Sermon begins at 26:36
Christ Over All – Thanksgiving
These are my sermon notes for August 1, 2021. This is the first sermon in a series on the letter to the Colossians, Christ Over All.
Colossians: Christ Over All
Thanksgiving for the Colossians
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, 2 To God’s holy people in Colossae, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ: Grace and peace to you from God our Father. 3 We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4 because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people— 5 the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel 6 that has come to you. In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world—just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace. 7 You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, 8 and who also told us of your love in the Spirit.
Billy Joel, “Allentown”
Well, we’re living here in Allentown
And they’re closing all the factories down
Out in Bethlehem, they’re killing time
Filling out forms, standing in line
Colosse was a little like Allentown.
The City of Colosse:
- In central Turkey, about two hours from the coast.
- Once large and prosperous with a thriving wool industry,
- On a trade route between the coast and the euphrates river – remember Turkey borders both Iraq and Iran.
- Had been eclipsed by two sister cities — Laodocea and Hieropolis.
- Laodocia was the district capital
- Hieropolis had a healing spring which drew in the crowds in a time before modern medicine
- By Paul’s day, Colosse was the least significant of the cities whose churches Paul wrote.
Important to note:
- Paul himself never visited Colosse
- The church was founded by Epaphras around the time that Paul was in Ephesus (see – Acts 19:10)
- Paul in Ephesus two years
- Training elders to plant churches
- Result = “all the residents of Asia (Turkey) heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks” (19:10)
Key Issue: idolatry and superstition
The believers in Colosse lived in a world not unlike our own.
- First, they were subject to financial forces and it was therefore not easy to live in a city whose fortunes had reversed.
- It was also a context that was highly diverse in terms of religious belief and practice.
The Colossian Christians were being influenced by a rival religious belief that kind of married Jewish beliefs with Greek philosophy and held that the world was full of spiritual forces.
These forces needed to be placated to avoid bad things happening. This was done through veneration, food sacrifices, ascetic practices, and honoring certain days of the week.
Perhaps you can see the problem: the world is full of evil forces and faith in Christ is not enough to protect you from evil or to sustain you through suffering. They said you needed more.
It was Jesus plus this practice, that food sacrifice, that observance, etc.
It’s been ten years since I’ve been in Turkey. One of my most poignant memories is seeing charms to ward off the “evil eye” all over the place.
You’d see one hanging in every window, in every stall, in every public place. You’d see them on people’s wrists or necks. This wasn’t about good luck, it was about protection from evil. And this is common to many countries.
It is, however, profoundly un-Christian to think in these sorts of ways about how the world works and how God works in the world.
The point of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is that we are now united to Him and, now, no evil can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38).
The point isn’t that once we become a Christian we are now protected from all suffering, pain, and disappointment. Hardly!
The point is that we have God’s promise that he will sustain us through the suffering and that there is a purpose and plan that is being accomplished by means of this suffering.
It’s also to say that we should put our earthly experiences into perspective.
No matter how bad things become for us while we live, we have the hope of everlasting life on which to rely.
And if we keep that perspective then we’ll have hope and we won’t despair or find ourselves cowering in fear.
Jesus himself says,
“But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him” (Luke 2:5).
It’s the same truth that Martin Luther captures in his hymn, “A Mighty Fortress”:
“the body they may kill/God’s truth abideth still/his Kingdom is forever.”
Paul begins his letter–which will later on offer some corrections–by praising the church for the areas in which it has been faithful.
So in the time remaining to us, we’ll highlight some of the key points on this introductory section of the letter.
- Faith and love are the overflow of hope (v.5a)
We sometimes think that being a Christian starts with faith and love and that somehow we sort of produce these things ourselves. We “decide” to believe the message of Christ and to love God.
It can seem that way experientially, if we don’t stop to think about it, but the Bible tells us that God is working in us before we believe the gospel and love God.
Often the first thing that we experience when we consider the claims of Christ is a sense of despair–how can we be reconciled to God? How can our sins be dealt with?
And that gives way to hope: a glimmer of hope that Jesus is the way, that through Jesus our sins can be forgiven and we can find real life in Jesus Christ.
That hope that we experience is actually the first sign of the new life that God gives to his children that enables them to respond to the offer of the gospel.
