A Pastoral Note for Pastors in the Season of COVID-19

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Covid-19: We started hearing about it in late January, and assumed that it would stay a safe distance away. But soon we experienced a cascade of ugly predictions, real-time warnings, and government mandates connected to coronavirus. Now we have Sundays without live worship services, and we’re trying to do pastoral ministry without some of our favorite ministry tools. 

Here are some of the specific challenges that we are hearing about from pastors:

  • Anxious people in my church need calm assurance but I’m fighting to quiet my own fears.
  • I have people who are sick and in the hospital but I can’t be with them in person.
  • I’m used to all kinds of informal, face-to-face connections that enrich my life, none of which are possible now.
  • I know that technology can bring people together but I am technically-challenged.
  • The unspoken expectations that come with ministry have increased in intensity.

We also hear about fears:

  • What if the people who have to stay home now decide not to come back?
  • What if people don’t send in their financial support? 
  • What if lay-offs and reductions in hours means that they can’t?
  • What if my ministry practice has to change not just this week but for months to come?
  • Will my church survive? Will I have a job next month? 

In some ways the situation we’re in is like being a new parent: We have new, weighty responsibilities, but no manual to tell us how to carry them out. We have to learn by experience, our own and others’, and there seems to be a lot at stake in every decision.

In Mark 4 we read a much-loved story that speaks powerfully during days like these: Jesus calming the storm. As Jesus and his disciples are in a boat together a storm turns the water into a formless and empty chaos. Jesus is asleep, the ultimate non-anxious presence. The disciples are not. They are fully alert and fully panicked. They awaken Jesus, and ask him a question that we sometimes ask: “Teacher, don’t you care that…” Don’t you care that we drown? Don’t you care that we can’t see? Don’t you care that our boundary lines are no longer in pleasant places? Don’t you care that coronavirus hard-presses us on every side? Don’t you care about the least of these, the people to whom you send us? 

Jesus responds with two rebukes. His first rebuke is to the wind: “Quiet! Be Still!” It’s easy to cheer that rebuke, especially as the storm calms down. 

But Jesus’ second rebuke is to his disciples: “Why are you such cowards? Do you still have no faith?” This rebuke is harder to cheer—especially when we find ourselves in storms too. Would Jesus use such words with us?

Mark tells us that, after the two rebukes, the first disciples don’t actually calm down. They become more anxious, awed, and terrified: “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him.” The disciples can’t bring themselves to do what the wind has done: Grow calm. 

What the disciples cannot see at the moment is the miracle to which Mark leads all of his readers, the one at the end of his gospel, the miracle of the resurrection. The disciples don’t yet see that, in the end, Jesus rises from the dead, having conquered sin, and gains victory over death. They don’t yet see that calming a storm on the Sea of Galilee is just a warm up for greater things to come.

Two chapters after the storm story in Mark 4, we read about something else that the disciples don’t see: Jesus praying. In Mark 6:45 we read that Jesus sends the disciples into their boat and then goes up the mountainside to pray. Is he praying for his disciples? They are very likely some of the people about whom Jesus speaks to the Father. There is reason to suspect that Jesus has sent the disciples into their boat, knowing that there is a storm on the way, and that he is now praying over them. Of course, the disciples can’t see that. They are busy fighting the waves. 

A colleague of mine once asked, “What if Jesus is in the waves?” What if Jesus is alive and active in the scary reality that has seized the disciples? We can’t rule that out, not if we believe in the God of Creation, of the flood, of the cataclysms pictured in Revelation. Jesus, in some mysterious way, may well be alive and active in storms then and now. The first disciples couldn’t see that. Even today’s disciples may not be very eager to think that way. But Jesus may have a hand even in ugliness like Covid-19, accomplishing his purposes for his beloved creation and for his cherished people.

For now we see only a reflection, as in a mirror. There is more mystery to this life than we care to admit. When the completeness comes we shall see face to face. But in the meantime, the Spirit and Scripture give us eyes to see a few things clearly: That God made it all, that everything became twisted, that God is restoring it all, and that all of reality fits into that frame. 

That frame allows us to hope for Christ in the boat with us, to see Christ’s Spirit praying on our behalf, even to think that Christ may be in the waves. 

It allows us to hope for other things too: That many of those who are forced to remain apart because of Covid-19 will, when it is possible to come together again, cherish the communion of the saints in a way they never have before. That scriptural frame allows us to hope that God’s people will find new ways of doing and delivering ministry while enduring this crisis, ways that will be great blessings in the calmer times to come. It allows us to hope that during these scary days, when so many of the external features of the church are stripped away, there will be a new clarity of what the church really is, at its core. 

While we are working from home, planning virtual worship, virtual meetings, virtual everything, we have a lens through which to see it all, the lens Jesus gives us in his words to his first disciples in Mark 6:50: “Take courage! It is I. Do not be afraid.” 

It’s what Jesus meant when he spoke Mary’s name to her, immediately after the resurrection. It is what he says to us when we encounter losses, griefs, and uncertainties today.

Peace be with you.

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