Visiting Alma
 

Lockdowns, Mental Health and Faith

Under ‘normal’ circumstances mental health is a big and critical issue. When we face greater challenges, the pressure on our mental health only increases. On Thursday Jan 14, the Ontario “stay at home order” went into effect. Some people will praise the decision, while others will be frustrated and angry. What I do know for sure is that this will put greater pressure on the mental health of many of us.

It is no easy challenge to deal with depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. If you are one of these people, then you know what I mean. We find ourselves dwelling on things that we can do nothing about. We worry about what might happen. We feel helpless and defeated with all the terrible things that are happening around us. We take personally the things that people say and do. From all of these thoughts we end up with physical symptoms. We feel tension in our gut, our hands shake, our heart begins to race, we start to sweat, we feel exhausted.

So what can we do? Living under a stay at home order, there are many things we can do to help our mental health. Some of the basics which may not seem obvious include getting the right amount of sleep, making sure we eat healthy and getting plenty of exercise. I was once told that if we want to be strong mentally or spiritually, we need to keep our selves healthy physically. What I have learned since is that if you are weak in one area, the others will suffer.

So assuming we are all doing what we can to stay physically healthy, what can we do about our mental and spiritual health? The Bible has some very helpful advice for us in these areas. One of the hardest things to do, but one of the most critical is to manage or control our thinking. We need to make sure that we don’t feed our minds all kinds of junk. The book of Philippians from the Bible was written by a guy named Paul. He wrote it from prison. In Philippians 4:8 we read that we are to dwell on things that are true, honorable and right. In practical terms that means that we need to make sure that we keep ourselves rooted in facts. It is easy to let our emotions take control, but our health will be much better if we spend our time focusing on facts. This same Paul also wrote that we should try and “capture” every thought. Good thoughts that honor God should be held on to, and other thoughts thrown out (II Corinthians 10:5). Psychotherapists, social workers and counselors will sometimes encourage the practice of something called “mindfulness”. One of the benefits of this exercise is it helps root us factually in our current environment. I always think it is cool how modern day thinking comes back to match the wisdom offered in the Bible.

While the Bible offers good advice about managing our thinking, our faith in general offers us hope. Christianity teaches that if you have faith in Jesus then you can look forward to an eternal hope. That hope being the promise of an eternity in heaven. I don’t know how many movies I have seen or books I have read where the concept of hope is held up as a means of enduring difficult times. I personally have found that the hope of eternal life has been a life line in difficult times. Let us also never forget that while it may seem like we are isolated, God is always there with us. We can always talk to Him.

Of course there are things that the rest of us can do who don’t struggle with mental health issues. For one, we all need to remember that people who struggle with mental health would be glad to be free of it. It is also important to remember that they didn’t ask for it. Sadly, far too many people attach a stigma to those who suffer with mental health like somehow they are to blame for their own trials. But it is never that simple. Life experiences and genetics play a huge part and these are things we can’t control. In fact if we are honest, all of us struggle with our mental health at one point or another. Others will find that trying to keep healthy mentally is a life-long struggle. Those who suffer need compassion and a willingness for others to try and understand.

In the midst of trials, like this lock down, our faith can play a huge role in helping us maintain good mental health.

Let Them Lead Joyfully

Over the past few weeks the number of confirmed cases of COVID 19 has increased steadily. While it seems the numbers are what is making the news, what I have been watching is how different people are responding.

On the one hand there are people who are responding with extreme concern. Some people are seeing the numbers and are expressing quite vocally that more effort should be made to contain the virus. On the other hand, there are those who are very concerned about the economy. These people are becoming very vocal in letting us all know that if any more restrictions are imposed that more businesses will be forced to close and that there will be long term impacts on our economy.

I have watched Doug Ford who has on more than one occasion expressed frustration at the difficulty of trying to balance all of the competing needs. Sadly, this polarization has entered into the western evangelical church. It is probably more evident in some areas than in others, but there is no question that the tension is real. Here at Alma, we are not immune. In my conversations, it has been made very clear to me that we have a very broad range of opinion regarding how to respond to COVID.

Back in June/July, the elders had some lengthy discussions before we opened the doors again after being closed back in the spring. The elders also had a lengthy discussion to consider the issue of communion, and what that would look like. The subject of music and singing continues to be a topic of conversation at the elders table.   We just recently started up a Sunday morning program for our kids. That was not an easy decision and was only made after a lot of thought, prayer and consultation. One of the more recent discussions has involved the topic of fellowship. With the weather getting colder, should we as a church provide more opportunities for people to gather socially? If we do, what would that look like? If we did allow for it, but had to implement some guidelines, would people cooperate?  Will the government even allow it?

