Word. Situated right in the middle of the stanza, the poem literarily looks as if it will crush the writer’s soul. Instead, the soul’s longing for God’s Word withstands the pressures of isolation. There are four pressures of isolation that weigh in against the author’s soul, that only a longing for God’s Word can endure.
- Blindness: The author prays for God to ‘open my eyes’ (18). It’s not a prayer to heal physical blindness, but spiritual blindness. Lord pull back the covering over my eyes that will keep me from gazing upon ‘the wondrous things out of your law’.
- Wandering: A stranger in a foreign land will inevitable wander down unknown streets, but the danger comes when the stranger begins to wander from what is familiar—God’s commandments (19, 21).
- Contempt: In contrast to having eyes opened the see the wonders of God’s Word, the temptation is to use our eyes to focus on what or whom we perceive to be beneath us (22). Contempt is a sin of the eyes, the sin of looking down on others. Unknown situations tempt us to look down on leaders who make difficult decisions and fellow citizens who live through the situation in ways different from us.
- Worthlessness: Worthlessness operates from the opposite position of contempt. The worthless individual receives the contempt of others, in the case the princes of the land (23). As the leaders of the host nation plot against the traveler, their plots against him are a reminder of his worthless position in their land.
The stanza ends with delight in God’s Word, the only outlet for a soul crushed by a longing for God’s Word. As we sojourn deeper into the season of isolation, delight in the Scriptures by making them you closest counselor (24). May your soul’s longing for God’s Word withstand the pressures of isolation.
“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” The British author of the late 19th century and early 20th century, G. K. Chesterton, spoke highly of giving thanks. If thanksgiving is the highest form of thought, then I’ll be the first to admit that my level of thinking has dropped dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. In lieu of thanksgiving, I’ve chosen the low forms of speech known as criticism, clamor, and complaint.
As we embark on our study through 1 Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul begins the journey by pursuing the highest form of speech—thanksgiving. “We give thanks to God always for all of you.” Writing during a dry season of ministerial discouragement (cf. Acts 17:16-18:6), Paul receives Word from Timothy and Silas that the Word of God sounds forth through the Thessalonian church. The reception of good news results in the warm and comforting letter of 1 Thessalonians. In the opening thanksgiving, Paul offers three ways to give thanks for one another during a time of absence.
The first way to give thanks during absence is to mention others during your prayers (1:2). Flood your prayers with one another’s names for whom you are thankful. In times of discouragement, prayer has a way of turning inward focusing on our personal needs or they tend to move from the particular to the general. Fight against lazy thinking that leads to general prayers. Instead, labor on one another’s behalf by specifically mentioning others by name.
In addition to mentioning one another in our prayers, we give thanks by remembering one another’s deeds (1:3). Paul gives three examples of deeds for which we can give thanks—work of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope. The struggles of today drearily cloud our memory of the past. I spent time this morning giving thanks for the work of faith lived out through the mission trips taken this past year. I remembered the labor of love exhibited by the Ayala family renewing their wedding vows on their 25th anniversary. And I gave thanks for the steadfast hope exemplified during the final days of Terry Benavides and Manuel Aragon. Church, remember the works of one another, and as you remember, give thanks for God’s work in our midst.
Finally, we give thanks by knowing that it is God who has chosen us. “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). Brothers and sister, love does not originate in us, but in God. It is God who chose to love, sent, and propitiate our sins through his Son. The fruits of the powerful work of the Spirit and conviction of our salvation hang on the tree of God’s electing love. So, if the winds of discouragement and fear cause your faith to waiver during this season, give thanks that your salvation has roots deeply planted in God’s love for you before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:3-5).
Brothers and sisters, pursue high forms of thinking and high forms of speech during the low season of absence. Absence cannot hinder a thankful heart from pursuing unity within the body the Christ.
Difficult seasons reveal the best
and the worst in people. Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen the best in
people as neighborhoods sing out of their windows each evening, as people give
generously to support local businesses, and as individuals run marathons on
their balconies to stay active. We’ve also seen the worst in people as people
fight over toilet paper rolls in the grocery store or selfishly hoard supplies
from others in need. Difficult seasons put people in difficult situations. Collectively,
we’ve been cast into a difficult situation—one for which we’re not familiar,
The second stanza of Psalm 119 begins with the question “How can a young man keep his way pure?” By posing the question from the perspective of a young man, the psalmist presents us with a proverb, a quest for wisdom in uncertain situations. The answer is simple and at the same difficult: “By living according to God’s Word” (v. 9). The poet gives us 7 ways to live according to God’s Word and, thus, seek wisdom in uncertain situations
Seek God’s Word (v. 10): First, we live according to God’s Word by seeking His Word with all our heart (v. 10). Ask yourself the question: What do you find yourself seeking when you first wake up? I noticed over the past week, I developed the habit of immediately checking my phone for the updated number of presumptive positive tests in NM. Difficult, uncertain situations expose what we truly seek. It’s normal to fear in difficult situations, but what we seek to calm our fears tells us a lot about what we truly treasure.
