Monthly Archives: May 2020

Pastoring During COVID-19

(Warning: I meant this to be about a paragraph and then it became a whole sermon… you’ll understand – preachers gonna preach.)

This email went around last week:

I shared it with a couple of colleagues. And a colleague of mine shared it with my clerk of Session who sent it out to our Session. I got a call from the chair of personnel telling me to schedule a vacation in place of my canceled sabbatical.

I endorse the message of this article. It’s true for all leaders right now, not just pastors of course. And for some, it will stop there. But I feel a need to flesh out the full story that this is missing for me (not necessarily for everyone) right now:

1) This time is also energizing.

I’m more aware of my calling and why I do what I do than ever. There are a lot of days that ministry seems futile or unimportant. These are not those kind of days. This takes me back to chaplaincy at Grady Memorial – walking the hallway at 3 in the morning while working simultaneous deaths… it was harrowing but you knew what you did mattered. You felt your calling and importance of it. And I feel that now. And that is empowering.

2) This isn’t all work.

I actually buy into this whole calling thing. I’m not simply a person who preaches. I love to preach – if I didn’t I would admit isn’t not the most effective of practices and stop doing it. But saying, “don’t you want to take a week off preaching?” is like asking a musician why they play an instrument. Preaching is in my bones, and those bones – like the stones – will sing out if I stop preaching. Hearing other voices is important… so yes, I will get some other preaching voices in there this summer – worry not about that ye who is tired of me. But preaching isn’t work – its the art that makes my soul sing.

3) This isn’t all work (again).

I would live my discipleship whether I was paid to do it or not. I’m lucky. VERY lucky. I’m paid to do what I would have to do even if no one paid me. I lead as a volunteer in other areas. Those same anxieties on this list are true there as well. And I would do those things anyway. Because I believe it is how life should be lived. I’m just lucky. Because its also my job.

4) I love you.

I am not a touchy-feely person. I’m an introvert. I could ride this “storm” out at home and never leave and feel just fine with it all. If it wasn’t for you. But I love you. I love my congregation. I love my community. And love draws you in. Love compels compassion and care. I couldn’t sit this out. I canceled my sabbatical without question or regret. I will get the break and time away. I’m not worried. You love me too. I know you will make sure I take it. But this simply isn’t the time – and we know it.

5) You love me.

Hear this: I have never received so much appreciation and love as I have in the last 6 weeks. People worried about me. People grateful for me. People giving witness to the impact of our shared ministry. These are things a pastor loves to know is true. We don’t want to admit it because we also believe it’s not about us. We also want to be humble servant leaders. But we aren’t immune from some ego. We like to imagine that what we do matters and that someone, anyone, is listening – responding – feeling like this whole thing makes a difference in their life and the life of the world. And right now… you are making know the truth of that. Thank you. And that goes a LONG way. Literally, I find myself getting tired or overwhelmed and then I get email gratitude or a text and I feel like the Hulk – and I’m ready to take it all on again. Ok… some times.

6) We love the church.

It is hard to love a thing that is in rapid decline. It’s hard to love a thing many people are ambivalent to, or hostile towards. And it’s hard to love a thing that earns that hostility and ambivalence far too often. But that does change that we love it. And that we find it good, and transforming, and essential. So to exist in a time when I feel like the Church is more the Church than ever is powerfully important to me. I feel grateful to be a pastor in this season. I hope I never forget the gifts this season of pastoring has given me. Given us.

So yes. I get tired. I don’t sleep well. I take on too much anxiety and feel overly important. I am overwhelmed by dim glass gazing and guessing and praying I lead well when the consequences seem beyond my comprehension.

But I’m also deeply grateful for reminders I’m not doing this alone. I’m doing what I love. And I love what I’m doing – we are doing – together. Apart.

