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COVID-19 and ILC churches in Argentina, Belgium, and South Sudan

Choir members of Santa Cruz Lutheran Church in Bahía Blanca (Buenos Aires, Argentina) sing “Yo sé que vive el Salvador” (I know that my Redeemer Lives) for online Easter celebrations in this YouTube video.

WORLD – Member churches of the International Lutheran Council continue to reach out with the good news of the Gospel in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this article, we highlight the situation facing ILC member churches in Argentina, Belgium, and South Sudan.

Argentina

Argentina has reported 2,669 cases of COVID-19 so far, with 123 deaths. The country has been in lockdown since March 20, with the general public allowed to leave their homes only to buy food or medicine.

As church services are currently prohibited, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Argentina (Iglesia Evangélica Luterana Argentina – IELA) has responded by equipping members for home devotions. Pastors are offering resources ranging from written liturgy and sermon, to audio, to video. Many churches are livestreaming services for members, or uploading them to YouTube. During the week, several churches are also hosting Bible studies on Facebook or other platforms.

“We emphasize communication among our members as a way to care for and sustain ourselves in this difficult time,” explains IELA Pastor President Arturo E. Truenow. Pastors are using phone and video calls to provide spiritual support. In cases of dire need, pastors are currently allowed to visit a member’s home.

The IELA is providing various resources for members through its website. There members can find brief devotionals, Bible studies, and free access to the church’s national magazine El Nuevo Luterano. The church has also issued an internal document to pastors and parishes reporting IELA board decisions regarding the COVID-19 crisis

The church’s seminary has moved education online, as have the IELA’s ten schools. The church schools, however, are facing financial hardship as a result of the pandemic and are struggling to pay wages for teachers and administrative staff.

The many challenges in this situation should lead us back to God in prayer, says Pastor President Truenow. “We continue to pray that God will soon free us from this pandemic, and, in the meantime, keep us firm in the faith, take care of us, and assist us in caring for others.”

 

Belgium

Belgium has been particularly hit hard with COVID-19, with one of the highest reported death rates for the disease in the world. More than 36,138 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the country, with 5,163 deaths. Belgium has been in lockdown since March 18, and containment measures are scheduled to last at least until the beginning of May.

ELKB President van Hattem brings Easter greetings to members of the church online.

In the midst of the crisis, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Belgium (Evangelisch-Lutherse Kerk in België – ELKB) continues to reach out with the good news of the Gospel, making devotions, liturgy, and video of worship services available online.

In a letter to the church, ELKB President Gijsbertus van Hattem reflected on the meaning of the word “quarantine.” The word, he explains, originally refered to a 40-day period of isolation following the arrival of ships in Venice around the 15th century. “The number forty plays a major role in the Bible” too, President van Hattem notes: forty days and nights of rain during the Flood; forty years in the desert for the Israelites on the way to the Promised Land; forty days of temptation for Jesus in the garden; forty days of post-resurrection appearances by Jesus before His ascension into heaven. And Lent, drawn from these biblical examples, is likewise a season forty days in length.

“In the Bible, the number forty represents a change, a preparation time for something else or something new, something better,” President van Hattem writes. “In the current quarantine, we naturally hope that afterwards the COVID-19 virus will be manageable.” But there may be other changes too, he says: challenges like economic stagnation, yes, but also environmental healing, air-quality improvements, and reduced crime.

President van Hattem encourages the members of the ELKB to also use the figurative “forty days” of the COVID-19 quarantine for spiritual change as well. “In these forty days of Lent, an additional time to reflect is given to us,” he writes, “to reflect on the future of our earth, on our relationship with God and with those around us. By spending more time at home, we all of a sudden have more time to read God’s Word.”

“The churches are still closed for the time being—we are in the desert,” he says. “But the churches will open again—the promised land lays ahead. And then we will thank and praise God with renewed courage and faith, and again receive His Word and Sacrament.”

 

South Sudan

The country of South Sudan currently reports four cases of COVID-19. But the nation has limited medical resources, and so there are concerns that an outbreak in the region could be particularly deadly. To curb the spread of disease, South Sudan enacted containment measures even before confirmation of the virus in the country.

SSELC Bishop Nathaniel Bol Nyok

The South Sudan Evangelical Lutheran Church (SSELC) is facing substantial difficulties in ministering to its members as a result of the crisis. “Technology is still a nightmare in most areas,” notes SSELC Bishop Nathaniel Bol Nyok. “Lack of technology has made it impossible for the church to provide online worship services as is being done in countries with better internet.”

Pastors continue to minister to parishioners as they are able, while observing social distancing. Those with cellphones are also being ministered to in this way.

“Despite all this, Christ is risen and He is alive, and there is nothing that can separate us from the love and care of the risen Lord Jesus Christ,” encourages Bishop Nyok. “He is a conqueror who, through His death and resurrection, has conquered everything—including COVID-19. Christ has liberated us from fear because we live and die in Him.”