When the leadership has wrestled with these questions, it has been very clear to me the extent of the burden that has been carried. These issues have not been taken lightly, and have weighed on the hearts of our leadership quite heavily. Your leaders have spent a great deal of time in prayer as they have tried to walk through these issues. They have also called on the church staff to contact our local Public Health department. In fact I wonder what the folks at the Public Health department think of the Alma leadership considering how often we have called for guidance or clarification.

Some of the decisions were especially difficult, not just because of the diversity of opinion, but because the guidelines weren’t so clear as to what we are permitted to do and not permitted to do . In those cases we have stepped out and made our own decision, with the readiness that we may need to change.

I know that not everyone has agreed with every decision that has been made. However, I want to thank you for your patience with us. I also want to thank you for not being so hard on us when you thought that we have made mistakes. The reality is that your elders are trying hard to do the best job they can in the midst of a very difficult situation where things are constantly changing.

What I really would like to say is a big “thank you” to our board of elders and our church staff. The next time you see Luke or Yvonne or one of our elders, please be sure to thank them. This is definitely not an easy time for those in leadership.

Mark McCready
Senior Pastor

Is COVID-19 God’s Judgment on a Sinful People?

Right after “September 11” of 2001, a number of preachers came out and seemed to imply that the terrorist attacks were God’s judgment for the sins of America.   Again, the same thing happened following Hurricane Katrina, when it hit land in New Orleans. It seems that whenever some national tragedy occurs, there is an element of evangelical pastors that come forward and speak in a very public way claiming that God is judging the people.

Well, here we are in April of 2020 and we are facing a global pandemic. Thousands of people have died, and predictably, some preachers have come out and suggested that God is again judging the people.

Every time this happens, I begin to seriously doubt my commitment to freedom of speech. I believe very strongly that people should be allowed to speak freely. I also believe very strongly that I don’t have to listen.  As a preacher, I strongly value my right to speak out and proclaim my faith in Jesus Christ. Yet when these preachers step on to their very public platform and proclaim what they do, I cringe. I have this urge to find some way to turn off their microphone. I want to shout out to the rest of the world that these preachers don’t represent me, nor do they represent the entirety of the evangelical Christian faith.

Jesus in Luke 13 finds himself addressing the exact same mindset that existed even in his day.

Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? “I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. “Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? “I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Luke 13:1-5

Here some people have come to Jesus and they are saying that something terrible has happened and they are asking Jesus why it happened to those people specifically. We often think that when bad things happen, that the victim must have had some terrible sin. Jesus even made reference to this when He basically asked the question if the people who died under the tower were worse sinners than everyone else. It is a fascinating question that we should apply to our current situation.

Who are the worse sinners: Americans or Chinese? The Americans are suffering greatly under this pandemic. So also are the Chinese. What about Italians? Then of course, why is it that seniors are suffering and dying at such greater rates then much of the rest of the population? Are the seniors of this age such terrible sinners relative to the rest of us?

Listening to Jesus, the flawed thinking of these supposed prophetic voices becomes very obvious. We can never know for sure what sins people have committed, and what events represent God’s judgment on sin. What we do know however is that when terrible things happen, we all should take a very close look at our own lives and ask the question – what sins do I need to repent of? What things in my life do I need to change in order to improve my relationship with God and others? When tragedy strikes, it should remind us that death is potentially just around the corner, and force us to rethink our walk.  Jesus urges the people in light of tragedy to give consideration to our own spiritual state.   All of us need to repent.

So, don’t let people tell you that COVID-19 is God’s judgment on the people. Only God knows for sure. What we do know is that this is a great time to reflect on our own lives and repent.

Keeping Busy

The Elders and Church staff of Alma are keeping really busy. With so much having changed over the past few weeks, we are doing our best to adjust.

We have in place a number of goals that we are hoping to achieve. These include the following:

1.Elder Communication
Each of the elders are working to contact as many people as they can. Your patience with them would be much appreciated as they already have so many other responsibilities on their plate.

2. Annual Business Meeting
There was to be a business meeting at the end of March. The board of elders are trying to work out the details as to how we will move forward while being compliant as a charity with Corporations Canada.  They are looking at all options for holding a meeting, or potentially delaying until the state of emergency is over.  We hope to have more news shortly on this.