So thank you all for your concern. Love compels it. And I love you too. But I’m good. I’m also binging Netflix, playing video games, watching my weeds grow in my garden without rising up to pluck them out because, really, rest in this moment is more important than weeds. And isn’t there a parable about letting them grow…


What Online Communion Taught me About Worship in the Time of COVID-19

Two weeks ago, we ventured into the world of online celebration of the Lord’s Table.  We did not do so with “undo haste or undo delay”.  😉 A friend in ministry had mentioned Calvin’s theology of the Table which greatly helped me – and our congregation – think through celebrating a meal we have always believe had to be celebrated “in person” and “in community”.  Calvin reminds us that the real presence of Christ is a product of the Holy Spirit.  The elements don’t become Christ in metaphysical change… the elements are Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit which transcends gaps of time and space. The most powerful statement Calvin makes is “let us remember how far the secret virtue of the Holy Spirit surpasses all our conceptions, and how foolish it is to wish to measure its immensity by our feeble capacity. Therefore, what our mind does not comprehend let faith conceive—viz. that the Spirit truly unites things separated by space.”
(John Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion, Chapter 17.10)

This thought continues to be provocative to me.  Tomorrow night a task force of our church will consider the what, when, and how of re-opening our church building, programs… and in-person worship.  It’s complicated because the national setting for this debate is not the same as the context of this discernment in Idaho.  Idaho had a light touch from COVID-19.  We are naturally physically distant, we closed down early, we didn’t have much spread at all.  And that means people have a logical case for re-opening even while that seems strange to consider in other larger urban areas where community spread (of people and viral outbreaks) is much more radical.  So, the debate is challenging. To open or not?  I’m prone to say no… but I understand, and I am nagged at by the whole “Idaho argument”.

And then I hear again: the Spirit truly unites things separated by space.

And I wonder again what it is that we think we have really lost by not having in-person worship (for the sake of the well-being and health of our community and the most vulnerable among them)? And this question confronts me: is my theology of the Spirit so impoverished, and my trust in the depth and breadth of God’s being so limited that I can’t imagine worship doesn’t need a building, or in-person-ness at all?

What if what is lost in worshipping physically-distant over worshipping in-person is so small that any instinct that puts people at risk to overcome it is foolish disregard for human life?  I have wondered over and again the last three or four weeks if we don’t worship the act of worship more than God we claim to worship.

I wonder if the challenge to open a building, to meet in-person, isn’t far more about the church as a social club, about my own stubborn sense of rugged individualist, and my own ego than it is about being disciples of the way of the Jesus Christ.  Discipleship – our risen Christ-given mission – needs neither worship, nor building, nor in-person gatherings… and I have said before that I think the Church has been more the Church in the last 6 weeks than in the years before them.

Online Communion ended up being as rich an experience as it was in-person.  More so in some ways for breaking down the routine-ness of it all and making us think more intentionally about the what and why and how of it all.  And for being a sign and seal and remembering of the reality that thinking we can measure the ability of the Holy Spirit by our feeble observations is…. foolishness.

I am trying these days not to do lots of comparing.  I don’t want to feel like I’m failing because my capacity for ministry is different than the church down the road, across the country, or on the other side of the globe.  I have always been grateful that we all express and enrich each other’s faith because of – not in spite of – our differences.  I do not wish to judge any other communities’ discernment – their context has intricacies I couldn’t even guess at, let alone know with certainty.  I’m not sharing this to tell anyone they are wrong… particularly because I’m not sure what is right.  I seek here to give witness to my own “wrestling with discipleship” by way of maybe learning through the articulation what I wouldn’t have otherwise. And I hope maybe the way I feel challenged in my faith and leadership… may challenge you as well – even if it takes us to different conclusions.

I hear myself challenged, again and again, to trust that the Holy Spirit is more at work than I give her credit for, that God is bigger than what I can see and measure AND what all of us collectively can see and measure, and that the Church is usually more the Church when it looks nothing like our routine imaginings.  These are things I professed to know, but the knowing didn’t go too deep.  And I feel grateful for the events of the last two months pushing me towards a deeper and richer theology of the Holy Spirit (not something Presbyterians are known for…)

I believe that COVID-19… that celebrating a Sacrament as I have never imagined doing so before has taught me greater faith and trust in God, and far less obsession with our human machinations towards God.  And I think I’m being challenged in the Spirit, and by the Spirit, to get really iconoclastic about my traditions and my motives and my reasons for those traditions and motives… and to be very careful that what I claim is about God, is really about God – and not me and my comfort.  Or, for that matter, you… and your comfort.