“It is my prayer that the risen Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, by His grace, mercy, and love for His Church and for the whole human race, will bring this pandemic to an end quickly,” he says.

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For more news and information from the International Lutheran Council about the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.

COVID-19 and ILC churches in India, South Africa, and the United Kingdom

President S. Suviseshamuthu brings a video Easter greeting to the India Evangelical Lutheran Church.

WORLD – Members of the International Lutheran Council (ILC) continue to respond to the coronavirus pandemic currently gripping the world.

In this second post in our series, we highlight the situation of ILC member churches in India, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.

India

A nationwide lockdown in India was implemented on March 23, and will continue at least through the end of April. So far, India has reported more than 12,700 cases of COVID-19 and 423 deaths.

The situation has proven challenging for the India Evangelical Lutheran Church (IELC). Worship services are banned, which was particularly difficult during Holy Week and Easter. Some pastors and congregations are able to broadcast services online, and some members are able to watch from their homes. The church, however, is unable to administer Holy Communion during the lockdown.

Movement from one place to another is also restricted. And while some pastors are allowed to visit nearby homes to pray with members, in other places this is not allowed.

On the eve of Easter, IELC President S. Suviseshamuthu sent a message of encouragement to the church on YouTube and WhatsApp, likening the situation facing them to that described in the first chapter of Joel. Joel describes a crisis that had “never happened during the time of old men, the inhabitants of the land,” President Suviseshamuthu writes. “The priests, the Lord’s ministers, mourn. The field is wasted. The land mourns. Joy is withered away from the sons of men. The meat offering and the drink offering are withheld form the house of your God.”

“But in the very next chapter, Joel speaks of the day of the Lord,” President Suviseshamuthu continues. If we “rend our hearts and turn unto the Lord our God,” we will find “He is slow to anger, and of great kindness, if we repent from evil.”

“This makes us to realize that Jesus is the only way,” President Suviseshamuthu explains. “He loves us profoundly. That is the only reason He laid down His life on the cross. Jesus loves each one of us without discrimination. Let us separate ourselves from the world to be united only with our Saviour. Let us confess daily. May the Lord protect us and lead us through the wilderness.”

South Africa

In South Africa, more than 2,500 cases of COVID-19 have been reported, with 34 deaths. On March 23, the country enacted a nationwide lockdown, which will be in effect at least until the end of April.

This has led to major challenges for the St. Peter Confessional Lutheran Church of South Africa (CLCSA). Churches are not allowed to gather in groups of more than ten, funerals are limited to just family, and no weddings are allowed. Easter services were cancelled in South Africa, as in many nations.

Online preaching from the St. Peter Confessional Lutheran Church of South Africa.

Many churches around the world have turned to electronic means of ministering to members during the current crisis, and the CLCSA is no different, reaching out via social media. But many of the CLCSA’s members are elderly and not familiar with this sort of technology. Many are also rural, living in remote areas which do not have easy access to the internet.

“Our church is in a learning curve as to how to serve our membership,” explains CLCSA bishop Mandla Khumalo. “We have learned and are learning even more the importance of households becoming the church, with fathers effectively being encouraged to go back to using Luther’s Small Catechism to minister to their families.” Bishop Khumalo notes especially the value of the daily services in the catechism. “This is leading us to understand more fully what fellowship means on the family level—how the church begins at home, and how the worship building is only a place of fellowship.”

The CLCSA is facing other difficulties as a result of the coronavirus too. Holy communion and visitations, including to shut-ins, have been suspended, and pastors can only attend to members in extreme cases after receiving permission from the authorities. Some international staff have also been repatriated, further affecting the ability of church and its agencies to minister to its members.

The church is also facing financial difficulties since many of its members are unfamiliar with telephone or online banking, and are unable to give in person. And this has a cascading effect on the church’s education and social ministry work. The church receives no government funding, and with schools closed, there are challenges paying staff and covering overhead costs. What is more, many of the students depend on the church’s food program and now face food insecurity as a result of the lockdown.

Despite these challenges, Bishop Khumalo also sees an opportunity to reach people anew with the good news of the Gospel during this crisis. Some people who normally “would not attend church in any way” are nevertheless deciding to tune-in to the CLCSA’s online outreach “because of the curiosity created by this pandemic.” The church is proclaiming the message of Jesus to those newly willing to listen.

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom has so far reported more than 103,000 cases of COVID-19 and 13,729 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. On March 20, the government initiated a lockdown which resulted in churches being closed for public worship and which strictly limited the public’s ability to leave their homes.  While clergy have been categorized as key workers, and can thus leave the home to work, congregants are not allowed to attend churches.

