From One Pastor to Another…

Dear Pastor,

I’m thinking about you today. I want you to know that I’m hopeful for you, concerned about you, nervous for you, appreciative of you, and fearful for you. Most of all, though, I want you to know how much I admire you. It hasn’t been easy, has it?

I write to you out of my own experiences, but truly it is you I hold in my mind. I know our circumstances aren’t identical, of course, but the equivalencies persist. Whether you serve a small church like I do, or a large church, or something in between, none of us found ourselves exempt from this struggle.

The Teacher says “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecc. 1:9), which in one respect is true. But, still, no one we know has gone through this before. No professors, no mentors, no older pastors we look up to and occasionally call for advice. Sure, there have always been hard seasons. As we’ve told many a church member over the last few months, every generation goes through trying times, frightful times, life-altering-and-redefining times. There’s wisdom to be gleaned, for sure, and  we have squeezed every last drop from that sponge. Yet the unprecedented nature of these times remains; we’re still waking up each morning under a dark-cloud reminder that the old rhythms have withered and ministry has become far more improvised than we would prefer.

I admire you for sticking with it. If I’m being honest (and what’s the point of writing to you if I’m not), at times I’ve wondered whether I could stick with it. I’m trying, and I know you are, too. Some days are better than others. I place my faith in the truth that God is faithful. But those who claim this faith is easy are most certainly false prophets.

Going Online

First, there’s the struggle of “doing church online.” Just the phrase itself is rife with problems, both grammatical and ecclesiological.

I don’t know about you, but I was already frustrated with social media before this crisis. The fellowship it offers isn’t genuine. The connections and dialogue made available within its parameters are only phantoms, bearing no real substance. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok… they serve a purpose, sure, but you and I both know they cannot sustain the deep needs of the human heart. After all, what does it profit a man to get a hundred Likes for posting a politically snarky meme, yet forfeit his soul?

When we try to use social media to foster genuine fellowship, it’s like trying to slake our thirst with a spoonful of salt. Now, however, we have little choice. We face a circumstantial compromise – for a season we must figure out how to conduct the genuine fellowship we once knew within the dimly lit halls of the social media complex, while all around us flutter a thousand and one black-winged temptations, the unspiritual disciplines of conspiracy theories and clickbait, the rotten fruits of screen addiction and instant gratification. It is not the catacombs of old, by any means, but ours is a harrowing time nonetheless.

I’ve gotta ask, how have you been delivering your sermons? I’ve been preparing them as best I can, though my preferred weekly schedule was quickly tossed in the garbage. But then I’ve had to set up cameras to film them myself, then download to my laptop, then teach myself how to use video-editing software… Preaching the sermon used to be the finish line of a weekly marathon filled with reading, prayer, reflection, research and writing. Once you finally preached it, though, at least you were finished. There wasn’t another four more hours of footage adornment and audio adjustment on the back end to make up for the handicap of it not being delivered in-person.

Meanwhile, you ache for your worship pastor, who is simultaneously engaged in his own struggle to lift congregants’ spirits and inspire them to raise their voices in their own living rooms, all while deprived of his full band or vocal team. Your Children’s Pastor is wracking his brain to somehow convert all his high-energy, hands-on activities to a video stream. And your Student Pastor, whose heart continues to fall as with every passing week fewer and fewer teenagers exhibit the patience necessary to gather online for Bible study because, for crying out loud, they’ve already spent hours on Zoom trying to complete their schoolwork. You want to encourage them, but what is there to say? This is not the way the church should function, and the proof is in the pudding.

I admire you, because despite these setbacks and the completely unexpected load of extra work, you’ve plunged forward into this unsettling new world. “To the work! To the work! In the strength of the Lord,” as the old hymn declares, “and a robe and crown shall our labor reward.” You’ve kept your eyes on the horizon, though it’s been hard, especially when you see the number of views or shares decrease (the cyberspace equivalent of a shrinking attendance), or when your deacons report that some church members don’t have a good enough Internet connection to even access what your team has labored over, or when you speak with church members who remind you that no amount of online content or phone calls or even cards in the mail (old school!) can combat the cruel loneliness that comes with protecting ourselves from the pandemic.

