COVID Chronicles: why me
In my last post on this series, I concluded with:
I’d appreciate your prayers as I write and re-write in a way that will help, heal, bless and point us in encouraging directions. My goal is to point us past COVID to comfort and hope and to give biblical, personal and practical reasons for doing so.
In this post, I’m asking, “Why me?” (Many of us ask that question in hardship already!) I ask it from a standpoint of what qualifications do I have to speak up/out? Why do I – a pastor, fantasy footballer, coffee-drinking Trekkie, alien-movie loving, and 190-pound Arkansas native – have a constant “burning in my bosom” to tackle the All-Pro COVID machine?
Why am I qualified to speak up/out?
I’m not. Not by any cultural standard. I don’t have PhD after my name. I don’t have the seven-figure salary of a talking head on CNN or Fox. I don’t have positional power. I’m a pastor. Some would say that pastors should keep quiet.
I fear I’ll alienate someone by offering my journey and thoughts about COVID. It is surreal to consider that something that wasn’t on our radar or part of our cultural vocabularies six months ago can produce such virulent opinions which often have more heat than light.
Apparently for me, NOT speaking up/out is not an option. I’m burdened deeply for people. For the church of Jesus. Fear consumes and division prevails. We didn’t see it coming. We weren’t prepared. 2020 has been a perfect storm of cultural and global angst. As I’ve read, thought deeply, prayed, and dialogued, I ask the question that I hope other pastors are asking, “How could we have taught and preached and counseled and prepared our churches better for days of hardship, confusion and turmoil?”
I’d love to stay silent, to duck my head and keep my mouth shut. There’s certainly pressure to do so – both from within the church and outside. The amount of things I don’t say is remarkable. (Truly, you should see my Twitter drafts. I have a personal policy of letting tweets percolate for 24 hours before I post when they could be considered controversial. Half of those never see the light of day.) Whether my hesitance to speak out more is from self-control or cowardice, I’m not sure. Yet, what I see, read, and hear is added to a stew that is simmering in my heart. It bubbles. My heart burns within me.
I was reminded of the prophet Jeremiah’s ministry. God told him to say HARD things to the Jews. He was also told that they would not listen to him. That seems exceptionally difficult, a bit like banging your head against a wall. At one point, Jeremiah objected strongly about the perceived unfairness of what he was commanded to do and its results:
“You deceived me, LORD, and I was deceived. You seized me and prevailed. I am a laughingstock all the time; everyone ridicules me. For whenever I speak, I cry out, I proclaim, ‘Violence and destruction!’ so the word of the LORD has become my constant disgrace and derision.” (Jeremiah 20:7-8)
Jeremiah was told to prophesy judgment against Israel at a time when the nation was stumbling. Jerusalem had already become a vassal state to Babylon and experienced deportation. But the leaders wanted to resist the king of Babylon and were mobilizing the people to cast off restraints. Imagine protests in the street and the remaining people (many had been deported) going along with the leaders’ promises of independence and rejection of Babylon’s authority. Jeremiah was called to tell them that their plans were doomed. He was a Negative Nelly. No one wanted to hear that God was involved and that there was another narrative.
Jeremiah tried to stay silent. He really wanted to. But listen to what happened within him when he attempted to avoid speaking truth:
“I say, ‘I won’t mention him or speak any longer in his name.’ But his message becomes a fire burning in my heart, shut up in my bones. I become tired of holding it in, and I cannot prevail.” (Jeremiah 20:9)
It’s ironic that when he did speak, exactly what God had promised took place. The people wouldn’t listen. His message was so unpopular that Jeremiah was effectively canceled. At one point, they threw him in a pit to shut him up. In pre-social media days, it’s stunning to read that even then, a person’s messages could be “reported.”