ELCE Chairman George Samiec livestreams his sermon for Easter Sunday.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of England has reacted quickly to the situation to ensure continued pastoral care for members. By March 29, all congregations had begun offering alternate worship arrangements, including online video conferencing, live online worship services, pre-recorded worship services, and written material emailed or posted every week for members to read on Sunday.

“The absence of the Divine Service in the life of the Church is painful,” notes ELCE Chairman George Samiec. “We look forward to the time when we can worship together and receive from the Lord of the Church all His blessings.”

In the meantime, congregations continue to use alternate means to continue ministry. Some congregations are also now broadcasting Matins and Compline during the week, while Bible Studies and confirmation are being conducted via video conferencing. Congregational WhatsApp groups have been formed. And pastors are regularly phoning members to provide care.

The ELCE’s theological institute, Westfield House, has moved to provide classes online. And Lutheran Radio UK has amended the Daily Offices on Sundays to include sermons and prayers.

The ELCE ministerium is also using video conferencing to consult with one another, Chairman Samiec noted, to “learn from each other in terms of technology, to think collectively about how to go forward and what to do to minimise any ‘digital divides’, and how best to resume public worship if COVID-19 fears still exist.”

The situation also puts a strain on the fiscal well-being of congregations. To that end, the ELCE Executive Council has established a ‘hardship fund’ to help congregations deal with financial stresses.

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For more news and information from the International Lutheran Council about the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.

COVID-19 and ILC churches in Chile, Japan, and the United States

Pastors, vicars, and seminarians of the the Confessional Lutheran Church of Chile are offering a daily devotional study online during the COVID-19 pandemic.

WORLD – As the coronavirus pandemic continues to impact people across the globe, member churches of the International Lutheran Council (ILC) are stepping forward to provide physical and spiritual care to the people in their nations.

The ILC is launching a new series to highlight the response of our churches to COVID-19. Despite challenges, the proclamation of the Gospel continues. Despite difficulties, the needy are still provided for in body and soul. Please, remember the churches of the International Lutheran Council in prayer as they minister to their flocks around the world.

In this first post, we consider the response of three member church bodies in Chile, Japan, and the United States.

Chile

The first case of COVID-19 in Chile was reported on March 1, 2020. Since then, the country has reported nearly 8,000 cases of COVID-19, with 92 deaths. In response to the crisis, the government has closed borders and imposed quarantines or lockdowns on several regions.

As the situation began to unfold, the Confessional Lutheran Church of Chile—Iglesia Luterana Confesional de Chile (ILC-Chile)—moved to offer devotional resources online. The church offers daily devotional videos to “assist our members with the comfort of the Holy Word,” notes ILC-Chile Bishop Omar Kinas. The series features pastors, vicars, and seminary students, as a way of involving all members in the church response. The church is also offering group Bible Studies and live-streams of the Divine Service of the Word online, as well as sending activities for children.

“We understand that this is not the ideal way,” Bishop Kinas says of the online outreach. “However, we have taken advantage of technology in order to continue proclaiming the Holy Gospel.” Pastors also continue to offer private communion to members while following necessary safeguards and social-distancing measures.

The church is ministering to others in physical ways too. Donations through the churches’ Mercy Boxes have helped the CLCC to provide material support to those who have lost their jobs or are unable to leave their homes for work.

Local health authorities were also invited to use the chapel office in Cerror la Cruz, Valparaiso for a flu vaccination campaign to protect the elderly. And the local pastor’s wife, Jessica, has made and donated hundreds of masks to protect people during the pandemic.

“Although this pandemic has brought several changes and challenges, it is undoubtedly a great opportunity for our church to share with others the Crucified and Risen One, who has carried all our illnesses and bought us everlasting life,” notes Bishop Kinas. “We pray for the whole Church of Christ, that we may set our sights on the one has already destroyed the evil one, sin, and death, and has given us eternal salvation.”

Japan

Good Friday service at St. Paul Lutheran in Asahikawa, Japan.

Japan has reported more than 7,600 cases of COVID-19 and 143 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. The country declared a month-long state of emergency on April 7 for Tokyo and six other prefectures.

The emergency has forced the Japan Lutheran Church (JLC) to find alternate means of reaching its members. “Due to the declaration of a state of emergency, many churches have cancelled all gatherings, including Sunday worship,” notes JLC President Shin Shimizu. “However, some churches are distributing written sermons and handouts to church members regularly. Others are posting worship services on their websites.”

The situation is a challenge, President Shimizu explains, but we find comfort in the words of Scripture. He quotes from 2 Chronicles 7:14—“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

United States of America

The United States has recorded more than 600,000 cases of COVID-19 so far, with more than 25,000 deaths. The country has closed borders, while different states have imposed different measures, including shelter-in-place orders and quarantines.

The American Association of Lutheran Churches (AALC) reports that nearly every aspect of their ministry has been affected by the pandemics. “We have adapted our routines to tend to the sheep of Jesus Christ and do the work of an evangelist based on national, state, and local regulations,” says AALC President Pastor Curtis Leins.