So Many People, So Little Time

Pastoral care was difficult even before Covid-19. When you become a pastor, you quickly understand the apostles’ decision in Acts 6 to establish and specify helpers. It’s hard to balance all our other expectations – directing the vision, collaborating with staff, planning worship, and preparing multiple sermons and Bible lessons, and interceding for the congregation and the community – with the personal attention people expect from their spiritual leaders. You try your best to get out of the office, to make phone calls at appropriate hours, but you quickly find the hourglass has once again run dry. There’s always tomorrow, sure, though tomorrow brings its own fresh set of challenges. What a blessing it is when your people call or visit you, because sometimes you need it more than they do.

Is it me, or has this working-from-home thing only made the sand drain away faster? All this extra work, all the challenges of trying to deal with ministerial issues and maintain congregational projects without being able to meet with all the players in person… It’s maddening how much more time-consuming that has become. Sure, I marvel at some of the technology we’ve been able to employ to keep things running these last few months, but I also know that the only Zoom meetings that run shorter than normal meetings are the ones in which people get so annoyed with the connectivity bugs that they give up and sign-off early. It may help us sustain productivity, but I haven’t experienced any advancements in efficiency, have you?

You want to go visit people. You really do. Here and there, you make a socially-distanced drive-by. You even take your family along, because you’re keenly aware you’re not spending enough time with them these days either. But even if some of your congregants wouldn’t mind having you in their home, you recognize the risk of that, and one thing you must do as a pastor-shepherd is protect the flock, even if that means protecting them from you. In between all your projects, you make phone calls or write notes. And you pray. Oh, how you pray!

At the end of each day, you feel like Oskar Schindler at the end of Spielberg’s film, insisting you could have done more, couldn’t you? You fall asleep thinking this, only to dream of CDC guidelines and controversial recommendations. You awake with a mounting burden of ignorance, of not knowing for sure how your congregants are doing.

You Shall Know the Truth

Top all this off with the struggle you’re now experiencing to determine whether reopening/regathering/resuming (call it what you will) is the right call, and, if so, what precautionary steps should be taken to protect the people even when it’s become virtually impossible in our country for people to agree on which precautionary measures are sound and which are bogus. Sure, you consult the CDC and the WHO, among others, because certainly it is for such a time as this that they were commissioned, but then you discover some folks are skeptical of these organizations. A few even consider them part of a massive hidden agenda to keep us all desperate and fearful. So it is, to your utter exasperation, that determining a set of health guidelines is to flirt with controversy, and the last thing you want to do is stir the already roiling pot of controversy. You want controversy and partisanship and all those awful, divisive poisons as far from your community as possible, but lately there seems no way around them. The truth feels elusive, camouflaged, and so you spend your days researching even more – health reports and medical journals and watching online seminars with epidemiologists – which only adds to your fitful sleep and the weird dreams you’re having at night.

All you want is to regather your church, to call them back from this forced hibernation, to provide space to connect with God and one another, to experience anew the sacred relationship between worship and fellowship. With the mounting unrest in our society, and anguished voices crying out louder and louder each day, never has it been more important to gather in the Name of the One who makes all things new.

You know people are trusting you and – if you have one – your staff to make the right decisions, but man! It’s so easy to second-guess and third-guess decisions right now. If you don’t have a staff to collaborate with, I pray an extra gift of wisdom and discernment for you. I can’t imagine doing this all alone.

Of course, you’re not alone. None of us are. That’s what I have to keep reminding myself. This stay-at-home stuff would have us believe we’re doing this solo, but then we talk to those church members who are doing everything they can to support us and each other. Those deacons who are faithfully calling the people. Those prayer warriors who have not missed one day interceding for us all. We are not alone. Our churches will always be more than me and you, and thank God for that! They are strong not because we are strong, but because the Savior is strong. “His power is made perfect in our weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).

