Friday, March 22, 2013

Pastoral Reflections on a Tragic Morning

Recently I was faced with the most difficult, tragic situation I have ever had to face in pastoral ministry: a man well known in the church I serve was killed in a jogging accident.  That morning I was in a meeting with two other pastors when one of our secretaries came in with a distressed look on her face to tell us that the County Coroners were in the main office requesting our assistance.  The woman whose husband had been killed was working at our church that morning, and the coroners asked if we could help them inform her of the death of her husband.  As a pastor, I have walked with people through tragedy.  I have mourned with families at the unexpected death of a loved one.  But I had never before had to deliver the news of the death of a loved one in this type of situation.

I was thankful to share the weight of this tragedy with my Senior Pastor.  Together we walked down the hall to the room where the woman was teaching.  I was profoundly aware that she had no idea we were coming to talk to her, and that the news we were going to deliver would change her life forever.  As she came out of her classroom and back to the office with us, she knew something was seriously wrong.  As we came into the office, the County Coroners were there, and together we shared the news with her that her husband had been killed in a jogging accident.  As we grieved with her and comforted her in those initial moments of shock, I prayed for the Holy Spirit to surround her and comfort her in this most awful of circumstances.  Our office staff quickly began making phone calls, and her family arrived within minutes to be with their mom.

After an hour or so, the family began to gather and left for a nearby home.  When I had some time later that afternoon to process all that had happened, I wrote down 9 reflections I wanted to share.  The first four of them are reflections on walking with people through suffering from a pastor’s point of view.  The next 5 (in an upcoming post) reflect on tragedy from a more personal perspective.

1.  In the immediate face of tragedy, compassion should be communicated by one’s presence and actions more then words.  It is easy as a pastor to want to speak at a time like this, and I believe there is a time and place for words in these situations.  But in the moment, being present with the suffering person and reassuring them of your care for them is crucial.  When Jesus encountered Mary in her mourning soon after Lazarus died in (?) says “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.  And he said, ‘Where have you laid him?’  They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’  Jesus Wept.’  (John 11:33-34, ESV.  Emphasis added.)  In the moment of tragedy Jesus empathized with those who were suffering, and entered fully into their mourning.  There would be a time for words, but before that time came, Jesus was present and caring with those who suffered.

Throughout that morning I was able to do some small things to help the family, getting water, Kleenex, and making phone calls.  The times I did speak were in response to questions she asked or memories that she shared.  Most of the time we were seeking to reassure her there was nothing she needed to worry about right then, that we would take care of things to help her.

2.  This tragedy, and all tragedies, are major life interruptions.  Much of the work I had planned to do on Friday was immediately put on the back burner.  This reminded me that the sermon preparation process must be begun early in the week, and not left for the last minute.  Pastors should not assume they will prepare sermons during tragedy-free weeks.  Our sermon prep process must begin early, taking advantage of time early in the week, so that we allow space for interruptions and important events.  If I depend on Friday for a large amount of my preparation, then when important interruptions do occur I will not be able to respond to them the way I need to.  Waiting until the last minute means that, when interruptions come, my sermon will suffer, my heart will be unsettled, and my family and the church will feel the effects.

Certainly it’s impossible to plan for every interruption; ministry will often demand we leave our offices and preparation behind.  But we must be diligent to work hard early in the week as we have opportunity so we will be free to care for our people when the need arises.

3.  As I reflected on this situation, I realized that follow up with the family and those affected is crucial to pastoral ministry.  As the family left our church that morning, I realized their life would never be the same.  This tragedy changed the direction of my morning and the things I had planned for the rest of the day, but it changed the plans and direction of the rest of their life.  Holidays, birthdays, and everyday life will never be the same.  It is easy in pastoral ministry to be focused and available for people in the midst of suffering, but not to stay involved in the time to come.  Families walking through difficult situations need care for more then just the immediate situation.  My recommendation to pastors is that as soon as you get back to your desk, schedule some calendar reminders weeks and months ahead to follow up with them.

In tragic situations, we need to be aware of how everyone involved is affected, not just the immediate family.  Our secretaries and office staff were deeply affected by what their co-worker had gone through.  The County Coroners who came to the church were very emotional.  I’m sure that the police and medical units that responded to the accident were affected as well.  As pastors we have the opportunity and responsibility to demonstrate the love of Jesus to everyone we encounter.  My suggestion is to go out of the way to care for and appreciate the secondary people involved, including police, fire, medic, office staff, and anyone else.  It doesn’t have to be a big thing, but just telling them how much you appreciate their work and their service to the community goes a long way.