AALC Pastor Jamie Strickler leads worship on Easter Sunday at a Drive-In Service at St. Timothy Lutheran in Charlestone, West Virginia.

He notes that some pastors live in jurisdictions that allow for “drive-in” services, with pastors leading worship and preaching to parishioners in their cars, with the help of sound systems. Many pastors are also recording worship services (either the full liturgy or scaled-down orders of worship) which are then shared online. Some are leading Bible studies through live-streaming, pre-recorded messages, podcats, video-blogs, and virtual classrooms.

“This is not to say that this time is free of frustration for our pastors,” President Pastor Leins explains. In particular, he says, “it is difficult and sometimes impossible to offer pastoral care to the dying and to those who mourn in these times of extreme limits.”

“We have continued to remind our pastors that the virtual experience is no substitute for direct pastoral contact, such as a phone call or a visit with proper precautions,” President Pastor Leins continues. The church has also issued a letter to its ministerium discouraging virtual celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar.

The AALC published an electronic copy of its national periodical, The Evangel, before Holy Week to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic while also offering the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.

In addition to spiritual support, local churches are offering practical care where possible as well. One congregation, for example, has lent its church van to transport meals for home-bound school children.

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For more news and information from the International Lutheran Council about the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.

Hope in the Valley of Dry Bones: A Holy Week Message from the ILC General Secretary

The Vision of Ezekiel: Francisco Colliantes, 1630.

In 2020, Lent, Holy Week, and Easter have taken place within the context of a worldwide Coronavirus pandemic. Liturgical practice the world over have undergone unprecedented challenges. Government regulations have closed churches, reduced others to a handful of worshippers, with many turning to live streaming via the internet to reach congregants confined in their homes. Rev. Dr. Timothy Quill, General Secretary of the International Lutheran Council, sends the following message of hope to Christians around the world.

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The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones… Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel.” Behold, they will say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold I will open your graves and raise you from you graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the Land of Israel… and I will place you in your own land.” – Ezekiel 37:1, 11-12, 14

 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

On every continent people are hunkering down in their homes as the Corona Virus spreads around the world, leaving many people sick and many dead—a global valley of bones. Many people in post-Christian and increasingly secularized nations are living in fear and anxiety, without hope. Even if they dodge the bullet this time, the awareness of the fragility of life and their human mortality has made a deep-rooted impression.

For Christians, however, the Word of God brings hope, a sense of calm, and even joy. All three Scripture readings appointed for the 5th Sunday in Lent bring hope: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:1-11; and John 11:1-53. What Ezekiel proclaimed to ‘dead’ exiles in Babylon, what St. John wrote in his Gospel about the resurrection of Lazarus and St. Paul’s in his Epistle to the Romans is that God gives life to the dead. “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies…” (Romans 8:11).

What we read in all three Scripture readings is indeed of great comfort as we find ourselves in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. Of course, this is nothing new. We have heard and confessed and sung about the resurrection long before the coming of the Corona Virus, and we will be doing so again long after COVID-19 is dead and gone.

Just nine days ago I brought the Lord’s Supper to an elderly homebound lady. The widespread effects of the Coronavirus were already being reported nonstop on TV news and talk radio. The dear lady told me she was concerned about the effect all of this was having on the children. When I asked her to elaborate, she explained that her twelve-year-old granddaughter was worried about the pandemic and recently asked mother, “Am I going to die?” As our conversation continued it was wonderful to learn that the girl’s parents were faithful Christians and to hear how her mother answered her: “All people will die one day, but do not worry because Jesus will always be with you no matter what happens, and you will be raised again to eternal life.”

I told the grandmother that her granddaughter was blessed to have such parents and a grandmother who faithfully teach their children about Jesus Christ and teach them how to pray. In times like these it is absolutely essential for children to know and pray the Lord’s Prayer, the Creeds, and Luther’s Morning and Evening Prayers, not to mention the well-loved classic: “Now I lay me down to sleep I pray Thee Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray Thee Lord my soul to take.”

When the Lord gave Ezekiel the vision of the field of dry bones, Ezekiel was with Israel in captivity in Babylon. Jerusalem and the Temple had been destroyed. The glory of the Lord had departed from the Temple. It was utterly devastating for God’s people. To make matters worse, their Babylonian captors tormented the Israelites demanding that they sing songs from their homeland, from Zion. But instead of singing they wept. Psalm 137:1-4 captures their anguish:

“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.  On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captures required of us songs, And our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a foreign land?”