Store up God’s Word (v. 11): It’s no surprise, then, that the song turns our focus to what we treasure. We store away what we treasure. Right now, toilet paper or hand sanitizer might be the most valuable treasure on the market. It’s certainly not stocks right now. By hiding God’s Word in our heart, we supply every room of our lives—our minds, our emotions, our will—with God’s Word. Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” By all means, get enough toilet paper to sustain you through the trial, but spend your time storing away what can never be infected by the Coronavirus—God’s Word.
Learn God’s Word (v. 12): Treasuring God’s Word will naturally give you a teachable spirit. As I buy new tools for woodworking, I spend much time learning how to best use the tool. A tool loses its value if the operator doesn’t know it’s proper use. The need to learn God’s Word implies a natural ignorance we all have towards Scripture. We don’t naturally know it, we don’t intuitively know how to apply it, especially in uncertain situations.
Declaring God’s Word (v. 13): As we learn God’s Word, we now turn to declare what we’ve learned. Knowledge is not the ultimate goal of learning. Knowledge on its own leads to arrogance (1 Corinthians 8:1). The word translated as ‘declare’ literally means to count or rehearse. We rehearse the learned and stored up Word of God. Daily rehearse the Word to yourself and daily rehearse the Word to one another. Seek to find one person in the congregation each day with whom you can recount God’s Word.
Rejoice in God’s Word (v. 14): The poet compares our exultation of God’s Word to the way one rejoices in great riches. Think to a time when you received a bonus, or got a raise, or came into a sum of money. The amount of money doesn’t really matter, but it’s the celebration that accompanies riches. Do you remember the celebration that comes with riches? We live according to God’s Word, as we learn to rejoice in God’s Word, especially in situations of uncertainty.
Meditate on God’s Word (v. 15): Our rejoicing leads to mediation. The psalms frequently use the word meditation to describe our posture to the Word. Meditation differs from memorization in that mediation runs deeper than our intellect. Meditation might include memorization, but it always moves outward into declaration, often times musical declaration. Deborah, the prophetess and judge, meditates on God’s victory over Canaan. In her song, she calls the people to meditate on God’s victory, instructing “Tell [Meditate] of it, you who ride on white donkeys, you who sit on rich carpets and you who walk by the way” (Judges 5:10). Internalize God’s Word, so externally and enthusiastically tell of God’s Word.
Delight in God’s Word (v. 16): Finally, we are instructed to delight in God’s Word. Delighting in God’s Word praises, glorifies, and honors the author of the Word. As a beautiful painting fulfills its purpose as an onlooker delights in the work of the artist, so the Word fulfills its purpose, as we delight in the author.
So, if you feel ill-equipped, unprepared, and uncertain of how to respond in each situation COVID-19 can cast your way, then remember you’re not alone. You’re not alone in feeling the way you feel. Neither are you alone to navigate the uncertainty. God has given you His Word to help you keep your life pure in the midst of uncertainty. May the difficult situation in which we find ourselves, expose our lives as ones which are filled with God’s Word.
Spring has officially arrived! On Thursday of this week, we recognized the first day of Spring. The time of year for going outside, planting flowers, and taking evening walks in the extended daylight. Instead of the outdoor celebration worthy of spring’s inauguration, we began to shut our city down. Restaurants put away seating, offices sent home employees, and streets continue to empty.
This morning, Sunday morning, is the reminder that for right now, life is not as it is supposed to be. I walked outside with a cup of coffee, smelled the fresh air after yesterday’s rain, saw the leaves on our cherry tree begin to sprout, and gazed on the beautiful flowers of the blooming, Bradford Pear trees. It feels like a morning, made for going to church. A morning designed to join with all of God’s magnificent, spring creation in declaring the glory of God (Psalm 19). Instead of soaking in the joy of this beautiful spring morning, my heart grieves the loss of our gathering.
In the longing to gather with our church, the Lord took me to Psalm 119. A psalm which one author describes as the ‘full flowering of delight in the Law of the Lord’ (Kidner 452). Psalm 119 worships God because of the gift of His Word. The Word, like the church is a gift from God to direct our hearts to declare the glory of God. The opening lines of the psalm read like this, “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord. Blessed are those who keep his testimonies, who seek him with their whole heart” (119:1-2, ESV). God illumined that the purpose of His Word is to teach us to seek Him with our whole heart. The Word of God is not the object of our worship. Rather, we worship the God of the Word. He is the one we seek with our whole heart.
