The Turning of the Tide

The LORD hath done great things for us; whereof we are glad. (Psalm 126:3)

This past Sunday marked the end of a rollercoaster week for us, and I would like to take a few moments to praise the Lord for His goodness to us.

Like every other pastor in America, I have spent many sleepless nights over the past two months.  We have been navigating uncharted waters, and it has seemed to me that every week has required a fresh decision about what we should be doing.

Before I tell our story, let me just say how much I respect my fellow pastors.  I have known that God has filled His pulpits with men of conviction and quality, but this crisis has made it even more clear to me that we have some truly outstanding pastors around our county.  Many decisions have had to be made, and the opinions and positions that have been taken seem to cover every extreme of the compass.  Yet, in discussions with dozens of pastors, I have observed one certain truth – that every one of them has acted on what they believed to be right and have sought to bring God the honor that He deserves.  I count myself blessed to serve as a contemporary with these men.

Our church decided early on that we should follow the health guidelines that were issued by our state.  Though our Governor has been great in the fact that he has not used a heavy hand to control us, yet we believed that we should exercise caution in this thing.  We added services in order to accommodate our people and give them the opportunity to be part of a service every week, and the majority of the church has had to suffer through online services for nearly two months now.

About two weeks ago, I began to mull over the idea of re-starting our services with or without our state’s approval.  I wrestled with the idea day and night.  From our perspective, there was no end in sight to the health restrictions, so if we were to set a date, we could find ourselves defying our state health orders.  Defiance has not been our stance throughout this process, and I was not anxious to change that stance unless I firmly believed it was called for.

At the end of that week, our Governor announced Utah’s plan for reopening the state.  He specifically said that he hoped dine-in restaurants and gyms would be open in early May.  When I heard that, I knew that the time had come for us to act.

I took the time to review the Governor’s press conference carefully.  I especially wanted to see what he said about churches.  Honestly, I was disappointed to see that he left churches out.  I have written to the Governor several times throughout this process and received no response.  I held out hope that he would hear our requests to reopen church services.  I found the idea of opening dine-in restaurants and gyms but not churches unacceptable.  So, that weekend, I sent out a message to our church explaining my plan to reopen.  I stressed to our church that if we set a date to reopen before the State had removed restrictions on gatherings, we could possibly face fines or other ramifications.  I let the church know that, by deciding to return to services, we would be saying that we were willing to pay these fines.

The response from the church was overwhelmingly in support of returning to church.  A few people mentioned to me that they would be absolutely willing to pay the fine.  Others said that they would be willing to pay the fine, but that they would not be able to afford to pay it.

Our people offered a lot of good advice as a result of that letter, and as a result, I was able to develop a comprehensive plan for our next steps.  The next step for us was to inform our government officials that we would be returning to church and when and how.  I set forth the details of that plan in a single letter, which I mailed to our Governor, our Mayor, our Sheriff, our Police Chief, each of our County Commissioners, and the Director of our local Health Department.

In that letter, I thanked these officials for the even-handed way they have responded to this virus.  I said that I did not envy our leaders the decisions they have to make.  I told them that I was excited to hear that Utah intended to reopen gyms and dine-in restaurants.  But I also mentioned my disappointment that nothing was said about reopening churches.  I found this unacceptable, and I said so.  Churches should be our first priority to reopen.

With that in mind, I announced our intention to reopen once gyms and dine-in restaurants were reopened.  I detailed for these officials the steps we would be taking to ensure the health and well-being of all in attendance.  I invited them to contact me with any questions and to tour our facilities.  But I made it clear that while we would prefer to have their approval, we would be reopening with or without that approval.

I mailed that letter out on Wednesday, a week and a half ago.  On Friday evening, our Sheriff called me to say that he considered himself the last line of defense for our rights and that we had an absolute right to assemble for worship. 

On Monday morning, our Police Chief assured me that his officers would not interfere.

On Tuesday morning, one of our Weber County Commissioners called me to express his absolute support for what we are doing.  He said, “Last I checked, this is still America, and you still have a first amendment right.”  He let me know that he had our back, that if the health department harassed us too much, he would go to bat for us.

Thirty minutes later, the director of our health department called.  He had reviewed our plan for reopening and he thought it was an excellent plan.  He asked for one small modification – if we would provide 10 feet of space rather than 6.  He thanked us for bringing up churches, and admitted that they had been overlooked. He agreed with me that churches should be a priority and thanked us for being proactive.

After that phone call, I contacted our County Attorney to seek his input.  He provided us with a legal opinion that we would be within our rights to meet as a church. He assured me that there would be no legal implications if we resumed our services. 

That afternoon, the Sheriff handed me a letter with the County Prosecutor’s legal opinion in writing.  The Lord had worked mightily on our behalf.

Then on Wednesday, a pastor friend contacted me with some terrible news.  He had it from a very reliable source that the Governor intended to announce an order effectively closing all churches for the next two weeks. We believed that the time was coming for us to stand against the Governor. But before we did, we made one final appeal.

Through that appeal, God raised up a handful of influential people in our state who stuck their necks out and lobbied the Governor for us. Powerful forces were at work in this, and I cannot give you all the details of what God did, except to say that God has worked mightily on our behalf.

On Thursday, the Governor backed off his plan and agreed to keep his health order at the least restrictive possible. “The LORD hath done great things for us; whereof we are glad.”

On Thursday afternoon, I received an email and a voice mail from the director of our Weber-Morgan Health Department asking me to review the new health order.  We set an appointment for Friday morning at 8:30.

Overnight Thursday night, I could not sleep.  From 1:30-5:30, I read my Bible and prayed and took time to review the new health order.  The new health order from the Governor limited churches to 20 people or less.  As I read through the order, I saw that no number restrictions were placed on theaters.  I considered this an inequity and knew that we could not follow this health order; so, I prepared to tell the Health Department that we would not honor it. There comes a time when a free people must stand.

I believe that we should make every effort to resolve the issue through appeals beforehand. Only when repeated appeals have fallen short should we take more drastic steps. But I did not approach this decision lightly, or ramp up the outrage in response.  I have not wished to defy our Governor, but I knew we could not submit to such an injustice.

The director of our health department called me at 8:45 Friday morning. He told me that he could not sleep the night before. He said, “it just didn’t seem right to me that we were more restrictive on churches than we were on theaters or gyms.” Finally that morning at 8:15, the Governor’s task force clarified the order. They agreed with him that churches should be held to the same standard as theaters.  

The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will.

On Sunday morning, just before the service, a truck pulled up and parked on the street.  A man got out and began to walk across the street to our parking lot.  I immediately recognized our Sheriff.  As he approached me in the parking lot, he said, “Pastor, I support what you are doing.”  He stayed for the entire service, just to make it clear that he was standing with us.  What an honor!

I know that many around the country still find themselves under heavy restrictions.  I hope I can encourage you – the end is near.  That “Great Gettin’ Up Morning” will soon be here.  Prepare yourself, because you are about to taste a little bit of heaven.