We call it regeneration, being born again–something that God does to us and in us and that we experience as being able to respond to the offer of the gospel and believing.
We cannot experience hope absent God’s work of grace in our hearts.
And the hope we experience gives way to faith and to love which are the results of the operation of God’s grace in our hearts, giving us new spiritual life, moving us from darkness to light, and from death to life.
As Alistair Begg put it,
“What kind of wonderful God is this who reaches down into the lives of people, picks them up, grants them faith, and changes them!”
- Hope is founded in the message of the gospel, which is the message of Christ (v.5b)
The hope that the Colossians experienced came from the message of the gospel.
R.C. Sproul explains the gospel like this:
“God is holy and He is just, and I’m not. And at the end of my life, I’m going to stand before a just and holy God, and I’ll be judged. And I’ll be judged either on the basis of my own righteousness–or lack of it–or the righteousness of another.
The good news of the gospel is that Jesus lived a life of perfect righteousness, of perfect obedience to God, not for His own well being but for His people. He has done for me what I couldn’t possibly do for myself. But not only has He lived that life of perfect obedience, He offered Himself as a perfect sacrifice to satisfy the justice and the righteousness of God.”
Illustration: In Olympic terms:
- Have to swim the 100m freestyle.
- Need to get a 1.0 min time to be spared.
- Give you a choice: you can swim or Caleb Dressel can swim for you? His time can become your time thus sparing you.
- Corollary: your time becomes his time and he dies.
This is the message of the gospel – the great exchange that is pictured for us in the sacrament of the Lord’s supper.
The body and blood of Christ, shed for you.
- The message has been proclaimed to them and to the whole world (v.6a)
Paul has used the city of Ephesus as a regional hub for training and sending Christian workers into Asia/Turkey to preach the gospel and to establish and grow churches.
Paul had a missionary strategy that targeted the major cities of the Roman world. And then from those major cities were sent missionary pastors to establish congregations in other cities.
Paul is probably using hyperbole when he says that the whole world had received the gospel. What’s certainly true is that the early church had a presence in many/most of the major cities of the Roman world.
Notice that Paul points to the importance of the proclamation of the gospel.
We have to be a church that is all about the gospel–the work of transformation from the inside out.
- The proclamation of the message produces fruit, Epaphras is a fruit of the gospel (v.6b)
The preaching of the gospel produces fruit–that is change–in people’s lives. Epaphras is an example of this fruit.
We don’t know much about Epaphras. Douglas Moo notes,
“… we can infer that he was a native of Colossae and that he was perhaps converted by Paul himself during the apostle’s ministry in Ephesus. The mention of a co-worker at this point in a Pauline epistle is unusual, and the strength of Paul’s endorsement of him is also striking.”
There’s something special about someone from Colosse becoming a follower of Christ, being trained by Paul, ministering with Paul, and then starting the church in his hometown.
It’s a sign of the Holy Spirit’s work through Paul and in the Ephesians community that Epaphras was called and sent back to Colosse to start a church.
Should pastors stay neutral on the vaccine?
CNN reports that the founding pastor of Hillsong Church maintains that whether or not to receive a COVID vaccine is a personal choice to be made in consultation with healthcare providers. This comes in the context of a church member (who was only 30) dying from COVID-related pneumonia.
Read the article here.
I’m not entirely sure why this story is the top headline on CNN.com. I can only surmise that it’s because the editors believe that somehow not demanding congregants receive the vaccine is somehow wrong.
Should pastors be speaking with greater force on this matter? Does silence by Christian clergy harm the greater good?
I don’t have the platform or influence of someone like the pastor in question. I’m an ordinary pastor of an ordinary congregation in an ordinary suburban town in the midwest.
However, that’s immaterial.
In the end, I am deeply concerned that a/the main segment of people who are/seem to be holding down our nation’s vaccination rates are people who profess to follow the Lord Jesus Christ.
It’s concerning that these people seem to believe that they have little to no duty to care for their neighbors, a fundamental teaching of Christ.
It’s also disturbing that these self-professed Christians are acting this way on the basis of false (or, at least, questionable) information.
And, it’s disturbing that these convictions seem to–at a fundamental level–have been shaped by one man, Donald Trump.
