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.

The Veterans’ Day Lesson I Never Expected

I am the son of a veteran.

My father is a retired Air Force pilot. He flew missions in the Vietnam conflict as well as the Balkans. During Operation Desert Storm, he spoke to an assembly of my entire middle school student body about the reasons for the war and the United State’s objectives in aiding the Kuwaitis. Throughout his career, he flew everything from bombers to F-4 Phantoms to the A-10 Thunderbolt (a.k.a. the “Warthog”). I still remember occasionally looking up to the sky during afternoon soccer practice and seeing that funny-looking, green warplane, with its massive front cannon, gliding across the sky. It would suddenly bank to the side, circle around, and fly over again, this time dipping its wings back and forth. This, I knew, was my father returning to Bergstrom Air Force Base after a trip. He had adjusted his flight-path in order to say a quick hello to his son (while simultaneously solidifying his status, in the eyes of all my teammates, as the coolest dad in the world).

Growing up, I played with models of various airplanes – A-4 Skyhawks, F-14 Tomcats, F-15 Eagles, F-16 Falcons, the list goes on. I watched Top Gun so many times as a kid that to this day I can still quote the final air battle scene in its entirety. And I stood in awe at airshows watching jet pilots scream across the sky performing barrels rolls and synchronized maneuvers. More than anything, though, I loved watching that twin-engine monstrosity roar in low and reduce a targeting shack to a billion exploding splinters of debris.

KctdSNN

Eat your heart out, Tony Stark.

I am exceedingly proud of my father, for his service, for the career he chose, and for what he taught me about discipline, honor, and respect for our country. I do not take it lightly that people like him (not to mention his father and two of my cousins who served in the Marine Corps) have dedicated their lives to protecting this country and its interests. And while I realize not every modern military conflict is directly concerned with our personal freedom, I still recognize that the freedoms we enjoy in this country and the possibility for an even brighter future is what inspires men and women like my father to serve.

I did not choose the line of work my father did. A thousand Top Gun viewings notwithstanding, I was afraid of flying. I still am. I’m also terrible at math, which any jet pilot will tell you is an integral part of the job.

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Not the best place to run out of fuel because you forgot to carry the one.

Instead, I entered another form of service. I dedicated my life to preserving and furthering the freedom of a different kind of country – a freedom, I believe, that is far more precious than even the freedoms we enjoy as Americans. And, on this Veterans’ Day, I recognize that my father’s military service has helped me comprehend a much deeper truth about my own choice of career.

As a pastor, I am tasked with teaching the disciplines of this other country we call the Kingdom of God. It is my job to incite respect and encourage honor for the interests of our Creator and his people. And just as our commander-in-chief, Jesus the Son of God, laid down his life for the sake of every kingdom citizen, so must I be ready and willing to sacrifice my own for the sake of his gospel. This isn’t just a job. It’s a calling. A way of life. And I do not undertake this service merely because I am commanded to, but because, like a good soldier fighting to preserve the interest of the country he loves, I am irrevocably inspired by the freedom I have in Christ, and the promise of a bright, shining future.

Without realizing it, the dedication my father exhibited to his career in the Air Force was at the same time preparing me for my own career in the fields of our Lord. And for that, above everything else, I am abundantly grateful.

So, thank you, Dad, for the discipline, honor, and respect you taught me. Thank you for your sacrifice. Thank you for the missions. Thank you for your life of service.

And thanks for those fly-bys over soccer practice. That was freaking awesome!