So, I admire you for keeping the faith. Now we know a little more about what Paul means when he says, “I have fought the good fight” (2 Tim. 4:7) – there are days when this is indeed a fight. We are contending not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities that would use our doubts, our shortcomings, and our character flaws to quell the Spirit’s fire and deal a mortal blow to our faith. Thank goodness we need not fight this battle alone.

Hang in there, Pastor. The struggle is real, but so is Jesus. This too shall pass, but even if it doesn’t, salvation remains. Remember the God of the ages is with you. He blesses, he keeps, he makes his face shine bright to those who seek him.

Grace in omnibus.

Christians & Coronavirus: 4 Reminders

As Covid-19, the potentially life-threatening coronavirus, spreads across the world, people are reacting in a number of ways. Some drink bleach. Others hoard toilet paper. The rest slather their social media profiles in 100-proof speculation and consternation. Among these are professing Christians, whose anxiety over this health crisis is as palpable as everyone else’s, despite the fact that Christians are supposed to be “crucified with Christ” – it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us (Gal. 2:20).

The Bible has much to say about fear, and how believers should cope with it. But it is important for Christians to remember and admit that we are as human as everyone else. We are just as susceptible to this virus, not to mention to the instinctual emotions of anxiety, fear, and panic. As such, even though “we know whom we have believed” (2 Tim 1:12), we do not always respond to crises the right way.

So, as a pastor currently waist-deep in the mire of this crisis and its far-ranging effects, I want to offer a few reminders for believers on how to maintain our calling as Christ’s ambassadors in the midst of this fearful time…

 

#1 – Stop Blustering. (It’s OK to Be Honest about How You Feel.)

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Have you ever watched a sitcom or a comedy sketch in which a bunch of people go to a scary movie, or to one of those haunted house attractions? Within the group there is always at least one person who acts like nothing scares him. He continually speaks derisively about the frightening elements, the joke being that he is actually terrified but won’t admit it.

Sometimes, saying “I’m not scared” can help decrease my fear. (I know as a parent I’ve had to do that on occasion, during a bad thunderstorm, or when there’s a sudden, strange noise in the house.) But putting on a false air of boldness, or ranting about how everyone else is overreacting and there is nothing at all to be concerned about, only makes a person seem increasingly out-of-touch and unhinged. There is nothing gracious or compassionate in ridiculing others for being scared in what is quite obviously a scary time.

It is better to acknowledge fear than deny it. To name it rather than pretend it doesn’t exist. To admit you are scared is to be honest (with yourself, with others, and with God) while to announce how un-scared you are is to bear false witness and only dig yourself a deeper emotional hole to wallow in.

Even if you are truly unafraid of  the coronavirus, Christians should recognize that a lot of other people are. As children of the living God, we should not be found rolling our eyes at people’s anxieties, but listening to them, and speaking gently out of our own experiences of leaning on the sovereignty of God over the shortcomings of man.

 

#2 – Stop Vilifying the Media

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Look, I’m not saying every report coming out about Covid-19 has been completely inerrant. Indeed, there are some elements of hysteria woven within our news cycle. However, the vast majority of media outlets and journalists are simply focused on informing people about the details of this virus, not stirring them into a frenzy.

How can I be so sure of this? Because journalists are people, too. I happen to know a few of them personally. They’re good people, trying to do their jobs in the midst of constantly shifting reports from federal agencies and response centers across the globe! I would not want their job for a minute, and I respect the work they are doing. Sure, without the media there might be less hysteria, but without the media we also wouldn’t know anything about this sickness, which would mean even more sick people and even more deaths.

In the last decade or so, Christians have really fumbled the ball on how we think about the media. I know several folks who are absolutely convinced that every major news outlet (except their particular favorite one, of course) is operating under an agenda so sinister it would make a Bond villain blush. It’s astonishing how quick we are to point a finger and cry “Bias!” and yet refuse to admit we may cling to some biases of our own, like a twelve-year-old with a security blanket.