The authority of the Christian church is ministerial and declarative. As a pastor, I am not part of a body that makes or enforces civil law. I do, however, have a duty to speak Christian truth.
And it’s my conviction that failing to take the vaccine, unless on the basis of medical advice, is to seriously harm your neighbor.
This terrible virus will not be dispatched unless we are able to get a majority of our population vaccinated.
And its shameful that the name of Christ should be attached to the militant and narcissistic attitudes that so many are evincing who reject vaccine science.
The Beauty of Parliamentary Procedure
Parliamentary procedure often gets a bad rap. For most people it’s a boring set of rules that govern meetings that no one wants to be at in the first place.
I first came across parliamentary procedure while in High School. I was a delegate to Nevada Boys State, and we learned about a thing called Roberts’ Rules of Order. I wasn’t super interested, mostly because I wasn’t sure that it would have much use in my future life. I was wrong.
Parliamentary procedure is “the commonly accepted way a group of people come together, present and discuss possible courses of action, and make decisions.” It’s common form in the United States is Robert’s Rules of Order. In Great Britain it is Erskine May.
Parliamentary procedure is beautiful for several reasons:
- It controls the flow of discussion to ensure that all participants have the opportunity to speak.
- It limits the discussion so that only matters pertinent to the business at hand may be discussed.
- It enshirnes the principle of discussing issues rather than people, and does much to spare the feelings of individual speakers.
In short, using parliamentary procedure ensures that deliberations are fair, efficient, democratic and orderly. Every pastor of a presbyterian church should invest in growing their skill as a moderator/presiding officer in order to ensure that the session functions healthily and effectively.
Oswald Chambers’ extraordinary life.
Oswald Chambers (1874-1917) was a remarkable man who lived an extraordinary life. You may know him as the author of the perennial favorite devotional, My Utmost for His Highest. On and off for most of my life I have read this little devotional work. At points in my journey I have received great encouragement and blessing from this book. However I never knew much about the man and the life behind the book.
Chambers really does seem to have lived an extra-ordinary life. He was born in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1874. He would die thousands of miles away in Zeitoun, Egypt, 43 years later (1917) while serving with the YMCA during World War I.
We know him as a pastor and teacher, but he was an artist–talented in sketching in pencil, charcoal, and pen.
He was a poet.
He gained admission to the Royal College of Art where he received the Art Master’s Certificate in 1895. He turned down a scholarship to study in the great artistic centers of europe and enrolled in the University of Edinburgh in 1895.
His program was one that would not grant him a university degree, but would provide two years of intense studies in art and the classical humanities. He excelled in his studies and was named to the Third Prize in Fine Arts by Professor Baldwin Brown and received a First Class Certificate with high commendation for his essays.
This was a man with the talent and intellect necessary to become an established mainstream artist. In the end, he decided not to pursue that end.
Chambers surprised his family and friends, not least of which were his university professors, by opting to enroll in a small theological college in 1897.
Dunoon College was a residential theological college devoted to the preparation of ministers for service in the non-conformist churches of the United Kingdom.
It was founded by the Reverend Duncan MacGregor, a highland Scotts baptist. According to McCasland, “The Gospel training college at Dunoon grew out of [MacGregor’s] dissatisfaction with the conventional academic approach to ministerial training. On his own, he assembled a few students, set up some chairs in his small church vestry, and began to teach them from his heart and life.” (McCasland, 64).
The close community and the intense spiritual and intellectual nature of the school appealed to Chambers.
We tend to think of un-accredited colleges as questionable. Dunoon college was not, however, academically lightweight.
All students studied Hebrew and Greek as well as homiletics and theology. The difference from the traditional theological college came in the small, intimate context. In such a small community, members of the college really knew one another and worshipped together.
After Chambers completed his studies, he stayed on a tutor in moral philosophy. During this time Chambers was suffering from spiritual depression.
He wrote in a letter, “I determined to havel all that was going, and went to my room and asked God simply and definitely for the baptism of the Holy Spirit, whatever that meant. From that day on for four years, nothing but the overrruling grace of God and the kindness of friends kept me out of an asylum. God used me during those years for the conversion of souls, but I had no conscious communion with him. The Bible was the dullest, most uninteresting book in existence, and the sense of depravity, the vileness and bad-motiveness of my nature was terrific.” (McCasland, 71).