“For I have heard the gossip of many people, ‘Terror is on every side! Report him; let’s report him!’ Everyone I trusted watches for my fall.” (Jeremiah 20:10)
The historic role of pastors
It wasn’t that long ago from a historical perspective that pastors were some of the most learned people in a community. They were known to be articulate, erudite, rationale, community influencers that were well-versed not just in scripture but in a dozen different areas. It was pastors in the early days of the Americas that spoke words of hope and truth to colonists. They often shared news and helped interpret political movements. Pastors spoke to more people on any given week than the nation’s leaders could dream of. (As general of the Continental Army, George Washington would send circular letters, asking pastors to read them in their churches to help communicate needs of the army). The influence of pastors was directly responsible for mobilizing colonists to unite as a nation, to resist the tyranny of England, to declare independence, to abolish slavery, to commend scientific discoveries, to advocate for the poor, to establish colleges, hospitals and mercy ministries. Pastors were looked to as influencers and moral guardrails for communities.
Pastors were the leaders in the Christian movement in America (while this may seem to be a too obvious statement, hang on). As a result of Christianity’s influence on the colonies, “New England in the late 18th century had the highest literacy rate in the world at the time.” Why was that? Pastors placed undeniable emphasis on everyone being able to read the Bible for themselves, for devotion, instruction and the knowledge of God. ”
“There was a great emphasis on universal literacy in the early colonial era of the 17th century largely based on the Puritan belief in the importance of Bible reading. To this end, a 1642 New England law stated, ‘See that all youth under family government be taught to read perfectly in the English tongue.’ By 1647 the Massachusetts General Court passed the Old Deluder Act calling for the establishment of grammar schools to thwart ‘one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men form knowledge of Scriptures.’” (source)
The current role of pastor
Today, pastors are told (or intimated) to “stay in their lanes.” The only thing a pastor should speak to is the spiritual. Politics, science, health, and other -ologies and -isms are off limits. A pastor is allowed to talk about sports, provided he root on the local team (or if his alma mater is abysmally bad. No one likes an Alabama football fan as pastor outside of Alabama.)
As modern media developed, there began to be an antipathy between pulpit and press. As the 20th century progressed, the church was made to look silly by a growing army of cultural influencers in academia, science, government and entertainment. Pastors became marginalized. Particularly as the theory of evolution gained traction, they were made out to be backward, uneducated and valuable only for those who needed “religion.” Rebuffed and perhaps feeling disrespected, many retreated into the walls of their churches and christendom, and the Christian retreat from secular society became a flood. Pastors ceded influence and ground, and a secularist worldview became dominant in these key areas of society.
“But around the 1970s and 1980s, a new understanding started to emerge. Many book authors and pastors of megachurches started to see the role of the pastor as a chief executive officer (CEO/leader), who casts a vision and rallies and motivates people to carry on the new vision in a changed and healthy environment.”
Pastors and Christians leaders who suspected they weren’t “allowed” to speak to current or cultural issues or who were intimidated by culture, began to reproduce and model what “worked” in culture and business to grow organizations and gain influence. They replicated marketing and sociological principles in our churches in order to “grow” them. In the days of burgeoning big box stores, malls, and economic growth, pastors became organizational leaders, and the church growth movement erupted. If 7-11 can have Big Gulps, then certainly God’s people deserve mega-churches, right?
All this led to a frenetic busyness of casting vision, building Christian kingdoms, and of course, caring for ever larger flocks. What pastor had time to even consider how to influence their community’s policies or national politics? A few tried and were vilified and relegated to the fringes. A few others were successful for a longer season (Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell Sr. – and oh, how different those two were!). Most pastoral leaders simply focused on faithful preaching and teaching of the gospel, seeking humble application of the truths of scripture to the real, daily lives of their congregations.
“Don’t talk about politics”
Today, that’s not just an unspoken assumption. It’s a verbal command from some church members. Pastors should stay away from politics and cultural issues. How far we have come.
The failure to see that all of life is under the purview of the spiritual is false thinking that has infiltrated the western church. When we divide life into sacred and secular spheres, we embrace a false, unbiblical worldview. Spiritual reality is the prevailing reality.