Their refusal to sing was not simply a stubborn protest against being forced to entertain the Babylonians with national folk songs from their homeland. These were the Lord’s songs, namely liturgical music intended for use in the Temple liturgy. The Temple was destroyed. The liturgy and sacrifices which proclaimed and delivered the Lord’s eternal steadfast love, mercy, and forgiveness of sins had ceased to exist. God had abandoned the holy place on which he put his Name and mercy… but He did not abandon his people. The Lord sent His prophet Ezekiel to proclaim an “oracle of hope” to uplift His despairing people. The Lord showed Ezekiel a vision of dry dead bones which he was to use as the basis for his message of hope.

Following all the great battles of history, valleys were littered with the remains of soldiers slaughtered in combat, whose bones were picked clean by predators and bleached white by the sun. The same could be seen along the valley roads where women, children, and the elderly were forcibly marched by their captors, with thousands dying along the way. Every generation, including ours, has their valley of bones.

In Ezekiel’s vision, Israel’s exile is compared to a valley of dead dry bones. Dead bones cannot make themselves alive physically or spiritually. But the Lord, who breathed the divine breath of life into Adam promises to do so with his people. “Thus, says the Lord God to these bones: Behold I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD (37:5,12,14). “I will do it,” declared the Lord, and He did it. But the children of Israel had to spend 70 years in captivity before they were released and allowed to return home, rebuild Jerusalem, rebuild the Temple, and resume the beautiful temple liturgy where they would again sing the Lord’s songs.

Today, churches all over the world stand empty and silent due to the Coronavirus and government regulations. Some are closed completely. Some allow only the pastor and a handful to gather. The thought of forbidding the Lord’s people from entering this holy place during Lent and Holy Week is heart-wrenching enough, but the idea of our churches standing devoid of the worshippers on Easter Sunday is even more heart-breaking. Thank God what is happening here today is not as extreme as the 70-year Babylonian exile. We anticipate that today’s interruption will only be a matter of weeks or months at most before things get back to normal, not seventy years.

Nevertheless, these unsettling days serve as a wakeup call for times when we are tempted to take the Lord’s divine services of Word and Sacrament for granted. For the Israelites, being cut off from the Temple liturgy was to be cut off from God’s gracious and life-giving presence—it was to be dead spiritually, real death, ultimate and eternal death. Thus, Israel confessed, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; and we are clean cut off” (37:11). This is a repentance which understands that apart from God’s mercy, all hope is lost—there is nothing we can do. It is up to the Lord to restore spiritual life, and this requires a divine act comparable to bringing the dead back to life. Thus, the Lord God commanded Ezekiel: “Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people.”

Today’s events help us to understand how devastating the Babylonian Captivity was for God’s people. But they remained God’s people because he remained their God and did not abandon them. God has not and will abandoned us. In confessing our sins, we feel sick to the bone; a sense of hopelessness seeps in as we cut ourselves of from God and one another. But the Lord promised to open the tombs in which we have sealed ourselves with our sins and cut ourselves off from him.

Lazarus didn’t raise himself from the dead. He just lay rigid and alone in the horrible stench of death while his family grieved deeply wondering why their good friend Jesus allowed it to happen. The disappointment and grief among Lazarus’ sisters and friends was so deep that seeing it, Jesus Himself wept. However, the grief gave way to joy when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.

Today we find ourselves between a sick and dying world and the celebration of the resurrection on Easter Sunday. In normal times, our beautiful churches around the world are filled on Easter, overflowing with worshippers, song, and joyous exclamations of alleluia. But even where the virus persists and churches remain closed or restricted to a handful of people, we still look forward to the resurrection with hope and joy.

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

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Rev. Dr. Timothy Quill preached the above sermon on the Fifth Sunday in Lent in 2020 at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, the large neogothic mother church in downtown Fort Wayne, Indiana. By law, only ten worshippers were allowed to gather in the beautiful sanctuary built in 1889 and capable of holding more than 1,000 worshippers. Despite this restriction, the service was live-streamed over the internet where it has received more than 1,000 views.

Lutheran Resources for COVID-19

WORLD – As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread, many member churches of the International Lutheran Council (ILC) are providing resources for Christians in the midst of this crisis.

The following churches and associated agencies have set-up dedicated webpages with free resources for churches, families, and individuals affected by the pandemic. Additional resources in other languages may be available directly from other member churches of the ILC.

Readers may also wish to read Martin Luther’s open letter “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague” available in English here. You may also read a letter from ILC Chairman Hans-Jörg Voigt here.

ENGLISH

FINNISH (SUOMI)

GERMAN (DEUTSCH)

PORTUGUESE (PORTUGUÊS)

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A Pastoral Letter on COVID-19 from the ILC Chairman

WORLD – As countries around the world grapple with the pandemic caused by the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19, the International Lutheran Council presents this pastoral letter from ILC Chairman, Rev. Hans-Jörg Voigt D.D. (Hannover), Bishop of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) in Germany.

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In View of Human Impotence in Regard to the Spread of the Pandemic We Pray to God, the Creator and Keeper of Mankind

In Christ my dear Brothers and Sisters!

