Leading churches

Bending the COVID Bow of Bronze

One pastor's struggle toward hope in God

May 13, 2020

Despite the numerical growth and spiritual maturity our congregation experienced, I presented my dilemma to the elder board. Something had to give. Now that I had been the lead teaching pastor for a while, I told them, I have learned one of two things: either I’m not called to pastoral ministry, or I’m doing it wrong. What other option could there be? I asked. Ministry should not be so hard.

Calm and lovingly, the elder board listened. This meeting, by the way, was a month before most pastors had heard of the coronavirus.

At the time, I had just finished reading and resonated with what tennis legend Andre Agassi wrote in his transparent memoir, Open. Agassi tells of repeatedly hearing his gruff father bellow, “Hit harder, Andre!” as they practiced grueling hours on their backyard Las Vegas court. Seven-year-old Andre was forced to return balls shot out of a cannon he called “the dragon” until he grew to hate the sport that made him famous. And from his youth matches to winning Wimbledon, that voice never stopped shouting. Hit harder. Hit harder. Hit harder.

Working hard or hardly working

I often hear voices telling me to try harder and do more, sometimes from the closest allies. In a recent Twitter thread about how pastors can serve their churches, one of my favorite authors said, “quarantine = overtime,” adding that if a pastor thinks the quarantine means part-time, then he’s “asleep at the wheel.”

Okay fine, I mumble under my breath. I’m sure some pastor somewhere needed that salvo, just as Jeremiah needed to be chided about competing with horses and surviving in the thicket of the Jordan (Jer 12:5). But what if a pastor feels drowsy at the wheel for reasons other than laziness? Sitting in the driver’s seat nine months behind a short-staffed church has exhausted me—and that was before a global pandemic hit.

I hear Jesus whisper that all who labor may come to him for rest. But for some reason, my sin and psyche assume “all” can’t include pastors.

Between March and June, we are attempting 20 new or re-tooled ministry initiatives to serve our church during the crisis and prepare us for when we return. We’re rebuilding our website, recording video sermons and worship songs, making phone calls to members and attendees, and posting daily Facebook videos throughout May.

Yet, for every three phone calls I make to church members, I feel guilty for not making ten. My theology tells me only the Chief Shepherd is omnipresent and omnipotent, but still I try to be everywhere at once, doing ministry fast and famously, as Zack Eswine critiqued in The Imperfect Pastor. I hear Jesus whisper that all who labor may come to him for rest. But for some reason, my sin and psyche assume “all” can’t include pastors; someone has to drive his sheep.

I know I’m not the only one who feels overworked. Our fridge holds a massive daily calendar to help coordinate the schedules of everyone in our large family. On day 21 of the lockdown, I stood behind my wife as she scratched a black X on the calendar. She looked at me and said, “That’s 63 meals.” We’re now on day 60. Comedian Jim Gaffigan once said, “You know what it’s like having a fourth kid? Imagine you’re drowning, then someone hands you a baby.” We have six kids, and the older ones can eat more than me.

The COVID-era has also troubled my preaching. Most pastors had preaching classes in seminary where professors recorded sermons so we could analyze them post-op. Besides the theology of our messages, we’d break down goofy mannerisms like swaying side-to-side or verbal tics like saying “Umm.”

Whether a pastor has old VHS tapes in his basement, CD-ROMs in a desk drawer or files on an Apple hard drive, I’ve never met a single one who enjoyed watching himself preach. It’s the pits, actually.

Now, however, video preaching is all we can give our people. We toil each week over a text, preach the sermon to a camera—which hardly feels like preaching—and then email a link to our people, all the while feeling like, “I know, I know—I tried. I wish it were better too.” Of course, no members from our churches are so picky as to tell their pastor his eye contact is lousy, but we see all the imperfections in HD nonetheless. Preach harder. Preach harder. Preach harder.

