Pandemic church, week 26.
It was the usual chaos of a Sunday morning. Our church is simultaneously attempting a brand-new outdoor service (audio of the indoor service blasted outside), a brand-new live streaming service with brand-new equipment, and an indoor service with brand-new social distancing regulations. We’d already gotten last-minute copies of lyrics printed for the people sitting outdoors, rebooted the computer to get the worship software working for our live stream, and sat everyone socially distanced inside. After yet another sound glitch and the death of a guitar and a fine recovery by our worship leader, I got up to pray and read the Scripture. This part, at least, would run smoothly - not much can go wrong when you’re just projecting Scripture onto a screen.
Then people started laughing - which, though the Bible can be really funny (who names their sons Uz and Buz?), isn’t always the reaction you anticipate when reading Scripture.
Inexplicably, the Scripture had turned to Spanish, with “Juan 13:6-8” proudly displaying itself on the screen. I was dumbfounded. We’re a small church in upstate New York. Our community is 97% Caucasian. Why do we even have a Spanish version of Scripture in our database? How in the world does this happen? You cannot make this up. I looked at it hopelessly - three years of high school Spanish meant I knew how to say my pants were on fire, but not how to read Scripture.
“I can read it!” called our lone Hispanic attendee from the back as laughter rippled through the pews.
What do you do when your PowerPoint turns to Spanish?
No one had expected this - well, no one had expected a lot of things in 2020. But when we made the decision to close our church for worship for a couple weeks back in March, we did not expect how we’d still be adjusting to the effects come September. We didn’t expect to be warring with technology every Sunday, to have our congregation attending three different services at the same time, and surely, no one expected a Spanish PowerPoint in a very white upstate New York town. But here we were, with Juan 13.
The PowerPoint turning to Spanish is a representation of a million other unexpected dilemmas this year. I have been caught in a lot of silly conundrums this half-year of pastoring in a pandemic world...and a lot of serious conundrums. How to meet the needs of those who won’t step into the service if masks aren’t required, while also meeting the needs of those who won’t step into the service if masks are required? How to balance government requirements, church freedom, safety, wisdom, and fellowship all at once? How to console the man whose wife passes away when they can’t even have a funeral? How to serve the multiplying needs of our community while protecting the safety of our congregation? Outdoor Bible studies, three simultaneous church services, and virtual meetings are cutting it for now - but what about when the weather changes? Do we just pray dear God, don’t let it rain, ever? What about snow?
When PowerPoints turn to Spanish, it produces an all-too-familiar feeling I’ve had over the first year of pastoral ministry: incompetence (I have no idea what I’m doing). Incompetence can pretty swiftly lead to insecurity (I have no idea what I’m doing, everyone else knows I have no idea what I’m doing). Over the past week I have noticed two responses I’ve had when metaphorical PowerPoints turn to metaphorical Spanish - one healthy, one unhealthy. In fact, those two responses have been common over my whole first year of ministry - really, over my whole life - any time something has gone wrong.
One response is dependence on myself: how can I fix it, others are counting on me, the pressure is on, everyone’s looking at me, and I have to get it right. That response ultimately produces anxiety: what happens if it goes wrong? The result is that I’m overjoyed with an overly inflated ego if things go well, and crushed to despair if they go poorly. Just ask my wife, who has seen me come back from a Sunday morning singing praises of the best job ever, or seen me come back from a Sunday morning wondering what in the world I was thinking choosing to become a pastor.
The other response is dependence on God: I don’t know what to do so I’ll yield it to him in prayer, my self-worth isn’t found in whether people are pleased with me but whether God is pleased with me, I’ll do the best I can and trust the results to him, and I’ll remember he’s satisfied in me not because of what I’ve done but because of what Jesus has done on the cross for me. The result is that, whether the situation goes well or not, I’m at peace. Regardless of circumstance, I can say, “Thank God, it went well,” or, “That was a disaster, but God’s still in control.” And my self-worth doesn’t ride the wave of success or failure.
When, for example, we began to re-open the church for in-person worship, sending out that first e-mail produced all sorts of worry. I have no idea what I should write. Are people going to be critical? Some people probably think we’re too strict. Others think we aren’t strict enough. What if people start thinking I’m living out of fear? What if they think I’m being irresponsible?