The numbers of those infected by the coronavirus COVID-19 are increasing daily. The transmission of the virus seems to spread exponentially and with it the number of those who have died.

The media are reporting extensively about all developments in the coronavirus crisis. This enables us to get all necessary information in this regard.

In light of the dangers of becoming infected, many are asking these days whether we can responsibly conduct our public worship services. Especially our celebration of Holy Communion is being questioned in regard to aspects of hygiene.

Our faith assures us that “the healing of the soul also helps the body,” as Martin Luther says of Holy Communion in the Large Catechism. And therefore in faith we properly expect salvation and healing from the Lord’s Supper. But at the same time we need to make good use of a healthy dose of our God-given human reasoning.

Therefore I propose the following for your consideration:

  1. 1. During these days Pastors officiating at confession and the absolution pronounced with the laying on of hands will want to make use of an additional washing of their hands.
  2. 2. Especially while administering the communion chalice these days great care is to be taken.
  3. 3. If you yourself belong to a group especially at risk you could, during the distribution of Holy Communion, restrict your reception to the Body of Christ only and decline to receive from the chalice. In that case you can be fully assured that you receive the entirety of salvation, the fullness of forgiveness, as you partake only of the life-giving body of Christ. Indicate your reception of the consecrated bread only by crossing your arms in front of your chest or by putting your hand in front of your mouth as the chalice is administered.

In some of the larger communities in various countries assemblies have been prohibited, among them the worship services. How are we Christians to deal with such a situation? Are we to “obey God more than man”?

In this case, two Christian “values and essentials” compete with one another: on the one hand the Third Commandment about keeping God’s day holy, and on the other the Fourth Commandment about obedience to lawful authority. In assessing these Christian values, we may reasonably assume that governments and health authorities have not acted on the basis of anti-Christian motives; they were rather moved to act out of care and concern for the population. And all these are restrictions of a temporary nature.

Therefore our obedience to these measure is of considerable importance for Christians. Additionally, none of us know what consequences our keeping the Third Commandment to keep the holy day would have in regard to the possibilities of spreading the infection. And even if I do not belong to a group especially at risk, I should not want to be the source of infection for anyone else. For these reasons I recommend that we follow the rules issued by the authorities and do not conduct public worship services.

Here following let me make some recommendations for such a case:

  • 1. With the assistance of technically savvy parishioners the Pastor could have his sermon recorded electronically and inform the church members about the link
  • 2. Pastors might want to increase their offer of private communion to the members

Obviously, none of this can fully take the place of the parish communion service. This present situation clearly indicates how precious are the means of grace that God presents to us in the worship service.

And this pandemic also show us how dependent we are on God’s help and grace. There let us not grow weary of offering up our fervent prayers.

PRAYER

Lord God, merciful Father, Creator of the world, we commend to you all those who are ill. Send them willing helpers. Grant them relief in their suffering and, if it is your will, let them be healed.

Lord Jesus, on the cross you bore for us all sickness. Strengthen those who serve in hospitals and doctors’ offices. Protect them from being infected. Let them not grow weary in their service to others.

Lord, Holy Spirit, in your mercy turn away further danger to our land and to our world. Limit all harm to our schools, our culture, our economy and politics. Guide the scientists in their work and grant their research success.

O blessed holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit! We thank you for your gracious gifts, your Word, holy Baptism, Absolution and Communion that you to this day so richly distributed. Forgive us when we looked upon these means of grace without full appreciation and gratitude. Maintain among us our worship services, knowing that in them you seek us and lead us to life eternal Amen.

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Translation by Rev. Dr. Wilhelm Torgerson (Windsor, Canada)

German Bishop decries newly-declared “Right to Death”

Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt.

GERMANY – On February 26, 2020—Ash Wednesday—Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court declared that all people have a constitutional right to end their life in a manner of their own choosing and to seek outside help in doing so. The courts further ruled that access to assisted suicide should not be limited to those suffering from an incurable condition.

In response to the ruling, Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany (SELK) has issued a letter arguing that “No one has the right to decide the circumstances of his own death.” Bishop Voigt also serves as Chairman of the International Lutheran Council (ILC), a global association of confessional Lutheran churches.

While the letter responds specifically to the declaration of Germany’s highest court, the issues it addresses—euthanasia and assisted suicide—are being increasingly considered in many areas of the world. In Canada, for example, the federal government has recently announced it will expand physician assisted suicide and euthanasia to allow those suffering from mental illnesses, and those not facing imminent death, to seek aid in dying.

Those seeking a Christian response to end of life issues faithful to Scripture will find Bishop’s Voigt’s words helpful. The letter appears below. (You can also read it in German here.)

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“NO ONE HAS THE RIGHT TO DECIDE THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF HIS OWN DEATH”
Death and Birth are not Subject to Human Decisions – for the Sake of Man’s Dignity

Statement by the presiding clergyman of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany (SELK), Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt D.D. (Hannover), concerning the verdict of Germany’s Constitutional Court of February 26, 2020 regarding “a person’s right to decide on the circumstances of one’s death”.

First Preliminary Remark

The Federal Constitutional Court (“Bundesverfassungsgericht” or BVG) is Germany’s highest constitutional authority and deserves our utmost respect. The welfare of our state, its services, its advantages and their protection which we as citizens and as Christians enjoy every day, is very much dependent on this respect; because, according to Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, all legitimate state authority is given and willed by God. Thus it is difficult for me to criticize yesterday’s verdict by the Court.

Second Preliminary Remark

We ought to exercise the highest regard and the utmost restraint when we talk about the distress sick people feel and their fervent wish to die. The kind of suffering some people have to endure for years surpasses a healthy person’s way of thinking. In such times of suffering almost every person will likely consider thoughts how actively to end one’s own life. And even those people who will turn such thoughts into action deserve our Christian love and final accompaniment. Dr. Martin Luther often expressed the view that people who committed suicide should be given a Christian burial, because they “did not do it easily” and likely were in an internally vulnerable situation, and were “as if overcome by a robber in the forest.”

There is no “Right to Decide on one’s Own Death”

In its verdict of February 26, 2020 the Constitutional Court established a new legal principle when it stated in Point 1: “The general principle to define your own personality includes, as an expression of a person’s autonomy, the right to decide about one’s own way of dying.”

The Basic Law/Constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany states in Par. 2, Sect. 1: “Every-one has the right to freely live out his personality, provided he does not violate the rights of others and does not transgress the constitutional order or the moral law.” Here the BVG makes a connection to Par 1., Sect. 1 of the German Constitution, where we read: “The dignity of the person is inviolable. To honour and protect it is the duty of all state power.”

At no point does the German Constitution posit a “right of self-determined dying.” This statement could possibly be rightly understood in reference to the manner of a person’s death, e.g. that it is a matter of one’s free determination to die with or without therapy, with or without pain medication. But the sentence that follows in the verdict under Sect. b states: “The right to a self-determined death includes the freedom to take one’s own life.” Within its context this sentence claims that there is a right to determine one’s own time of death. This claim arises out of nowhere. And it is new and wrong, and it is not in accord with the spirit of the German Constitution, as I will try to show hereafter.

This Verdict contravenes the Fifth Commandment

“You shall not murder”—so reads the Fifth of the Ten Commandments. This Commandment applies in regard to the life of others and also in regard to my own life. The dignity of man is based on the uniqueness of his being born. And that also implies the non-violability of his end. That man cannot in principle decide his own death is one of the reasons for his dignity.

These days various commentaries made the point that religious convictions cannot be applied to the general public in a secular state. But the Constitution of the Federal Republic does precisely that. The very first sentence of the preamble defines its background: “In full awareness of our responsibility before God and man…” The Constitution’s reference to God is the reminder that there is a higher law, so to speak, “the connection with on high”; human law needs to have a connection to divine law, to prevent it from ending up in arbitrariness.

The legal philosopher Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde has defined the ethical-moral connection this way: “The secular libertarian state is dependent on presuppositions that it cannot guarantee of its own.” Because the verdict of the BVG contravenes the ethical standard set by the Fifth Commandment—which is posited not only in the Judeo-Christian religion—the Court has cut itself off from the reference to the Divine in the Constitution.

Legal Uncertainty for Physicians and Supporters is not the Real Problem

Legal flaws and uncertainties as they derive out of Par. 217 of the Law until now prohibiting commercial support for suicide since December 3, 2015 are not the real problem. It is much more fundamental, because to posit a “right of self-determined dying” and the freedom to take one’s own life, there might then arise as a consequence the duty for the state to provide the necessary conditions for that right.

Up until now self-inflicted death was a taboo. Now that it has fallen, we can expect a subtle pressure on terminally ill patients to follow the expectations of their relatives and friends—even though they may be wrongly assumed—and have them take their own life. The first two articles of the German Constitution set forth the ethical position of a “culture of life.” Its present subsequent formulation now defines a “culture of death.”

I believe that February 26, 2020 will enter into the legal history of the Federal Republic of Germany as a kind of Ash Wednesday.

Hans-Jörg Voigt, D.D.
Bishop, Selbständige Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche (SELK)
Hannover, Germany

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Translation by Rev. Dr. Wilhelm Torgerson (Windsor, Canada)

 

Ingrian Lutherans consecrate new bishop

The consecration of Bishop Ivan Laptev as head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria. (ELCI Media).

RUSSIA – The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria (ELCI) consecrated its new bishop, Rev. Ivan Laptev, at St. Mary Cathedral in St. Petersburg on February 9, 2020. Rev. Laptev was elected bishop during the church’s synod in October 2019.

Bishop Laptev.

Participating in the service of ordination were the ELCI’s outgoing Bishop Arri Kugappi, who this month reached the church’s canonical age of retirement; Archbishop Jānis Vanags of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia; Bishop Vsevold Lytkin of the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church; Bishop Tiit Salumäe of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Estonia’s West and Northern Region; Bishop Seppo Hyakkinen of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland’s Mikkeli Diocese; and the ELCI’s Chief Secretary Mikhail Ivannon.

Rev. Ivanov served as liturgist for the event, with Bishop Elect Laptev preaching. His sermon was based on Matthew 20:1-16, the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Prior to the consecration, Bishop Kugappi called on his successor to remember the example of their predecessors and to stand firm on God’s Word even during times of persecution.

A number of ecumenical guests were present for the event, including General Secretary Timothy Quill of the International Lutheran Council (ILC). Following the service, Dr. Quill brought greetings on behalf of the ILC and its member churches, congratulating Bishop Laptev on his elevation to the bishopric. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria is a member church of the ILC.

Rev. Timothy Quill with translator Alexey Zubstov brings greetings from the International Lutheran Council.

Quoting from St. Paul’s writings to Timothy, Dr. Quill encouraged Bishop Laptev: “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:1-2). Dr. Quill said he looked forward to continued cooperation between the ILC and ELCI as they “work together and pray together for the strengthening of confessional Lutheranism throughout the world.”

Other ecumenical guests included representatives from the Russian Orthodox Church, the Russian Church of Christians of Evangelical Faith, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan’s Evangelical Lutheran Church of Almaty. A number of other churches who were unable to be present for the event sent letters of greetings marking the event.

The evening before the installation of Bishop Laptev, a special service was held in St. Mary Cathedral to mark the service of Bishop Arri Kugappi. The event featured several of Bishop Kugappi’s favourite hymns, a presentation of historical photographs, and refreshments after the service. Those wishing to honour Bishop Kugappi’s service to the church were invited to make a donation to the Theological Institute of the Church of Ingria.

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Photos by Liliann Keskinen and Heikki Jaskelyainen via ELCI media.

ILC concerned over investigation of Finnish Lutherans, urges prayer

FINLAND – The Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland (Suomen evankelisluterilainen Lähetyshiippakunta – ELMDF) has announced that their Dean, Rev. Dr. Juhana Pohjola, was summoned for questioning at the Helsinki Police Department on February 11, 2020.

The interrogation lasted five hours. He has been declared suspected of “ethnic agitation.”

The ELMDF is under investigation by Finland’s Prosecutor General for the publication of a booklet upholding historic Christian teachings on human sexuality. That booklet is “Male and Female He Created Them: Homosexual Relationships Challenge the Christian Concept of Humanity,” written by Dr. Päivi Räsänen, a Member of Parliament in Finland and former Minister of the Interior. Dr. Räsänen is also under investigation by the Prosecutor General.

The ELMDF’s booklet was published in 2004, well before the 2017 legalization of same-sex marriage in Finland. In the work, Dr. Räsänen argues that homosexual activity must be identified as sin by the Church on the basis of the teachings of Scripture.

Dean Pohjola acknowledged that, as editor-in-chief of Luther Foundation Finland, he is responsible for the publication and distribution of the work. “I denied, however, being guilty of the crime of ethnic agitation,” he said. “In my view, Mrs. Räsänen’s text is not defamatory or insulting to homosexuals. In my answers, I showed that the booklet teaches in line with Christian anthropology that every person is precious as [being created in] the image of God, regardless of sexual orientation.”

“This does not mean, however, that people are not responsible before God for their way of life or moral choices,” he continued. “The homosexual lifestyle is contrary to God’s order of creation and a transgression against His will. If one is not allowed to teach this publicly, the message of sin and grace will be left without a foundation, and freedom of religion will decline.”

The investigation of the ELMDF is worrisome, according to Rev. Dr. Timothy Quill, General Secretary of the International Lutheran Council (ILC). “We are extremely concerned over recent actions by the Finnish authorities in targeting faithful Lutherans,” Dr. Quill said. “We understand that the ELMDF and its Dean are under suspicion of a hate crime simply for upholding biblical Christian teachings on sexuality. We urge Finnish authorities to conclude their investigation and reaffirm the rights of Christians to believe and teach in accord with the Word of God.”

“We encourage Christians throughout the world to remember the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland in prayer,” continued Dr. Quill. “Pray that Finnish authorities will uphold the rights of Christians to confess the faith of Scripture clearly and without fear. May God give comfort and strength to His faithful people in Finland.”

The ELDMF is a member of the International Lutheran Council, a global association of confessional Lutheran church bodies representing millions of Lutherans around the world.

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