4.  Finally, as I sat back down at my desk, thinking about the message I would deliver that coming Sunday, I was struck afresh by the fact that sermons must speak to this kind of life.  As pastors we can have tunnel vision at times, focused on the series we are in, the points we want to communicate, and the direction we are trying to lead our ministries.  Our people need to hear what God’s word has to say in the midst of tragic situations.  They need to know the unfailing hope they have in Jesus, no matter what happens.  We need to preach God’s Word, realizing that the people who listen are looking to see how this unchanging truth can help them with the daily realities of worries, hurts, fears, struggles, and unexpected tragedies.  My encouragement to pastors and teachers is to feed your people solid food, truth that matters, truth about a Savior that will be with them and carry them through tragic situations when they can’t see how they can carry on.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Bible, Episode 1

Last night The History Channel debuted a new 10-part mini series called "The Bible". The series is produced by Mark Burnett, the well known producer of "Survivor". Having seen my fair share of Bible documentaries and docudramas (which this series is), I was skeptical when I first heard about the series. But Sunday night rolled around and there were no new episodes of Heather's and my current Netflix shows, so I decided to give it a try. Less then one minute in and I was completely hooked. It was fantastic to watch and I am eagerly looking forward to the coming episodes. Most of the characters were cast incredibly well and brought a refreshing human element to familiar stories.

In my enthusiasm, I am not overlooking some flaws, historically and theologically. I will speak to those as well.  But first, there are 4 themes in Episode 1 of "The Bible" that caught my attention: 1. "The Bible" clearly displayed the majesty and awesomeness of God through creation. Episode 1 opens with a scene of the ark being tossed in a turbulent sea. Inside the ark Noah is comforting his family by telling them the story of creation from Genesis 1. Quoting scripture, Noah describes what God did on each of the 6 days of creation. I was amazed at the way it portrayed the creation of the sun, the animals, and especially the way God formed Adam out of the dust. Burnett portrays creation as being spoken into existence by God over the course of 6 literal, 24-hour days. Having Noah tell this story to his family in this setting, when his family would have been filled with doubts and questions about God's goodness and his purpose in creation, was brilliant.

2. The theme of judgment was evident throughout Episode 1. Episode 1 begins with Noah, moves through much of Abraham's life, and concludes with Moses, the 10 Plagues, and the Exodus of Israel from Egypt. I was not expecting this from a History Channel docudrama. Many people reject and revile the notion of God's judgement. The idea that God would pour out his wrath on people is unacceptable to many. Yet these truths are clear in the Scriptures, and were very evident in Episode 1. Noah explains to his family that the flood is God's judgement on the wickedness of man. The story of Sodom is clearly portrayed as God pouring out judgement on their sin, (though the true Biblical reason is left out; keep reading). The plagues show the story of God's judgement on Egypt and Pharaoh for enslaving God's covenant people and refusing to let them go. I think it would have been possible to create a compelling story in Episode 1 without the theme of judgement, but the fact that they made it the centerpiece was impressive.

Abraham and Sarah
3. The theme of faith. Following the commands of God oftentimes does not make sense, and appears foolish to outsiders. Episode 1 brought to life in a powerful way the irrationality (from a human perspective) of following some of God's commands. This is evident in Noah's response to God's command to build an ark, in Abraham's departure from Ur to the land God would show him, and in Moses going before Pharaoh to demand Israel's release. As Bible teachers and readers, it can be easy to overlook the human element in familiar stories. But when you see Abram's wife counseling him not to leave Ur, it reminds you of the overcoming faith required to follow God's call.

4. Finally, the theme of sacrifice plays a prominent role. Again, this was somewhat of a surprise to me. The idea that God would require a sacrifice as payment for sin, let alone a blood sacrifice, is unacceptable to many. Episode 1 tells the story of Abraham and Isaac from Genesis 22 in way that grips any viewer, and especially any parent, with the terror of God's command to Abraham to sacrifice his son. Later, the story of the passover is shown in a very real way. Families slaughtered sheep and spread the blood over their doorposts to keep away the promised death. Christians know that it is only by the self-giving sacrifice of Jesus and his death on the cross that we can be forgiven of our sin against God. Episode 1 begins to show that this truth had its beginning from the foundation of the earth.

While there are many things worth getting excited about, Episode 1 of "The Bible" has several serious flaws. I am not speaking here of artistic license, which I generally appreciated. Rather, there are things included, or left out, of the episode by design which were not faithful to scripture.

1. The sin of homosexuality is an essential element in the Genesis 19 story of the destruction of Sodom. The men of the city attacked Lot so they could gain access to the male angelic visitors in lots house. Episode 1 does show Sodom to be a wicked city, sexually promiscuous, but leaves out the aspects dealing with homosexuality.

2. The character of Moses is not true to the biblical story. In the scriptures, Moses continually questions his calling from God, making excuses and asking to be relieved of his duty. Eventually God allows Aaron to be a spokesmen for Moses after he continues to declare his inability. Episode 1 portrays Moses as a man extremely confident in his calling and assured of his success.

In conclusion, my recommendation is to watch Episode 1 - and the rest of the series - with your Bible open on your lap. The book is always better than the movie, right? Especially true in this case. But this is still worthwhile. This series is appropriate for families to watch together, with parents sensing when cover their young children's eyes and pausing (if you use DVR) to read the Biblical story together from scripture. I'm thankful for Mark Burnett (who professes to be a follower of Jesus Christ) having the courage and vision to make this series.