This ‘n’ That
This month’s column provides no mental express train. It follows the scenic route instead. I hope at least one stop will catch your eye along the way.
The current speed of news is head-spinning.
Keeping up emotionally is hard. Saying a timely, coherent word is nearly impossible.
I’m writing ten days before publication. Normally a ten-day lag wouldn’t matter. But life isn’t normal. You who record worship services face the same struggle. How do you change your message or pastoral prayer in response to late-breaking news, when the video goes to the editors on Tuesday?
What can we do when circumstances outpace our ability to reflect on them and respond intelligently? I don’t know. But maybe this:
“…proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2).
After all, the Bible repeatedly speaks the words the world needs to hear, regardless of the age. We are to hear them afresh for ours.
We live in a season of heightened fear.
We face a virus that infects without warning and for which we have no vaccine and no cure. We imagine financial collapse, whether of our households or the global economy. We worry that our congregations will not recover. We wonder if we, or those we love, will come home safe.
Many of our fears are legitimate, especially these days. But not all. A pastor-friend in the Midwest, who serves a church of 150 in a remote town of 3500, told me of a local rumor that demonstrators and rioters would drive in from the nearest large city—over two hours away—in order to disrupt the peace. The rumor caused more disruption than the non-existent riots.
For those seeking money or power, trafficking in fear pays handsomely, but at great cost to others. When combined with our legitimate worries, the fear trade cooks up a deadly stew of self-protection.
We need hardly wonder, then, at the Bible’s refrain: “Fear not.” Our obedience not only protects our souls. It protects the lives of those we would otherwise sacrifice in our rush for safety.
Exhaustion won’t help your ministry.
My fellow presbytery leaders recently discussed how to find rest during the crises. One of them said (I paraphrase): “I’m not resting. I’m in the middle of a storm and I dare not go to sleep until it has passed.”
Similarly, one of you wrote me: “[I’m] Trying to keep up with Presbytery meeting, contractors budget [sic] and moving priorities, virtual worship preparation and [my child’s] science demands…Pray for my sanity.”
I don’t know any lazy ministry leaders. I know only people who put their whole hearts into the work. If you err, you err on the side of depending too much on your own efforts to keep the Church-boat from sinking (I’m guilty too).
“Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the LORD guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives sleep to his beloved” (Psalm 127:1-2)
Now you may say to me, “Fine, Forrest. But you’re not trying to [fill in the blank here]. You really don’t get it.”
Yes, it is quite possible I don’t. But please read this before writing me off. If it doesn’t apply to you, it applies to many of your fellow ministers. They need our prayers—and more.
It is time to start popping our own filter bubbles.
We do not share a common life. The heartbreaking news of the last month reminded us that we live in violently different worlds from each other. The roles we play affect our perceptions. We ask different questions and find different answers. If you know someone who has faced COVID-19, you engage the news differently than those for whom it is less personal.
Readers, you know that your experience is not true everywhere. Even within a small presbytery like Los Ranchos, wide variations exist—city and suburb, beach and downtown, north and south, even green space and pavement. Our community includes eight language groups (which aren’t monolithic themselves). The energetic debate and close vote at May’s Presbytery meeting revealed some of our differences.
(Notice the topographical differences between just two churches in our Presbytery.)
The pandemic has aggravated the problem. It’s harder to see each other’s lives. Economic disparities are growing. If we want to pursue relational healing, we must build new and surprising connections, ones that stretch us beyond our safe and familiar filter bubbles.
For we proclaim the reconciliation of the Gospel that Paul describes:
“For [Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Ephesians 2:14).
But if Jesus has done it, why don’t we see it even in the church? And when and how will we start living like it?
Maybe we are witnessing birth pangs.
We are frayed right now—confused, frightened, tired and troubled. But perhaps we also are a little curious, a little hopeful. Could something much better be emerging, both in our churches and in our society?
After all, Jesus doesn’t describe the apocalypse as the utter end. He describes it as “the beginning of the birth pangs” (Mark 13:8)—painful beyond the knowledge of men, full of anguish and upheaval, but ultimately the path to bringing wonderful new life into the world. Could it be so for us?
Somewhere along the Way—