Media offers perspective, and a free media is the lodestar of a free country. It is not something to be denigrated or perpetually distrusted. We may not always agree with a specific angle of media perspective, but, then again, why would we expect to? As followers of Jesus, whose identities are secured by his love and mercy, it’s our responsibility to receive the information distributed to us and then to weigh each point according to the truth of God’s Word. If we skip this second step, we do a great disservice to ourselves and the rest of the world, especially in times like these.

 

#3 – Contemplate Our Fragility

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In a country as technologically advanced as this one, most of our lives unfold a comfortable distance from extreme hardship. Certainly, we experience difficult times. Divorce, high crime rates, systemic poverty and mass shootings are significant plagues upon our society; neither are we immune to natural disasters like hurricanes, wildfires, and floods.

However, it is exceedingly rare for the whole of our country to face an apocalyptic reality on the level of what the coronavirus has delivered – the very real fear of exponential infection, of a scarcity of goods and services, of overflowing hospitals, of entire cities and industries grinding to a halt with no clear idea when normalcy will return. This is not something we Americans are familiar with. But it is what many other people in other parts of the world face every day. Think Sudan. Think Venezuela. Think Syria. What is frighteningly abnormal for us is, for them, just another Tuesday.

To be a Christian is to think beyond your national identity. It means recognizing we are members of a global movement, a people group that transcends race, gender, nationality, socio-economic class, and the privileges (or lack of privileges) that come with those things. Those of us who profess faith in Christ would do well to remember that extreme violence and extreme poverty and extreme sickness – the desperate groanings of a fallen world – are alive and well throughout the planet. What we are experiencing in America right now is frightening, but we can take comfort in knowing we have powerful infrastructures and trained professionals in place who can and will respond to the crisis. The same cannot be said for everyone.

In times such as these, human beings are confronted with the fragility of their existence. We see how quickly everything we trust in – all the little routines and comforts we hardly think twice about – can be taken away. Most folks in America expect they will be restored, and soon. If nothing else, may this crisis show us the extraordinary luxury behind that expectation.

 

#4 – Lean Into This Unexpected Sabbath

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Speaking of things grinding to a halt, there might actually be a benefit hiding behind all this chaos of school closings and the cancellation of public events. Yes, I realize a plethora of people are still slogging to work everyday (thank you, medical professionals and first-responders!), and there are a lot of folks who are now forced to juggle childcare, not to mention worry about whether or not their small business will fail, or if they can even make enough money to pay rent. I don’t mean to make light of those concerns in any way.

And yet, many of us who too often find ourselves going-going-going, running from one to-do on our lists to another, chauffeuring children from school to sports practice, balancing grocery shopping with church activities with all the little appointments and family responsibilities sprinkled in… All of a sudden, a lot of these self-imposed obligations have disappeared. We find ourselves standing in the eerie quiet of a relaxed schedule, our aching shoulders suddenly relieved by a significantly lightened load. There is time to breathe. Time to think. Time to take things slow.

The Bible has a word for this. It’s called sabbath. At its core, it was a time to slow down, to rest from our labors, to set aside the to-do list and enjoy the peace that comes flooding in when you do. Scripture tells us that God intended his people to practice this once every seven days for the entirety of their lives, but in our modern culture we have all kinds of excuses why that just doesn’t work anymore. We keep ourselves so busy these days that we don’t even have time to feel guilty about ignoring God’s commandment. But all of a sudden, and in only a few days time, so many of the things that kept us busy are – poof! – gone.

Guess what isn’t gone? Guess what’s still hanging around, waiting to be indulged despite always playing second fiddle to our life-draining busyness?

Family. Storytelling. Reading. Laughter. Singing. Playing music. Long walks. Bike rides. Fishing. Hiking. Lingering over a home-cooked meal. You know, the things that make life worthwhile in the first place.

Yes, there are very real concerns to be aware of right now. There are dire needs to pray for, and a truckload of cares to cast upon the mighty arm of the Lord. This is a serious time. But Christians, especially Christians in America, have never had such an extraordinary chance to do good, to exemplify the principles of God’s kingdom, and to model what an honest, gracious, compassionate, and blessed life actually looks like.

Can we really afford to let this chance go by?