But incompetence and insecurity don’t have to result in anxiety. In fact, I’ve noticed that incompetence and insecurity have led to some of my most treasured moments in pastoral ministry. When on the phone or in the hospital with people without any clue what to say or do, I’ve often found myself praying, “Lord, I have no idea what to say - but you do.” Suddenly, my ability to listen, to pray, to tune into God’s Spirit, is multiplied beyond what it would have been - and I have a whole new sense of wonder.
One story best captures this experience for me. I have this terrible habit of being clumsily destructive, perhaps best exemplified by a weird five-year stretch where I knocked over and broke three televisions with my backside (college was a strange time). I also tend to have a lot of guilt when I break things and always want to make it up to whoever’s belongings I wrecked.
One memory in particular is firmly implanted in my brain from when I was a kid, tossing a baseball with my dad in the front yard. Like most young baseball boys, I wanted to really impress my dad, so I tried by winding up and hurtling one as hard as I could. Like most young baseball boys, I had no accuracy. The throw sailed right over his head and nailed the windshield of our minivan, cracking it. I was devastated. Dad was, well, not impressed in the way I’d hoped.
Dad wasn’t angry, but I was mortified. I can vividly remember running up to my room and scrounging up the pitiful cash I had that I’d been storing away for my next pack baseball cards. I brought it all down to my dad and offered it to him to prepare the window. He should be upset; it was all my fault; he deserved for me to pay him back even though it was a debt I could never afford to repay with my childhood allowance. I remember him shaking his head and rejecting his son’s paltry offer (which in retrospect would have covered maybe 10% of the repair cost). He held the same perspective that he would years later, when he gave me the single best piece of advice when I broke another TV and again tried to pay him back, this time with a poor college student’s leftovers: “Everything breaks.”
My dad had God’s response of grace, from one who had the competency and ability to understand and pay a debt, to one who lacked either, even though the mess was entirely my fault: everything breaks, and that’s okay. I’ll make it better.
If that’s a dad’s response of grace to a small mess that’s all my fault, how much greater is God’s response of grace to bigger messes that are pandemic’s fault? Yeah, the cost needs to be paid, the mess dealt with - but no loving God will put us in a time-out we can’t endure, a debt we can’t afford, or mark up a cost to his grace to teach us a lesson.
When a PowerPoint turns to Spanish, you can do one of two things. You can panic, shift blame, problem solve, decry whoever’s fault it was that it happened, make sure people know you aren’t incompetent, try to fix it. You can try to restore it and cover the mistake and make sure people know you know what you’re about.
Or, you can laugh. You can stare in sheer, utter bewilderment at Juan 13:6-8. You can turn back to your church and say, “Our own personal hell would be an escape room that we can only escape by connecting every wire, fixing every speaker and making every screen work.” You can acknowledge sheer dependence on the grace of the God who made it okay to be a mess in the first place.
You can realize your worth is not dependent on whether you do a good job, the mess is fixed, the people are happy, the work is done. It never was. Your worth was always dependent on when God sent his only Son to die on a cross for you, and said, “That’s how much you’re worth to me. Even when you were dead in your sins, I freely gave my most treasured possession for you.” Everything breaks. But you aren’t the one who will fix it.
I spent my first year as a pastor learning that it was okay, even important, to feel incompetent, because only by realizing I didn’t know what to do could I depend wholly on the God who called me. Only then could I preach so people would hear the gospel instead of compliment me; only then could I lead a study outdoors to provide a space of fellowship instead of try to make people happy; only then could I pastorally care and listen for someone else’s sake instead of to convince them I’m a good pastor.
Turns out, I’m spending my second year as a pastor learning the same exact thing.
When your PowerPoint turns to Spanish - a plan goes wrong, you can’t keep life in order, it’s September and 2020 is still a wreck - you can try to fix it, you can produce insecurity and worry and anxiety, you can put all your chips on the odds that you can solve the pandemic year.
Or, you can just point at the screen, laugh at yourself, and carry on.
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