In 1902 this dark night of the soul gave way to a clearer sense of the proximity of God, and of the existence of God’s love. It came during an ‘after meeting’ which is (I believe) the time following a service of worship in which those convicted by God were able to linger in prayer and receive counsel. Chambers describes the experience: “I had no vision of God, only a sheer dogged determination to take God at his word and to prove this thing for myself” (MacCasland, 83). He left the meeting having experienced the beginnings of a change.
A couple of days later he was asked to speak at an evagenlistic meeting.
He recounts, “…I had no vision of heaven or angels, I had nothing. I was as dry and empty as ever, no power or realization of God, no witness of the Holy Spirit…” He spoke and forty people professed faith (MacCasland, 83). Far from being encouraged by the meeting, Chambers left the converts to those working the meeting and went to his mentor, MacGregor.
During his conversion, something inside of Chambers melted and the change he so longed for took place.
Flags in the Sanctuary
Like many other churches in the United States, ours features two flags at the front of the sanctuary. The first is the Stars and Stripes, the flag of our nation.
The second is known as the Christian flag, which came into being in the 19th Century for use in Sunday Schools or other places where there wasn’t a traditional cross.
Across the years displaying the flag has become a heated issues for American churches–typically when the United States finds itself at war (which tends to be a lot of the time, at least over the last twenty years).
As a pastor, I am tasked with leading God’s people in worship.
As a reformed Christian, I believe that our worship ought to be simple, unadorned, focused upon God, conducted in conformity to God’s pattern of worship in Scripture, and focused on the Word and Sacraments.
The question I ask myself is: does the American flag help or hinder God’s people in their worship of God? Or, is it neutral? As part of my study of the issue, I’ve compiled a list of articles on the subject for reference. As you’ll note, lately the preponderence of the search results shows articles that are critical of the practice.
“The American Flag in Our Church” (Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod)
“Ten Reasons Why U.S. Flag Should Not be in Your Sanctuary”
“Should We Have Flags in the Church?” (United Methodist Church)
“Are Flags Appropriate in Church?” (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America)
“Do Flags Belong in church? (Presbyterian Church USA)
“Should Churches Display the American Flag?”
“Do National Flags Have A Place in Places of Worship?”
“West Asheville Church Flies Christian Flag Above National Flag”
“Flags in Worship”
“Herman Hoeksema and the ‘Flag Controversy”
Church revitalization from 30,000 feet
The vast majority of American churches are in some stage of decline, especially during COVID. That’s largely because those churches were founded and designed for ministry in a context that no longer exists.
The further south you go, the higher the chances that you can get away with doing ministry for a bygone age. Here in Chicagoland, as with other major metropolitan areas, it’s almost impossible to do so.
I serve a church in the outer ring of suburban Chicago. As we studied our demography we learned that we have more in common (demographically) with areas like Los Angeles and Dallas than other suburbs like Naperville or Lombard.
That’s because of the two major demographic group in a fifteen minute drive of our campus are first and second generation Latino/a immigrant families. The other two dominant demographics are affluent retirees (and soon-to-be retirees) and two-parent working families.
Approximately half of our congregation has moved outside of the city limits of our suburb and now lives in a cluster of small, semi-rural satellite municipalities near us.
The church was estalished in the 1950s to “serve” a newly developing part of our city that hosted the young families buying homes as part of the post-war boom. Most people lived within walking distance to easy driving distance.
That’s no longer the case.
So, what to do?
Most churches choose to do nothing. They continue to do ministry as they have always done it.
And they do it for understandable reasons:
- They are so close to the situation that it’s hard to see reality.
- They love and care about the people who are part of their congregation and don’t to want to start a fight.
- They don’t love the results, but they’re pretty happy with church as it is.
- They don’t know how to start the conversation about the future.
- They realize that change means that they’ll lose some things and some power that they enjoy having.
- They’re tired and discouraged from trying things in the past that didn’t work.
- They’re friendly, but because they’re so embedded in the congregation they don’t really have “room” for new friendships.
The work of revitalizing a congregation is ultimately done by the Spirit of God and it’s a long-term transformation. In general, however, God brings a pastor or elders to a situation who desire more for the church in order to more fully glorify God.