When Jesus said, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth,” (Matthew 28:18), He was commissioning His disciples to go into all the world and make disciples. Essentially, He was giving them authority over every arena of life, because He had it to give. In Matthew 16:19, He said, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven.” That reveals some significant delegation of authority! Indeed, Christians believe by faith that..
“at the name of Jesus every knee will bow— in heaven and on earth and under the earth— and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
This means that the knees of university presidents and faculty will be grounded before Jesus’ name one day. The knees of Hollywood darlings will be dirtied before Him. The world’s richest will find that no wealth can prevent their worth from vanishing instantly before King Jesus on their knees. Politicians, doctors, youth, Muslims, Hindus, and atheists will alike ponder the glory of God in the face of Christ from their knees.
“Politics” is defined as “the art or science of government.” It has broader connotations as well (who hasn’t heard of office politics? And certainly there exist politics in the church). Politics is also defined as “the total complex of relations between people living in society, relations or conduct in a particular area of experience especially as seen or dealt with from a political point of view.” (source) And so, politics is exactly what pastors must speak to (and even practice). We are called and commissioned to speak to all of life. To make disciples everywhere, in every sphere. To seek the good of people and the glory of God in every human institution. I sincerely believe that the role of the minister is to faithfully, graciously and truthfully apply the teachings of scripture to ALL areas of life. If we believe that God is Creator, then no arena is outside His purview or rule.
The importance of speaking up
We are the in grip of a pandemic. The complexity and diversity of issues that both the virus and our responses to it have created are too many to count. Most bunker down and cocoon. No one wants to be a lightning rod. It appears that everyone who speaks up is castigated by the “other side.” (How did there become “sides” in all this?!)
A wonderful approach to dialogue is revealed in Paul’s writing in Ephesians 4. It’s one of my guides. In the context of God giving the church leaders to equip the church to serve and grow, he says that the resulting spiritual maturity and intimacy with Jesus has a benefit:
“Then we will no longer be little children, tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching, by human cunning with cleverness in the techniques of deceit.”
It’s his next admonition that applies to Christian conversation wherever we have it:
“But speaking the truth in love…”
We must speak truth… in love.
That’s the kind of person I want to be, and it’s how I want my dialogue to be shaped. I’m “just a pastor,” but I too can think. I too can read. My “think-er” is unapologetically filtered through a biblical worldview. I’m called to speak loving truth. Sometimes that will be offering counter cultural perspective and “hard” truth.
Here’s what the rest of series will feature – an overview of where we’ve been, what we’ve learned, an honest look at conspiracy theories, the role of an election year, and the danger of our over-response. I’ll be providing a list of resources as a Google doc so that those of you who want to can see some of the articles, research, statements and information that I have digested and studied since March. I provide them only in the sense of a rabbit trail of footnotes. I wanted you to know that the thoughts and conclusions that I pose have not been arrived at without deliberation, reading, and discernment.
The overall goal is to identify and apply loving truth to a cultural narrative that seems to foment fear and perpetuate panic in the current pandemic.
Feel free to debate, to question, to ask whatever you want in the comments on this blog. I won’t be responding to comments on Facebook, Twitter, etc. I’d love for us to think deeply together and be willing to question, for good. Ultimately, our response to crises teaches profound lessons to us, if we will learn from them.
I have a lot to learn. We all do. Let’s learn from one another.
Finally, I was grateful for the advice of a friend-pastor recently who tweeted me,
“Be concerned but not consumed.”
Why me? I like to read, research, write, think and blog. And I sincerely want to be gracious and loving even as I unpack current events with you here. I want to be helpful. I want to decrease fear and hysteria. I want to bring hope and perspective. Most importantly though, as a pastor, I want to encourage you stop, take a deep breath, and look to the God who knows you, loves you, and offers hope and peace in every arena of life, whether political or viral.