While patiently waiting in the self check-out line at Wal-Mart with my one lonely item (a battery operated cell phone charger), this mantra was being no-so-quietly muttered by the panicked and overtly frustrated lady behind me. It was Saturday … the polar vortex was coming tomorrow. Her cart stacked sky high with bread, milk and driveway salt. I think she single-handedly cleared out the water aisle. A condescending scowl and furrowed brow contorted her face. Her incessant chant was just loud enough for the also frustrated Wal-Mart employee working the self check-out line to hear.
“I can’t believe there’s only two lines open … I can’t believe there’s two lines open …”
Suddenly, a third (but not fourth) self check-out line opens! The woman behind me exclaims loudly in tense rejoicing: “FINALLYYYYYYYYYYYYYY! … But AAAAAAAARGHHH! … Why aren’t all four lines open?!?!?” The Wal-Mart employee’s decision to open a third – but not fourth – self check-out line was apparently an apocalyptically bad decision worthy of full thermonuclear warfare. It was on.
More than amused, I could tell this was not going to end well. For a split second, I thought about cracking a joke wither her about patience being a fruit of the spirit to break the tension. I turned and saw her scowling and thought the better of it. I painfully grimaced as she whispered to me: “Can you believe this?!?” Vainly, I tried to engage in small talk to get her mind of the stress. Alas, this woman was NOT in a joking mood! As I reached the promised land of the check out counter, I caught the woman out of the corner of my eye taking the time to verbally lambast the poor Walmart employee instead of checking out. I got my one item or less out of there post haste before any kung fu fighting broke out.
Awwww yeah … Snow season …
After the novelty and beauty of newly fallen snow wears off, there’s something about a winter snowstorm that puts everyone is a much, much worse mood. The rush to Wal-Mart for bread and milk. Shoveling snow. Cable and power flickering on and off. Frozen or burst water lines. Hypothermia. And the worst fate of all: Being stuck inside with a bored small child with a serious case of cabin fever who just wants to play CandyLand over and over. Is it Spring yet?
In the case of a major snowstorm, the local pastor also tends to get put in a classic “no win situation”: To close or not to close the church for worship services. I have found that church members desire to fight to the death about opening or closing the church building. Strong feelings emerge on both sides of the argument. Even in the rough and tough Midwest, some folks completely freak out once the 1st snowflake of winter hits the pavement and hibernate away from church services until Punxatawky Phil rears his ugly head … Some are just comfortable to “worship where they are” and gather the family round the old piano to worship … Some use the severe weather as an excuse to focus on the NFL game instead focusing on Christ. On the flip side of the coin, other hearty folks claim that you should never, ever, ever close the doors of the church until Jesus comes back riding on a white horse. Some of this attitude stems for sincere reverence for corporate worship and the lordship of Jesus Christ … Some from self-righteous legalism (“That’s the way we’ve always done church!”) … Some from testosterone fueled machismo and braggadociousness (“Look at me! … I skidded down the highway 45 miles in 2 feet of snow over 3 hours while endangering small children and woodland creatures to get to church … I’m soooooooooooooo righteous!”). In midst of severe weather crisis, there’s always somebody complaining or second guessing that the church leadership made the wrong call about plowing, salting, sanding, sidewalk conditions, parking lot conditions or the setting of the thermostat. To some extent, petty criticism comes with the territory as a pastor … But the griping that emerges between believers during times of severe weather is confounding.
The advent of worshipping on Sunday stems from the practice of the early church. While the Jews traditionally worshipped on the Sabbath (as well as other religious festivals) in obedience to the Law, Christians in the early church began the practice of gathering to worship on the first day of the week (Sunday). The Christian practice of gathering on Sunday seems to commemorate the resurrection of Christ on the first day of the week. Acts 20:7 records believers meeting on Sunday for breaking of bread (communion) and preaching: “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight.” Similarly, the apostle John gives the first overt reference to the “Lord’s Day” (“te kuriake hemera”) in Revelation 1:10: “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet …” Interestingly, the book of Acts seems to inform that early Jewish Christians (such as the apostle Paul) gathered to worship both on the Sabbath as well as Sunday (see Acts 13:13-14, 16:13 and 17:2).