In order to kickstart a conversation about revitalization, it’s important to do three things:
- Focus on “why?”
- Acknowledge reality
- Describe your preferred future
- Make plan
The first is the most important. Most churches understand what they do and how they do it. Churches connect people to God and to one another. They do it through worship services, Bible studies, small groups, mission projects, service projects.
Ask church members “why?” and you’ll likely get an awkward silence.
At the end of the day, the why is really what drives everything in your church. Get it wrong and it produces the wrong results.
Declining churches act as though their “why” is “because our people are the most important people in the world and we ought to give them what they want or we’ll really be in trouble.”
Healthy churches recognize that their why is something like “because Jesus is the source of our hope and peace and we want to share the way he’s changed us with others who don’t know him yet.”
The paradox of congregational health is the less you think about yourself, the happier and fulfilled you will be.
There is nothing quite so depressing and miserable as a bunch of people whose perspective is limited to preserving their preferenes.
There is nothing quite so engaging as a bunch of people who want to follow Jesus together and introduce others to him.
In coming posts we’ll look at the other three parts of revitalization.
Give grace a chance
At the heart of the Christian message is the funny concept that goes by the name of grace. It’s not a concept that’s particularly popular in the broader culture just this moment, if it ever was.
We seem to be in a moment when grace is seen as the opposite of justice and when justice must be had at all costs. I suppose this makes sense given just how much injustice we’ve seen over the centuries, but, in the worlds of the Gandhi, “an eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind.”
Every church ought to be a community of grace that embraces all of life. A parish is school of grace that leads us deeper into a transforming relationship with Christ and with his bride, the church. And yet, that seems to be so very absent from so many churches.
Can we really claim that we are deeply shaping people as followers of the Lord Jesus Christ and then empowering them to live that Christ life out in the variety of social settings they find themselves in?
Success for the church comes from lives transformed and sent not from seats filled or pledge cards submitted. Sure, we want people to encounter Christ in corporate worship and we want people to be good stewards of the resources that God has entrusted to them, but that’s the very least of it.
And the changes that are the deepest are often the hardest to measure. Despite the long decline of American Christianity in the twentieth century, there’s enough pop Christianity in the form of the mega-churches to make many Christians think that there’s an American dream for the parish.
There isn’t. There never was. Churches have always been small, local, and organic communities united by profession of faith, shared ecclesial practice, and geography. Most churches are neighborhood churches. Then, neighborhoods went away and we thought we should all be cathedrals. Now the neighborhood is back, COVID-style.
And the neighborhood church needs a comeback too.
The paradox of July 4
For Americans celebrating the Fourth of July is the most natural thing in the world. As I write, neighbors are gathering in the sweltering summer sun and spending time toghter. Our street is lined with the stars and stripes. There was a parade and fireworks last night; there’ll be more tonight.
There’s much to love about this civil holiday. But it’s just that: a civil holiday. As Christians, we have to place some limits on how and why we celebrate the fourth.
When I was a child, I fondly remember being invited to participate in a cookout at a Naval base near where we lived, sponsored by a contingent of Americans who was stationed there.
Baked beans with molasses.
My first experience of all of these staples of American cuisine came through the generosity of these servicemembers.
I knew what the Fourth of July observed since my Mom is American. And though I carried the passport, I had never lived in the United States.
I’d visited a time or two. I knew some trivia.
My mom had an American accent, but I didn’t think of myself as American except in some academic way.
I was British and proudly so.
My experience of church was always, at an early age especially, one that was international in context. I’ve had the good fortune to live in a variety of places in a variety of countries. And in each of those places there has been a community of Christians who I’ve come to call my family.
I’ve realized that one of the most important aspects of our Christian identity is that it is trans-national in nature.
A Christian is one who can walk into a house of worship around the world and feel a kinship and solidarity that arises in spite of language and culture barriers.
Celebrations of civil events like July 4 tend to do damage to this transnational identity. I like these words from Jonathan Leeman:
“We want Christian Brits and Venezuelans showing up that Sunday and discovering they are us. And we don’t want to tempt their non-Christian counterparts to believe they must become Americans to be Christians.
And, perhaps most crucially of all, we don’t want non-Christian Americans to believe they are us simply because they love the flag. No, they must love the cross, and we love them most by pointing not to the flag, but to the cross.”
As I said this morning when I led worship: there’s nothing wrong with celebrating the fourth. It’s important, however, that our gospel not become a gospel of America first, but that we humbly try our best to retain the gospel entrusted to us: one that comes from another country altogether.
As we read the Bible, moreoever, we must strive to see our nation through the lens of the Scripture rather than seeing the Scripture through the lens of America./
The Pandemic in Perspective
May 2, 2020
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.
What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.
It was early March 2020. A colleague at InterVarsity Press–where I was working–was returning from a conference on the West Coast. She was flying back to O’Hare from LAX and as she travelled she was updating us on her progress on Slack.
News was beginning to trickle out of parts of China about a virulent new virus that was causing the City of Wuhan–with its population of 11M–to be ‘locked down.’
There were stories of people being literally shut up in their apartment buildings by soldiers who welded the doors closed.
There were descriptions of ‘wet markets’–supposedly partially to blame for the spread of the virus–with fish, fowl, and other types of animals for sale and slaughter.
And as my friend tried to get back to Chicagoland, we heard from her about the thousands of people getting stock in O’Hare as people started to try to get back home from their trips earlier than planned in anticipation of something bad happening. Perhaps some of you were travelling around that time and experienced something similar.
People started talking about needing to wear facemasks. Restaurants started to close or offer items for pick up only. And then, around March 10 or 11 our children’s school district went to online only education–an option that those killjoys had already developed so that kids could keep learning on what used to be called ‘snow days.’ And it seemed kind of fun, at first. Didn’t it?
What could be more fun than schooling, working, and working at home?
Somewhere between day 180 and 365 most all of us had a pretty significant list of things that were wrong about it.
This pandemic changed everything.
And it changed nothing.
When I was a kid, I used to wonder what it was like to live through the war–by which I mean the Second World War.
My Dad was a little boy of five or six as the war came to an end. And he experienced some of the drama of living in World War 2 Britain–air raids, the blackout, rationing, and the like.
Late in the War, Britain was being bombed periodically but not with the frequency of the early war. Every night every home had to close out every bit of light by using thick blackout curtains so that the German bombers wouldn’t be able to identify landmarks. Rationing was strict and pretty austere.
But I imagine that most days seemed pretty dull. Marked by the regular rhythm of getting up and going to school and to work. Doing the shopping. Washing clothes. The hum drum stuff of everyday, ordinary life.
War–or so I’ve been told–is hours of monotony punctuated by moments of sheer terror.
And our war against COVID 19 — if we could call it that–has been much the same. 2020 and 2021 have to be most singularly boring period of time for most of us. Our lives shrunk down to the metes and bounds of our property and the four walls of our homes.
Flights out of O’Hare, for example, fell by more than half between 2019 and 2020. And those of you who are in the hospitality industry have felt acutely the pain of reduced travel and eating out, etc.
Wonderful vacations, cancelled or postponed indefinitely.
Childrens or grandchildren’s special events, missed.
Loved-ones seen only across the pixels of a computer screen or as a voice on the end of the phone line.
Funerals you were unable to attend. Weddings seen only across the internet.
And yet, in the midst of all of this spectacular monotony, some pretty spectacularly and revolutionary things happened–as often happens, historically, during these sorts of periods of upheaval and disruption.
We saw protests–both violent and non-violent–about several important social issues.
We saw politicians rise and fall, as they always do.
There seemed to be a never-ending stream of news coming across our Tvs and our computers and our phones, and we struggled to keep up with it.
Opinions–even within a body of believers like our own–diverged on COVID precautions, singing, opening the building, etc., etc., etc.
For a year with few activities actually happening, it has to be the most remarkably exhausting period of time I have ever experienced.
And because these sorts of events change everything and change nothing it can be easy to simply survive them and not pause to reflect on what, if anything, we have learned during it. After all, we’ve all spent a lot of time learning to do new things: watching worship on Facebook or Youtube, ordering grocery delivery from Instacart, and trying to figure out how, when, and where to get a vaccine.
So, how do we wrestle with the Pandemic and get some perspective on it and the impact that it has had on us and on our society?
What impact will it have on the church and on this church next week, next month, and next year? I don’t know, but I made a list in the spirit of Ecclesiastes of some of the things we’ve been able to learn or, perhaps, realized that we need to learn, in light of this season in our lives.