Similar to the Word, the weekly church gathering, as important as it is, is not the object of our worship. Yes, we enjoy lifting our voices together in song, hearing the Word read and preached, fellowshipping with one another before and after service, but the service is a means to direct our worship to the God of the church (Colossians 1:15-20). So, we may have lost one of the means God has given us for declaring His glory, but we have not and will not lose the God whom we worship. On this beautiful spring morning, lift your voice, read the Word, pray for one another, all in worship of our great God.
In addition to the Sunday morning writings on 1 Thessalonians, I’d like to send a handful of weekly reflections on the law of the Lord from Psalm 119. It’s my prayer that these reflections will help fill what is lacking on account of missing the Sunday morning gathering. As each isolating week passes, I foresee mounting difficulty and gradual loss of fortitude to continue walking in the law of the Lord. It’s my prayer that the writings will give you opportunities, reminders, and endurance to walk in the law of the Lord. Read them, share them with one another, and delight in the God who has given us His Word. As we are unable to enjoy the community that arises through church service, may we enjoy the full bloom of God’s Word in Psalm 119.
It’s hard to know how to even begin a letter to match the gravity of the present situation. In over 30 years of going to church I can’t remember churches cancelling services for an extended period of time. But that’s what we, along with many entities, have been asked to do by our local and national leaders.
The elders of Center City have tried to hold in balance multiple desires as we’ve made the decision to suspend services for the next three weeks. The first and most important desire is to serve faithfully our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 10:31). We know that God calls us to gather together as the local body of Christ in order to remember, celebrate, and proclaim the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.
The second desire is the desire to love one another and our neighbors well (John 13:34-35). We have many in our congregation who are either susceptible themselves or are regularly caring for family members who are susceptible to the devastating effects of the Coronavirus. By not gathering for three weeks, we believe that we are caring well for one another’s safety by helping to stop the spread of COVID-19.
The third desire is our desire to submit to our governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 3:13-17). It’s important to take note that our governing authorities, both on a local and national level, are not singling-out churches, but are asking all businesses, all institutions, all citizens to participate in the protective measures for helping prevent the spread of Coronavirus. The ban on public gatherings is a temporary measure in order to help protect the citizens of our city and state.
During this time apart it’s important to keep a couple of things in mind:
First, there is no replacement for the gathering of God’s people, for the glory of God’s name, and the proclamation of God’s gospel. We also believe that it’s important for Ruben, myself, and the Elders to be at home on Sunday mornings, leading our families through this crisis. For these reasons, we will not try to live stream services during our normal church hour. We will work fervently during the weeks to provide spiritual, and if need be physical, care for the congregation, but we need to be home to lead our families on Sunday.
Instead, we will ask you, in your homes, with your families to lead your families through a time of singing, Scripture reading, and prayer. Each week we will provide an “order of service” for you to use in your homes, either individually or with your family. Open up the Word with confidence, read with the expectation that the Holy Spirit will give you life through God’s Word, and cling to the promises that God declares.
During the next three weeks I plan to study Paul’s letter to the Thessalonian believers with hopes of learning how to minister to a congregation in times of absence. If you would like to study alongside of me, we will send out a passage each week to read, study, and teach on Sunday mornings. I will send out weekly letters to the congregation based upon my reflections in the letter hopefully as a source of encouragement.
There are many examples in Scripture where the church experiences seasons where they are unable to meet, or at least experience the absence of beloved church members (Philippians 2:25-30; 1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:5). In each of these cases, the absence fueled the desire to gather back together at full strength. Pray, alongside the elders, during the absence that God would use this time to produce a longing in our church to gather together once again. Pray Paul’s words that, ‘we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face.’
During the absence, we will gather prayer requests that, according to individual preferences, can be shared either with the congregation as a whole or limited to the elders. In addition, we are dividing up the congregation amongst the elders, so we can check in each week with everyone to learn of needs, prayer requests, and praises. We will check in with phone calls, but we will also be available for home visits for anyone who would desire and feel comfortable. It would be our honor to come and minister the Word to individual families during this time. Hannah will collect prayer requests and coordinate visits. Please send any requests for prayer or visits to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you normally give to the church in the offering baskets as they’re passed around on Sundays, we would encourage you to find another method of giving. We have two other options available for giving. The first would be through the mail. Checks or cash can be mailed to P.O. Box 3038, Albuquerque, NM 87190. The other option is giving online through the website: http://centercitychurch.org/donate.
Finally, I want to leave you with Pauls’ charge to the Thessalonian church. “We ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more.” Church, as you have received the word, now live out your faith more and more. The mission of Center City Church has not changed: Bring Joy to the City (Acts 8:4-8). May the absence of our corporate proclamation be now lived out in our personal proclamation of the Gospel and the tangible living out of our faith in our city. At the end of this crisis, may our city observe and declare ‘that much joy has come into the city’ as God’s people declare with their voices and their lives the good news of Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection.