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Munther Isaac on Worship and Church Life at Christmas Lutheran Church During COVID-19

In this episode, Palestinian Christian, professor, and pastor Munther Isaac shares with John Witvliet how the use of technology brought worship into homes and opened up new possibilities for services, Bible studies, and more during the during COVID-19 crisis for the worshiping community of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem.

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This interview occurred in the fall of 2020 as part of a course "Learning from Worshiping Communities Worldwide" offered by Calvin Theological Seminary and taught by Calvin Institute of Christian Worship staff Maria Cornou and John D. Witvliet.

See all episodes in Season 2

Host: 

Welcome to Public Worship and the Christian Life, a podcast by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. In this series of conversations hosted by Calvin Institute of Christian Worship staff members, we invite you to explore connections between the public worship practices of congregations and the dynamics of Christian life and witness in a variety of cultural contexts, including places of work, education, community development, artistic and media engagement, and more. Our conversation partners represent many areas of expertise and a range of Christian traditions offering insights to challenge us as we discern the shape of faithful worship and witness in our own communities. In this episode, Palestinian Christian professor and pastor Munther Isaac shares with John Witvliet how the use of technology brought worship into homes and opened up new possibilities for services, Bible studies, and more during the COVID-19 crisis in Palestine.

John Witvliet: 

So pleased today to be in conversation with Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac. Welcome to this conversation. And I'm wondering if we could begin by simply asking you, Munther, to say a word about your current context of ministry filled with so many opportunities for faithful witness, but also a challenging context too. So would you be open to just giving us a brief introduction?

Munther Isaac: 

Thank you, John. My name is Munther; a little bit about myself: I am a Palestinian Christian from Beit Sahur. Beit Sahur is a little town five minutes away from Bethlehem, known for being the place of the shepherds, known as the Shepherd's Field. It's historically where we believe the angels appeare to the shepherds. I studied here in Palestine engineering before sensing a calling to go to ministry. And my journey took me to Westminster Theological Seminary and the United States. I studied there for three years and then came back to Bethlehem and began teaching at Bethlehem Bible College, and I've been with them since then. During those years, I worked on my PhD through the Oxford Center for Mission Studies. My theme, or my study, was on the theology of the Promised Land; it was published with Langham in a book called From Land to Lands. And through the Bible college, we've worked on a conference called Christ at the Checkpoint that I've been directing since 2010. And when I finished my PhD and spent a year in England, and when I came back, I joined the Lutheran church and the Bible college, so that you know, is more in line or more within the evangelical tradition. The Lutheran church here, or the Evangelical Lutheran church, is a more mainline Protestant church. So I made that shift, which was interesting for the topic of our conversation, from a setting where I'm used more to informal, contemporary worship into a more liturgical worship. I moved to that church in 2013, was ordained in 2016. Right now I pastor the church in Bethlehem, Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem. And I also could call me interim pastor for the Lutheran church in our town, Beit Sahour, because they don't have a pastor. So it's interesting running between two churches, and at the same time, the academic dean of the Bible college, in addition to a lot of the advocacy and conferences work. So that's life here, very busy. Half of it is in pastoral work. One third is in the academy, and one third is in advocacy. I know the math doesn't result in one full-time job, but that's the reality here.

John Witvliet: 

Yeah, probably two or three jobs there, I think. But what a joy. In our work we find in living within those different worlds and trying to connect them---the academy to the church, church informed by the academy---all with outward-facing witness and voice in the larger world. So we're grateful for you and your ministry. And I'm wondering if you could share a little bit about the disruption that COVID-19 has caused in these worlds for you and what that experience has been like. And then perhaps out of that, we'll talk again about worship and the like.

Munther Isaac: 

Yes. So of course, since March, pretty much life has changed completely here in Bethlehem and of course around the world. What it meant for us in Bethlehem, first we went through almost two months of strict quarantine, meaning we didn't leave the house, and we only left to buy goods. As clergy here in Bethlehem, the authorities allowed us to travel freely to go to church, to visit people if needed, and mainly to distribute support. A lot of my own work shifted from the norm into social work, assisting families, organizing with grassroots movements that wanted to help the families because in Bethlehem, so many people lost their job like this because of tourism. A big number of people depend entirely on tourism and they didn't have any safety blankets. In other words, they would live by the day, day after day. So losing your only source of income was, and still is, devastating for many families. Churchwise, we shifted also into online services, which was very strange in the beginning. In fact, when we began, I thought, let's just do fifteen minutes, a message from the pastor, and then let's have one hymn. And then gradually we shifted into the full service. I can tell you what the feedback is. It's been interesting to see how many new homes we've reached, but how much people appreciated it, especially the older generation. When it comes to the Bethlehem Bible College, everything's shifted into online teaching. We've already had a strong online program for those who live outside of Palestine, but beginning from March, we shifted into online teaching and finished the semester in that way. Right now we're dealing with so many unpredictabilities; we're really living day by day, and when it comes to church services week by week. For example, this Sunday we didn't do any service face-to-face. I went alone and used the technology. But next week we don't know what we're going to do. I'm always in touch with my elders just to see. And it depends on the number of cases in Bethlehem, whether church members have been in touch with these people who caught COVID-19 and so on.

John Witvliet: 

Wow. So earlier you described your own journey from a less liturgical tradition to a more liturgical tradition. How's that been for you, first of all in your own journey, and then how has that shaped the church's response to COVID? Do you notice differences across traditions and especially out of this new, more liturgical context, how has that been an element or a dynamic in guiding your improvisation from week to week?

Munther Isaac: 

To me the biggest change that I really appreciate and that I find really important between the two contexts or the two settings is that in a more liturgical setting, it's clear that this is a God - centered worship rather than my personal emotions and how I feel, and about the individual. Having a psalm read every Sunday, the confession where not only do we confess our sins, but the gospel is preached every Sunday through the confession and the words of absolution, all of that is just being ... even though we do it week by week, it's so important to me and it's so refreshing. The fact that we confess and say things together has also been very, very important and life-changing. Certainly I can speak a lot also about my appreciation of the sacraments, of the mystery element of the sacraments, as opposed, as I said, to a more feeling-oriented or personal-oriented evangelical worship. And keep in mind, many times we simply---especially within the evangelical Protestant tradition---we first of all inherit things from the missionaries from the West. And I happen to be from a second generation in the evangelical movement and I've been able to think critically. So I still teach at the Bible college and I still speak as an evangelical, but feel more comfortable worshiping in a ... let's call it a Lutheran setting. But as I said, one of the things that I've come to see in the evangelical worship is so many times I felt it is focused on the person, on the individual, rather than speaking about God, even the mystery of who God is, how we can comprehend God and how he offers himself to us, for example, in the sacraments, when I consider the words of the hymns and so on ... and by the way, our church music is divided into half, so we sing with the organ; we sing traditional hymns that are translated, hymns that are in very strong Arabic, very poetic and so on, but we also sing contemporary music. And I think once you look into contemporary music, it's a big pool. A lot of it in the Arab world is written in Egypt, or most of it is written in Egypt, some in Jordan and Lebanon, but it's a huge pool and you can actually select very good and very---I don't know in your context, but in our context, there is plenty of beautiful contemporary music. One of the things I've learned is the volume of singing almost doubles between hymns and the contemporary music. People love the contemporary music. They love to sing---maybe our church in general, they love to sing. But you could tell the difference because of the melody, the tune is more Oriental and people feel that more than traditional hymns. So we do a good mix. In other words, it's not that I am completely against or rejecting new styles of worship. COVID-19 is allowed us to bring our worship into homes. And that's the message I've heard from people. They love the fact that the psalms, the gospel was read in their house as they were listening. Certainly they enjoy my preaching, or so they tell me, but honestly what they like the most is the singing and the music and the reading of scripture in their homes. And they tell me they sing along. They say, we listen, we follow the whole service. Elderly people really appreciate it because they were not able to come to church in normal circumstances. We ended up installing a nice system in our church with different cameras and a sound system, just to be able to reach more homes, sensing that this is really a needed ministry. But again, you know, what resonates more with people is not a powerful sermon, even thoughmaybe they did appreciate the sermon, but it's the fact that church life came into their homes. And I really think of that a lot.

John Witvliet: 

And what is your approach through the sacraments, Lord's Supper, baptism during this time?

Munther Isaac: 

The Lord's Supper is a confirmation of the real presence of God with us. And it's very fitting because we preach about this in Bethlehem. So when we do the Lord's supper, I sometimes remind the congregation, the miracle of Emmanuel, God with us, Emmanuel is not over here in Bethlehem. We should know better than anybody else that the real presence of God with us is so important. That's what it means to me, more than anything, the fact that it is Christ who offers himself to us, that he is fully present in the sacraments. In our church we do it once a month; there is always the debate whether we should do it once a week or once a month, but there are many who, if they are not able to be in the service the day of the Lord's Supper at the beginning of the month, they would not stop calling me until I go to their home to do the service in their home because to them it's essential to stay kind of in fellowship with Jesus in a direct connection. So it's certainly more than a memory, or just a remembrance. And it's certainly more than just a spiritual exercise. The actual presence of God is at heart for us. Keep in mind, we are a little community number-wise. Yet so many activities and schools, university, college, and theological centers have a big impact in our town. But nevertheless, we are the Christian community in general and the Lutheran. So to have the assurance of God's presence is so comforting. That's at least the way I look at the sacraments.

John Witvliet: 

Yeah, powerful.

Host: 

You are listening to Public Worship and the Christian Life: Conversations for the Journey, a podcast produced by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, check out our website at worship.calvin . edu for resources related to this topic and many other aspects of public worship.

John Witvliet: 

And what choices have you made about Lord's Supper and baptism here during the last six months with COVID?So many churches are doing such different things: fasting from the Lord's Supper, engaging online in some ways---the Protestant world has so many different practices and approaches.

Munther Isaac: 

We discussed it a little bit among ourselves and actually concluded ... we played with the idea of having people drink wine and bread in their house and repeating with us, but didn't go along with it. For the first three months, it was just me in the church with my organist and the camera people that would do it. Later we invited people to church and asked for safety measurements. You know, it was strange because at one point we had to have one person stand in front of me offering the bread and the wine and make people sanitize their hands before I present to them, with my mask on, the bread and the wine. But honestly, for a stretch of almost three months we did not have it. And some older-generation people actually complained. Between us and our bishop, we took the difficult decision of not taking any risks. We discussed and I said, Bishop, I can go to their homes. And he's like, so what if you contract it from one home to the other? That's the last thing we want. So we encourage people, something about how to take the Lord's supper, and distance, and emphasizing that God is not limited to place.

John Witvliet: 

If you think ahead to imagine in the future, look ahead two or three years, do you have intuition already about some things that churches are learning, especially about worship, but other dimensions of church life that will not end when when we are past COVID, after we get vaccines and other things? Are there some things ... are we just going to be going back to church life as we knew it, or will there be some more permanent changes because of things we're learning during this time?

Munther Isaac: 

One of the things that might change is that it seems that more people feel comfortable with online services, which is not a good thing, honestly, but people already told me, please don't stop this after COVID-19; we love it--- not just old people, but people from our church in the diaspora. I know people who tune in from different time zones just to watch it. I think that's the first thing. But second I think that there will be an appreciation of fellowship, real fellowship with one another. COVID time in our church, it's interesting. Our service lasts mostly 50 minutes, two or three times sometimes last for an hour. So this is how much people enjoy being with one another. And by the way, just as a footnote, it's been really interesting and challenging to shift from 50 minute sermons into 12 to 15 minutes of sermons. I've been amazed at how much I can say actually in 12 to 15 minutes. It doesn't have to be long; you don't have to have jokes or anything. Just a very focused message. There is certainly a new appreciation for our fellowship with one another, something that we've missed. And as I said, that's something we've already solved. For a whole month the congregation met in person; that was in August. And gradually they began returning from 10 to 15 to 20, 30, even 40, and they wanted coffee. But the elders said no, no coffee. Let's just stay outside in our church yard and talk there, but everybody complained: We'll wear masks and stay in distanced, but we want to go to the church hall again and sit and have coffee. So again, I think that's what many people missright now.

John Witvliet: 

There's something beautiful about that longing to be together. So yeah, something to celebrate there, even while it's a challenge to manage it, for you and for many others. I'd love to ask about your sense of how we can better support each other as brothers and sisters in Christ from around the world. I think about in some contexts, it seems, how little we know about each other across different cultural contexts, across different national borders. And then I think about how especially poignant that is for Palestinian Christians and how much, if I may say from the United States, how much ignorance about the Palestinian Christian church there is, and the problems that that creates on so many levels. I'm wonder if you can just reflect a little bit on, especially now in this context of COVID where there's more technological possibilities and engagement, just how we might move forward in encouraging better mutuality, awareness, and the like.

Munther Isaac: 

COVID - 19 opened the eyes of many about so many new possibilities. Among them is joint services. One of the things I've done is join congregations and their Bible studies on Sunday mornings, which would be Sunday evening in our church. And there has been so much value in that. We are discussing with a partner church how can we get even more advantage of the technology? And I think that's something we should consider as churches. For example, it's much easier for me now to preach in a church in the United States, especially for example, given the time zones than it used to be in the past. ... I've done many webinars.That's another thing people discovered, webinars. Now we're having conferences online; I'mspeaking in a conference on Saturday. So that's going to be a new experience, but I think the next step maybe is to consider, for example, having a sermon from Bethlehem or from Jerusalem and vice versa. I'm not sure if you've heard, but one of the interesting things our church has been doing for more than ten years ... is what we call a simulcast service between Christmas Lutheran Church and the National Cathedral in Washington, where both of our churches will have big screens. Part of the service is done in Bethlehem, and then the next part is done in Washington. And we alternate. And usually there is a Christmas message from our bishop to not just the National Cathedral, but more than 40 congregations actually broadcast that service on their websites and Facebook pages. Some churches actually gather in their sanctuary and watch it live from the two places. When I first joined, I thought that's the most unique, very innovative idea, but I think that can be done more now, and more churches would feel so much safer about it. Just one more observation. This Monday, we've had a prayer for peace organized by the World Council of Churches. I was the preacher, but I preached from my desk, and the service was organized and arranged in such a way that everybody participated. From the general secretary of the World Council of Churches we had prerecorded prayer requests and so on. And I think we will be seeing more of that in the future. More ecumenical gatherings in the full sense of the word, with ecumenical meaning global , from different parts of the world.

John Witvliet: 

Thank you. I think that certainly echoes the conversations we're having to discern what are the opportunities, and then also what do we need to know about each other to really make those online engagements rich and well-informed and generative in all the right ways. So thank you. That's powerful. I would love to ask you also about this phrase that I've picked up from some of the literature I've seen coming from a Palestinian context, the "double lockdown," to refer to not only lockdown brought on by COVID-19, but in the context of occupation and the curfews that may result from time to time because of that or the "quarantines," and then how these two things intersect in people's experience. What does that bring to mind?

Munther Isaac: 

Well, sadly, it's the fact that we're used to this, and in a sense, this disruption in our life is more common here. The difference was that this time, those who are imposing the lockdown are our own people. So it was well - received as opposed to other experiences. I think that, ... speaking from a more political activism sense, it's clear to me everywhere you look, those who are less fortunate or who are marginalized in general in society are the ones who suffered most from COVID-19 and the consequences of COVID-19, whether that's about access to health systems, to medication, to hospitals, to tests, or whether it's the economic consequences, it became clear that there is a clear inequality. The same tragedy hits people, but people suffer from it in different ways, based on where they stand. So I think that's the first thing that I want to say. For us Palestinians, as I said, certainly we're used to closures. It's sad that I say this. It's sad that this is the norm, and it's sad that ... you know, we always talk here you must always have plan B and plan C for everything, but sometimes you cannot even plan for the worst. So yes, it is a double lockdown; we still live under occupation, and the impact of not having a strong state with a strong infrastructure with healthcare, health insurance, and so on became so clear these days.

John Witvliet: 

What strikes me is, as you say that---for all of us in so many different countries around the world, to see ourselves through that lens and realize that those inequalities have been very central to the story in the United States and in many other countries too. It's certainly an invitation, as you say, to advocacy and faithful public witness in ways that some of us are just beginning to understand and others who have been practicing and living with for generations, certainly decades. I would like to thank you so much for the time today in the middle of your multiple duties to have this conversation, and I want to convey to you not only the best wishes, but the deep prayers for ministries from those of us at Calvin University, Calvin Seminary and the students who are part of the explorations that we're engaging with leaders from around the world. And I'll say we look very much forward to future ways of learning from each other, with each other, about what faithful Christian witness and life looks like for all of us going forward.

Host: 

Thanks for listening. We invite you to visit our website at worship.calvin.edu to learn more about the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship an interdisciplinary study and ministry center dedicated to the scholarly study of the theology, history, and practice of Christian worship and the renewal of worship in worshiping communities across North America and beyond.

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