- Brought real suffering into our lives.
We tend to think of suffering as something that begins instantly and then last for a season then goes away. Perhaps we lose our job and we find, at first, that we’re distraught and then, in time, the pain lessens.
The pandemic has offered us something rather different than this. We have experienced long term, low grade suffering. And we’re not used to that. Things might have been great for us prior to the pandemic but we pretty much knew what to expect out of life. All of that has changed and changed repeatedly–it has evolved.
And part of the suffering is keeping up with the changes in guidance and opinion. It’s trying to sort the truth from the lies, the prudence from the folly. That takes time and it takes emotional energy. And so don’t be surprised if you cannot remember a time when you’ve felt quite so exhausted from doing so very little.
- Exploded the myth of control.
This isn’t the first disease that has affected life in the US. When our daughter Eliza was born in 2010 the H1N1 strain of the flu meant that our son couldn’t come and meet his baby sister in the hospital because of the precautions that were being taken.
We’ve seen swine flu and avian flu, but none of them seem to have been able to cause such a great disruption to the entire globe as COVID-19 has done. It’s been like a giant wave of misery rolling around the globe.
Early on, I felt pretty sure that things would be back to normal in about a month. Wrong. They’re still not normal. And we’ve lost–or perhaps we’re losing–the illusion that we’re in control and that we can do what we like when we like and how we like.
The amount of control we have over ourselves, our destiny, the created order–you name it–is actually significantly less than we like to think.
- Revealed some of our presuppositions about life.
The pandemic has also exposed some of the things that we assume or take for granted in our outlook on the world–our presuppositions.
The biggest of these is autonomy. We don’t usually say autonomy, we tend to say “freedom.” That’s why there have been protests about face coverings and restaurant closings and church gathering limitations.
At the end of the day, it’s because we believe that we have the right to do precisely as we wish. We believe that we should be able to follow our desires without respect to the impact that those actions might have upon others.
And this is, at least to me, a profoundly un-Christian way to think. The New Testament repeatedly counsels to consider the needs of others as more significant, not less, than our own needs.
To my mind, wearing a mask or getting the vaccine today, is like digging for victory in WW2. It’s something we can do to serve the greater good.
- Speeded some changes in our congregation like using technology, for example.
Some things have sped up during the pandemic. Like, for example, the use of technology in worship. And I’m incredibly grateful for the hard work over a long season that our tech team has put in so that we can share worship with those who are prevented from joining us here in the sanctuary.
It’s not really clear, long term, what the impact of virtual worship will be on church life in the USA. In his book Technopolpy, the social critic Neil Postman suggests that the power of technology is its ability to make all that came before it irrelevant.
You invent the telephone and, almost immediately, the telegraph is dead in the water.
You invent the car and the need for horses goes away.
In other words, technology tends to kill its rivals. And so that’s why noone–at least under a certain age, which I will not disclose–uses the Yellow Pages or the White Pages. It’s quicker and easier to Google.
Broadcasting services across the internet will surely have an impact on Christianity, but it remains to be seen exactly what that will be.
And it’s my conviction that our digital ministry should always be something that supports our in-person worship rather than the other way around.
- Slowed down other changes, like forming a PNC.
A year and a half ago I would have expected you to be close to getting a permanent pastor by now. But the pandemic slowed that down.
I’m not sure that that’s good or bad, but it just is. And it’s often true that God works in ways that baffle us.
Congregations are always tempted–and understandably so–to rush to get another installed pastor. We tend to want to get back to normal as soon as possible.
But, ironically, there are as many versions of “normal” as there are people in the room.
It takes time to switch gears from “getting back to normal” to “discerning a vision” for God’s future for us.
Normal is overrated.
- Reminded us that we need one another.
Across these months we’ve cared for one another, supported one another, and, from time to time, griped at one another. That’s normal and natural, but not particularly fun.
In the end, however, we need one another.
- Helped us to be more dependent on God.
I’d like to say all of this has helped us to be more dependent on God. But, I’m not sure that it has. At least, not yet. It remains to be seen whether it will or not.
We can’t take it for granted, but we can pray to God that he would use it in our lives to make us lean on him in ever increasing measure.