My professional career as a pastor has had three stages or (as we like to say in the ministry) “calls.” My first call was as Associate Pastor in Wichita, Kansas for 11 years. Then I received a call at the age of 38 to become Senior Pastor of a church in suburban Pittsburgh, where I enjoyed a wonderful 14 years of growth. And 16 years ago, I was called by First Church to become your Senior Pastor—my third and final stop before retirement. The elders, staff and I have been planning for an orderly and smooth transition into my retirement, which we expected would come within 1-2 years.
Our plan had been to avoid the disruption that comes when a pastor retires and the challenges of an interim pastor by: (1) hiring a consultant to begin working with us, starting in the fall of 2020, on a strategic plan and prepare the job description and other documents needed for the search for a new senior pastor; (2) electing a Pastor Nominating Committee while I am still in place to ensure that we don’t need to go through an interim pastorate; and (3) having me remain on staff once the new pastor is identified, for as long as that person wants me to stay, before I retire and step aside from all leadership. It was a smooth, well-drafted plan that the Session and our local Presbytery felt confident would work.
Looking back, I believe that the ministry of First Church hit its absolute peak (in both measurable and immeasurable ways) around March 1 of this year. Then COVID-19 emerged as a rapidly spreading pandemic and hit our country with full force. National emergency guidelines were issued to slow the […]
“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” – Jeremiah 29:11 (NLT)
The entire world is eagerly anticipating the return to some semblance of what we knew as “normal” before March of 2020. Some are anticipating a lightning-fast bounce back; like runners in the starting blocks of a 100-meter sprint, they are coiled to spring into full recovery mode. Others are approaching the re-opening of many locations and activities with guarded caution and fear. Many of us will be feeling a reluctance to be in large crowds of people and to drop the 6-foot rule of social distancing. Some will have a strong impulse to stay home as much as possible, even when government guidance is relaxed. The emotions of anxiety and dread will linger, both for those who contracted the disease and for those who did not.
My expectation is that the most likely course for our church, community, and nation will be that life returns in stages and segments. Not everyone will feel the same way about loosened restrictions. The “new normal” will not, for a long time or even ever, look exactly like the “old normal.”
Under the Governor’s direction, most of our state begins Phase One reopening on Monday, May 4, with individual counties free to modify his guidance. Since Southwest Florida has not been a “hot spot” the way the southeast coast has been, our area is able to resume more normal activities with the limited restrictions.
Here at First Church, live worship will resume in the sanctuary on Sunday, May 3 with services at 8AM and 10AM. Activities are limited to worship only; prudent sanitary precautions […]
The conversation has already started. Our president, local leaders, health experts, and even you and I have begun talking about what it might look like to “open up” the country again. Though even the experts cannot agree on what the right timeline might be for loosening distancing restrictions, the planning has nonetheless begun. The question is not if the “stay at home” or “safer at home” orders will be lifted, but when.
Someday, though no one quite knows when, we will emerge from our cocoons like butterflies with eyes squinting in the bright, spring sun. Just like caterpillars that undergo a metamorphosis while tucked in a chrysalis, so too shall we be changed by this experience. But how? What innovations will be gained? What cultural expressions will be lost? Will we continue to shake hands or will that be a relic of the past like greeting one another with a “holy kiss?”
Though we will undoubtedly be changed, I have begun to wonder what will endure from this wilderness experience. We are battling an enemy that cannot be seen with the naked eye. What’s more, while some present obvious symptoms of the virus, others remain asymptomatic making it difficult to determine who and what is “safe.” As of late, we have become captive to suspicion. Do you look at people differently now? What if you know that they traveled to a viral hotspot? Has your perception of doorknobs, keypads, and store-bought goods been altered? When we emerge, I imagine that this captivity to suspicion will be difficult to leave behind.
Long ago, God set Israel free from captivity in Egypt, but captivity has a way of remaining with people. Though God took His people out of Egypt, the people struggled to leave […]
Why is prayer often more difficult when crisis comes, when we feel many losses? Shouldn’t we pray more easily and more often when anxiety visits and these emotions overwhelm us? But in challenging (or just different) times, our stirred hearts defy expression and putting our thoughts into words can feel impossible. During unsettling times like these, the prayers of others help us.
In the 1930’s during the Great Depression, another time of great national stress, a prayer was written by a pastor and then prayed by many other believers over the years. This is not a “change my circumstances” prayer—though we pray those prayers, too—but it is a “change me” prayer. I have adapted it for us today:
O Lord, in You are laid up all treasures of wisdom and truth and holiness.
I pray for true Christian character to take shape within my soul, more and more.
Please grant to me:
The grace of a thankful and uncomplaining heart;
The grace to patiently wait on You as I must;
The grace to respond quickly when You call me to act;
The grace of courage, whether in suffering or in danger;
The grace to endure hardship as I must;
The grace of boldness in standing for what is right;
The grace of strict truthfulness;
The grace to treat others as I would have others treat me;
The grace of charity, that I may refrain from hasty judgment;
The grace of silence, that I may refrain from hasty speech;
The grace of forgiveness toward all who have wronged me;
The grace of tenderness toward all who are weaker than myself;
The grace of steadfastness in continuing to desire these things I pray for today.
And now, O Lord, give me a quiet mind. Let me not be fretted by any anxiety over the lesser interests of life. Let […]
“Surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of a man he is? Surely what pops out before the man has time to put on a disguise is the truth? If there are rats in a cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly. But the suddenness does not create the rats: it only prevents them from hiding.” – C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.
The suddenness with which the world as we knew it changed as a result of COVID-19 did not give humanity much time to disguise the truth. Rats in the cellar came out from hiding as the pandemic resulted in widespread panic. But the notion of being able to hide anything from a God who is everywhere and knows everything is foolish.
It is foolish because it cannot be done. It is foolish because it refuses the lovingkindness of our Lord and Savior, who died and rose again to make us whole.
In Psalm 139, King David praised God for His goodness, and often for deliverance from a trying situation, revealing his intensely personal relationship with God. It closes with these words: Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting (Psalm 139:23-24, NIV).
As we struggle together with this global pandemic, what “rats in a cellar” have you found in your life? How might the Holy Spirit be illuminating what is in your heart that the light of Christ might shine brighter in and through you?
May this trying situation reveal, not only the rats in the cellar, but also our good […]
“This is not the end, nor even the beginning of the end, but perhaps it is the end of the beginning.”
– Winston Churchill, 1942
Like so many of his speeches during the dark and threatening years of World War II, this quote from Churchill continues to stir the soul. He offered this phrase after the British forces had finally won a battle in Northern Africa against the German army. It was their first significant victory, and understandably the beleaguered British were ready to have something to celebrate. But Churchill knew it was too soon to throw a victory party, because there was still much more to suffer and much to fight, before victory would be won. And of course, he was right. To win any great conflict or contest we must be willing to persevere to the end, to stay the course, to summon all of our patience and endurance. We cannot fall to the temptation to proclaim victory, and to let up, too soon.
Here we are in a siege against another global enemy, this time an invisible virus that can take our breath away. We have endured a few weeks of sheltering in place, with closed businesses and restaurants and beaches, and watched the TV scenes from the “hot spots” where the battle with the virus is in full measure. And we wonder, how long will this last? Hasn’t this gone on long enough? We can be impatient creatures, can’t we? And there are encouraging signs that medical and scientific advances will help turn the tide of the battle. But it appears that we must recalibrate our hearts and hopes to realize that this is not a brief skirmish. It is a much more protracted struggle.