An apocalyptic time

April 1st, 2020
This article is featured in the Offering Hospitality issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

“Daddy, my foot hurts.”

I couldn’t imagine why. Everything looked in order. Well-fitting footed-pajamas zipped up to the neck are supposed to keep every two-year-old boy safe. But not this one.

“Daddy! My foot!”

I ignored him successfully and off he went to play.

For a little while.

“Daddy, my foot hurts! It hurts!”

I took him to get dressed for the day and even I could see why his foot hurt. Stuffed into the end of his footed-pajamas were five full crayons, one partial crayon, a full crayon broken into three pieces, and one, large, completely juiced piece of orange.

I have no idea how he crammed the crayons past the collar or worked them into his foot and I didn’t even know we had oranges.

I wouldn’t quite call that sentimental scene an apocalypse, but when you’re dealing with a two-year old with a footie full of contraband, you could say it was apocalyptic. Things kept hidden were coming into the light.

I don’t think we’re in the apocalypse, but it is an apocalypse. Things kept secret and things that were hidden are being revealed. We are tempted to fatefully ask, “Is everything going to be OK?” We are better to faithfully declare there’s good news because this time is found within the one who is Alpha and Omega, who was, who is, and who is to come (Rev. 1:8); and not even this is an unbreakable seal for the Lion-Lamb-Lord (Rev. 5:5)!

I imagine it took some guts to write a clear/not-so-clear letter undermining the empire and orienting cosmic worship in the first century. “Sorry-not sorry” hadn’t yet become a thing, so there were no takebacks. Writing an apocalypse couldn’t be scrubbed from social media. Once it was out there, it was out there. But John only had his life left to give. Writing an apocalypse must have seemed a good way to spend it: He was so convinced of the goodness of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, which he had seen, that he simply had to write it.

It also took some guts to read aloud and to hear an apocalypse. When John wrote his apocalypse, he blessed those who would read it and those who would hear it and take it to heart (Rev. 1:3). While he wrote it to the whole church, he addressed the first part of it to seven specific churches and to their pastors.

I have neither the courage nor the vision of John and I am not writing an apocalypse. But I love the local church and I love pastors. The Seer gives four themes for pastoring in an apocalyptic time.

Posture of Prayer

Max DePree said, rightly, “The first responsibility of the leader is to define reality.” The temptation is to act with a slightly different posture: “The leader is the one who first takes responsibility to define reality.” Suddenly leadership becomes not a role, but a race. Colleagues become competitors. Brothers and sisters become bothers and cynics.

Pastors: our first posture is prayer. Social distancing means living as though a virus which we cannot see is a real and present danger. And it is. Prayer is a practice of living as though God is a real and present help. And He is.

Defining reality happens in two ways. First, defining reality is accurately seeing what is real and true. Second, defining reality involves enacting the future in the present moment. Just as we eventually become a person with good character in the future by living as a good person in the present, so can we define reality by helping to create it. That is how God has shared agency with us.

Prayer is about defining reality in both ways. Just as John was in the Spirit when he had his vision (Rev. 1:10) and then wrote to influence what would take place, may we also be in the Spirit to see present reality clearly and to enact our Lord’s will as the Kingdom comes.

It’s an apocalyptic time. Let’s pray for sight and strength.

Pain and Its Relief

Take my word for it, I’m not a distant Dad. I actually pay attention to my children. Even so, my two-year-old had managed to secure several items and secretly stuff them into his footie without my knowledge. The result was not a secret stash of fun, but persistent pain in his foot. An apocalypse was necessary for his relief. The apocalypse didn’t bring the pain; it revealed his pain’s source.

But revealing can be painful on its own. None of the churches relished the revealing of misplaced priorities (Ephesus), misguided practices (Pergamum), misleading prophets (Thyatira), sleepy spirituality (Sardis), and missional malaise (Laodicea). But an apocalypse was necessary for victory, life, authority, purity, and repentance. Jesus said, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline” (Rev. 1:10). Healing needed revealing.

Patterns and practices that have formed our lives are coming to light. We might not have enough savings; we might not have a character that loves to share; we might have become sleepy in mission; we might not have been ready for days upon days with our families! We might wince at waking to reality of these regrettables. But our Lord allows a revealing in order to save, strengthen, transform. It’s not only that things have changed, but that things that have needed to change are now seen. May our understandable cry of “God, help us!” morph into the praise of “God is our helper!”

It’s an apocalyptic time. Let’s endure the pain and anticipate the healing.

Persecution vs. Perseverance

When people are exposed, they blame. The woman you gave me. The tree placed here. The serpent in the tree. It’s always been that way. The saga of Genesis 3 is story of humankind written small. What these two people do, whole societies do. When stakes are high, rhetoric follows with it. We all play a blame game and we are caught up in one.

The blame game makes us feel safe and strong. When there’s a scapegoat to blame, the problem can be solved. Find the source of stupidity, vapidity, idolatry, and incompetence and get rid of it. Nations persecute nations and politicians persecute politicians.

Pastors can even persecute pastors. On Day 1 of the quarantine, many of us read and wrote, “I missed the pandemic class in school! Let’s be gracious to one another!” On Day 2 of the quarantine, many of us read and wrote, “Those churches who weren’t prepared should be left behind!” and “To everyone who told me that internet church was digital heresy, look at me now, priest!”

But it’s even more sinister. Pastors can persecute themselves. Maybe you weren’t a Blue-Check Verified Twitter user, Instagram mogul, Snapchat star, or YouTube producer. There might be a half-truth to a lack of digital preparation. But half-truths can lead to whole lies. Christ made us to be priests one to another in service to God and he made other pastors to be the same to us. And Christ did so by identifying with us in our weakness, bondage, and suffering. He did not persecute us; he pursued us.

It’s an apocalyptic time. Let’s not persecute other, but pursue Him who pursued us.

Pastoral Presence

Pastor John was a cheerleader. Even though he was a socially distant writer, he was a brother and companion in suffering with those to whom he wrote (Rev. 1:8). John found ways to be close to those in his company. But he also entrusted the apocalypse to the pastors of local churches. The Word made Flesh is the Word made near. Technology has always been about making easier, going wider, reaching more. Thank God for it. We have John’s apocalypse because of technology—writing, copying, printing. Blessed is the one who wrote it. And blessed are those who take it to heart. But many will only take it to heart through the heart of their pastor. Incarnation is not technology; it is pastoral theology. Incarnation is the theology of the Good Shepherd; the Good Shepherd is Incarnational theology. The Good Shepherd came seeking. Blessed are you, pastor, as you help work the written Word into the will of your people in personal ways.

It’s an apocalyptic time. It’s a time for pastors.

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