3. Pastoral Communication
Pastor Luke and Pastor Mark are working to try and speak on the phone with every single family that calls Alma Bible Church home. We are finding that people are really enjoying these conversations. With all the families we have that call Alma home it may take some time.

4. Sunday Morning Worship
We are working to improve the online worship experience. We have already made some improvements, but in the process have discovered new issues. Following Easter Sunday, we have the following issues that we are trying to resolve:

a. improve lighting
b. fix sound issues
c. improve video quality
d. increase number of YouTube subscribers – the more subscribers we get the more features YouTube will offer us. The more features we are offered, the better online experience we can then provide.
e. speaker needs to smile more, stutter less, hold his head straight, not close his eyes as much, etc.

5. Community
We are looking for ways to further enhance the sense of community knowing that we can’t meet together in the church building.
– Youth are holding online gatherings
– At least one Life Group has begun to meet online
– could we do more interviews/testimonies?
– could we include some pre-recorded video of people in some way?
– do you have other suggestions?

6. Online Presence
The church staff are working hard to keep our main website (www.almabiblechurch.org) up to date and ensure that all the latest info is available online. This includes updates on where we are as a church with regards to the pandemic, a Sunday morning resource page each week, devotionals to help and encourage you etc. The effort is evolving as we learn and as we receive more and more feedback.

I would like to say thank you to each and every one of you that considers Alma Bible Church as a source to help in your spiritual growth. We want to do everything that we possibly can to help you. Please do not hesitate to reach out to us with any questions or concerns that you might have.

Mark McCready
Senior Pastor

Social Distancing And The Bible

A while back a message was sent out to the congregation, opening things up for people to submit questions in light of the COVID-19 Pandemic.   One of the questions I received in response, and a frequent topic of conversation, centers around social distancing. Here is the question:

The government is asking people to keep their distance from others, and depending on the province or state, have asked churches to close. How should we as followers of Jesus respond to this? Should we continue to meet and worship? Is it OK for me to get together with friends?

Here are some thoughts worth considering…

Let me begin by sharing with you some news that I was reading. I have recently read a few stories that have been particularly disturbing. In one article, I read about how a Pastor in the Tampa Bay area was arrested for holding church services, despite the constraints that the government is imposing. In another article, I read of a group who were meeting in France back in February. The author of the article is tracing a conference hosted by this church as the source of a large number of newly surfaced instances of infection with the coronavirus around the globe.

Now what bothers me about these articles is twofold. First off, I don’t like hearing that more and more cases of this virus are being found. While some people are only getting mildly sick, some very young and healthy people are getting sick and dying from it. The second reason I didn’t like what I was reading is that it is Christians that are being blamed, and/or potentially causing the problem.

I wonder how many of us are aware of our obligation to submit to the governing authorities of the day. In Romans 13, the very first verse exhorts us all to subject ourselves to the government. We would do well to remember that the governments that existed back when this was written were not the most benevolent. The early Christians for the first three centuries lived under tyrannical rule. They were persecuted in ways that we here in North American in this generation have no understanding. So, if they could do it then, it seems to me that we could certainly try today.

Understanding our obligations to the government should help us. However, our obligations as followers of Jesus go beyond that. The last time I was into town (which seems like forever ago), I was in Shoppers Drug Mart. They had tape on the floors, and guidelines about “social distancing”. As I walked around, there was a real sense of fear of getting too close to another. As a result, I got to thinking – in our current context, loving our neighbor means giving them space. To show love to those around us, even those we don’t know, requires that we respect their fears, and not get so close as to cause them concern.

There is a quote that is going around in light of recent events that I found incredibly fascinating. In 1527, Martin Luther was faced with a deadly outbreak of the bubonic plague. A fellow pastor Dr. John Hess, wrote to Luther and asked for some advice on how to proceed. Here is his response:

I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence.

If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me, and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.

Now, Luther lived in different times, and a very different context. I would suggest that in this generation, there are ways to reach out without coming into direct contact with others. We can leave gifts at the front door, or we can reach out by phone, video or even just a text. I am already hearing about some in our Alma Church community who are reaching out in some very exemplary ways. Lets keep that up.

All of this leads me to the conclusion that the best thing we can do right now is to do everything we can to love those around us, by respecting the government restrictions and practising the “social distancing” that is being asked of us. Acting in this way, will open doors of opportunity for sharing Christ in the long term. It will give us opportunities to talk to our neighbors, and befriend them in a way that might otherwise not be possible. Besides, in our obedience, and showing love for others, we ultimately are bringing glory to God – and that is a good thing.