Don’t be that guy

The opening line of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader famously reads, “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” When I read my children The Chronicles of Narnia, I reserve a special voice for Eustace. I give him this rapid but whiny voice, like if Eeyore had too much coffee. My children love it.

Isn’t this the stuff that wooed us into pastoral ministry in the first place—charging over dangerous hills waving the gospel banner?

But whenever I find myself telling a friend that life feels hard and I’m struggling to keep my head from drooping, I’m self-conscious my friend hears me in my Eustace voice. My ego disdains the thought of being perceived as a complainer, though I am not entirely sure why I fear this so intensely. My father loves me and never treated me like Agassi’s father treated him. Yet somewhere along the way, I adopted the view that sharing my struggles, however legitimate, can only be construed as complaining. Rub some dirt in it, Benjamin.

How can a pastor complain when he still has his job and the financial giving to his church remains strong? Besides, all this craziness has caused people to reach out to God, some for the first time. Isn’t this the stuff that wooed us into pastoral ministry in the first place—charging over dangerous hills waving the gospel banner?

A banker at our church tells of men crying on the phone because they recently lost their businesses—for good. Now, that is something worthy of complaint. Others have lost loved ones. Can I really mope about because I worked a few extra hours? Nevermind that this race-like pace has continued at our church for nearly a year. Don’t be that guy, I think. John Piper found time to write a book during the lockdown.

When God becomes our only hope

I enjoy writing and do it as often as my schedule allows, so I’ve wanted to write a helpful essay about our cultural Corona moment. Several organizations reached out to me for the same reason. Until now, I’ve baulked under the guise that people suffer from what I’ll call “resource fatigue.” It seems to me most Christian ministries have successfully scrambled to stuff the inboxes and social media feeds of their constituents, and I felt I had no compelling song to sing above the white noise.

“Until God is your only hope, God will not be your only hope. Utter brokenness is key to gospel wakefulness.”

But that is not the real reason I haven’t written. I’ve resisted because I worry about what would happen if I wrote about my struggles without my verbal Instagram filter. Readers might schedule me for time with a counselor. And I might let them.

Maybe this is exactly where God wants me. Maybe squeezing the nub end of our fraying rope is where God wants you. Maybe he wants us here because, as Jared C. Wilson writes, “When you get to the end of your rope, there is Jesus” (The Gospel According to Satan, p. 84). Wilson doubles back over and over again to this theme of finding hope in God when all around our soul gives way. Maybe that’s why I love Wilson’s writing so much; it reminds me of Paul’s comments about finding hope in God when we despair of life itself (2 Cor 1:8–9). Wilson writes:

“Until God is your only hope, God will not be your only hope. Utter brokenness is key to gospel wakefulness, because we will not be all-satisfied in Christ until Christ is all we have” (Gospel Wakefulness, p. 127).

This quote comes from a transparent section where Wilson describes a terrible season in life and marriage. He continues, “I was groaning in prayer in our guest room, flat on my face, wetting the carpet with tears the moment the Spirit whispered the gospel into my ear. That moment changed everything for me.”

Referencing this same, depression-filled season in another book, he writes, “It’s my conviction that God will not become your only hope until he becomes your only hope” (The Prodigal Church, p. 212). Wilson writes something similar in his earlier book Gospel Deeps, my personal favorite in the Wilson corpus: “I realized that God would become my only hope when he had become my only hope” (p. 116). Then, with the proverbial twinkle in his eye, Wilson adds, “Let the reader understand.”

I do understand. And I’m coming to understand better. This is the Christian life—knowing the goodness and grace and sovereignty of God, and coming to know it deeper. It’s like in the last chapter of Lewis’s The Last Battle, when the faun named Tumnus says to Lucy, “The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.” I finished reading the series to my family last week since the quarantine has given more evenings at home. Not all changes have been hard.

Hope from a forgotten place

I have never been deployed as a soldier to a combat zone, a place where hostiles train to put bullets around your body armor and roadside bombs along your path. I don’t know what it feels like to lie in bed worried for your actual life, so I don’t want to cheapen the experience of deployment. But I can say there was a season a dozen years ago when I felt the way I imagined pre-deployment might feel. I feared important relationships might break apart never to be put back together again, like glass dropped on hardwood.