Given that believers are no longer constrained to the legalism of the Law, Sunday quickly became a more important day of worship for believers in the ensuing centuries. In his Letter to the Magnesians in 110AD, early church leader Ignatius of Antioch argued: “[T]hose who were brought up in the ancient order of things [i.e. Jews] have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord’s day, on which also our life has sprung up again by him and by his death.” Several centuries later, the defender of orthodoxy Athanasius argued in On Sabbath and Circumcision (345AD): “The Sabbath was the end of the first creation, the Lord’s day was the beginning of the second, in which he renewed and restored the old in the same way as he prescribed that they should formerly observe the Sabbath as a memorial of the end of the first things, so we honor the Lord’s day as being the memorial of the new creation.”
In this vein, the apostle Paul argued for the freedom of the believer regarding the day of worship. Romans 14:5-6 states: “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.” The passage seems to be arguing against the legalism of worshipping on the Sabbath (or the Lord’s Day for that matter), holding that the believer should convinced in his own mind about the day of worship. Similarly, Colossians 2:16-17 contends: “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” As our worship on earth is merely a pale reflection of our heavenly worship of Christ, the frequency of our corporate worship – whether weekly (Sabbath), monthly (new moon) or irregularly (festivals) – is not as important as the object of worship (Christ). So Christians have liberty to gather at Noon on Saturday, 11AM on Sunday, 3:42AM on Thursday or 5 o’clock somewhere to worship the risen Christ. Honoring the Lord is what’s important.
While there is freedom for the believer regarding the day and frequency of our worship, the early church also urged believers to participate in the assembling of the local body of believers. Hebrews 10:24-25 states: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Of course, this passage is often used inappropriately as a religious billy club to brow beat tender young believers into legalistic Sunday School attendance. Nonetheless, there is a force of emphasis that believers should be regularly meeting to stir up one another to good works and to encourage one another in the faith. Corporate meeting time (or “community” to you Christian hipsters) is essential to the spiritual health of the believer. At the same time, the injunction in Hebrews 10:24-25 is that believers “not neglect” (meaning to desert, forsake or leave) meeting together. Therefore, the injunction seems to be more against desertion of the faith than playing hooky one Sunday. The essence of the question is: Does the believer value community with other believers?
So back to church services and the polar vortex: Is it OK to miss worship or – Heaven forbid – for the church to close its doors during severe weather? If you’re using the weather as another lame excuse to avoid worshipping Jesus, you’ve definitely got a heart problem. But distress over missing one Sunday of church stems from a different heart problem: Legalism. We must learn that the object of our lifelong worship is far more important than a temporary interruption in the frequency of our corporate worship. I delight whenever someone misses a Sunday of worship, come back the next week and declares: “I missed being at church!” I miss community and corporate worship too. The heart of the believer should long for fellowship with other believers. And that’s a good thing.
My plea to you who is reading this is thus: Please support your local church leadership during times of severe weather. I don’t know a single local pastor that takes the decision to cancel worship services lightly. In every circumstance, the decision to hold or cancel worship services is always difficult and always prayerfully considered. As much as your church leadership desires fellowship with other believers and desires the corporate worship of Jesus Christ, your leadership also doesn’t want any harm to come to you on their watch either. Regardless of whether your church closes at the drop of a hat or never closes at all, the church severe weather policy isn’t a primary Gospel issue and isn’t something that believers should divide over. If you disagree with whether worship services are on or off, don’t get cranky … Don’t grumble … Don’t openly stir up dissension in the church … Don’t give in to a consumer-like attitude of church (“I want church when I want it and how I want it!”). If your church is open during severe weather, grab a shovel or bag of salt and assist your church leadership in preparation … Then rejoice in the Lord publicly. If your church closes worship services during severe weather, grab a cup of coffee and the Word of God … The rejoice in the Lord privately. Whatever the circumstances, stop complaining and just rejoice in the Lord.
Rejoice in the Lord … Even if you’re in the self check-out line at Wal-Mart.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” – Philippians 4:4