This scary season came during the months leading up to when I would begin seminary full-time while also continuing to work nearly full-time to pay our bills. If you and I were sitting around a campfire, I could tell you all about that season, but here I’ll keep it brief.

After I graduated from college, I did what most people hope to do: I found a job related to my degree in mechanical engineering. But I also knew and feared that God could call me back to school to someday deploy in pastoral ministry. Here was the crux of my fear: I had heard too many stories of students with their faith garbled up by the Christian academic machine. I also knew and feared my temperament, a twisted combination of the drive to excel and people-please that always brought collateral damage even as it helped me overcome challenges.

God is our only hope when life feels difficult, even impossible.

When the day came to tell my engineering boss my plans to attend seminary and my desire to work for him part-time, with an annoyed look on his face, he said, “I’ll think about it and get back to you.” That conversation took place in early June, and school did not start until late-August. I wanted both of us to have plenty of time to prepare. I told my disappointed boss, “Thank you,” and limped out of his corner office back to my cubicle.

I thought for sure he would fire me. No employee worked part-time where I worked, and certainly no one oscillated between full-time and part-time. Besides that, I was essentially asking him to keep investing in me for four more years even though I would eventually quit to take a job in ministry.

As the summer got hotter and the fall semester got closer, my boss didn’t fire me. But neither did he tell me I could keep working. So I just kept showing up. Super awkward. Then August came, and so did my bill for classes. I paid, not sure whether I was dumb or full of faith. Still no answer from my boss.

Either the Spirit would whisper the gospel into my ear and God would become my only hope, or I would whither.

As I laid in bed one night unable to sleep, worrying about my “deployment,” I sensed God telling me to get up and pray. He generally doesn’t do this sort of prodding with me, so I felt as confused as young Samuel. But I obeyed. “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” I sensed God direct me to the passage where David celebrates how God had trained King David’s hands for war and helped him “bend a bow of bronze,” as in a bow with arrows (2 Sam 22:35, Ps 18:34).

As I understand it, no one knows if David hyperbolically meant an actual bow of bronze, thus a weapon humanly impossible to bend, or a bow reinforced with bronze, thus challenging to bend. The point preached the same way to my heart: God is our only hope when life feels difficult, even impossible.

Shortly after that night of prayer and right before seminary classes began, my boss called me into his office and said, “We can work this out.” And we did. I worked for him during all of seminary. It was a tremendous blessing.

Let God become our hope again

These same anxieties from a dozen years ago have crept back into my heart. I worry important relationships might break apart not to be put back together again. Maybe you feel this way too.

Maybe we don’t need to hit harder, work harder, preach harder, pastor harder or do anything else harder.

Ed Stetzer wrote about the recent, untimely death of Darrin Patrick, who was my pastor for several years when my wife and I were first married. On a Saturday morning over a breakfast of cheesy eggs and cubed potatoes in a St. Louis restaurant, Darrin encouraged me to try seminary at night for one year and then later go full-time during the day. Stetzer writes:

“The truth is that pastors and leaders have daily struggles that are constantly pressing on them. This comes in the form of taking care of themselves spiritually, emotionally, and physically, as well as caring for their churches and staff they lead. Many also feel pressures from family and friends. And most carry burdens of others who confide in them to a degree that many of us cannot fathom.”

There might be another answer to my dilemma of either being not called to ministry or doing it wrong. Maybe ministry is just really hard.

And so maybe we don’t need to hit harder, work harder, preach harder, pastor harder or do anything else harder. Maybe, in the severe but sweet providence of God, the COVID-era will be the time we look back on, as David did, to say that the Lord made our feet like the feet of a deer and set us secure on the heights and trained our hands for war, so that our arms can bend a COVID bow of bronze. Let the reader and writer understand.

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