The Coronavirus Blues

By Joe LaGuardia

I think I have what I am officially calling the “Coronavirus Blues.” Here I am, without having to quarantine myself or miss out on too many gatherings (since our county does not have any cases of the virus), and I have been depressed for the last week of what surely will be a loss of community and human interaction.

As a pastor, I believe that most people in the ministry (I’m willing to take a poll) thrive on community, human interaction, and routine. We value community because its what we ministers do: gather people, guide people, encourage people, inspire people, anticipate the Spirit’s empowerment of people. Ours is a Gospel of disciple-making, not detachment.

Although I have not neglected community, I can see it waning around me. Our church was half-full last Sunday. I don’t blame anyone; we have an older population, the most vulnerable to the virus. People have reached out to me to let me know they won’t be coming, so I wasn’t surprised. And, yet, I feel a pang of loneliness. “Welcome,” writes Jamie Metzl, “to our disembodied future.”

People mean a lot to us when we shepherd a congregation. Its all so depressing!

We pastors yearn for human interaction. If you were to talk to most ministers, you’d likely learn that the reason why we got into this business was (1) God’s calling and (2) we enjoy experiencing the relationships that make ministry tick. We like journeying with people in faith, supporting people through the rigors and rites of passages of life, and edifying those who are in need and hurting.

Its not as if we like the attention we get from helping people. We sincerely like cheerleading and encouraging people along the highways and byways of growing together in Christ. We long for experiences, not accolades. We worship God for miracles in the lives of others, not seek men’s praise.

And I’m sure that pastors like me like routine. We depend on a very intentional rhythm that moves from Sunday to Sunday: Sunday, we preach our hearts out; Monday we rest and visit; Tuesday, we prepare for mid-week ministry; Wednesday, we meet with staff and cheer on our fellow ministers who do youth and children’s ministry; Thursday and Friday are days dedicated to writing that sermon; and then, Sunday, it starts all over again.

This rhythm is our life-blood. The exhausted pastor says, “Sunday comes every week, and we have to have a sermon for every one of them!” But the pastor also says, “Sunday comes every week, and it brings order to my life!”

This virus has ultimately interrupted my routine. Meetings are cancelled. I don’t see the people I normally see through the week. I miss hugs from seasoned saints who have hugged their pastors for over 70 years; and I feel lost now that Sunday won’t see the advent of the next worship service (we are closed this Sunday…).

A long time ago, my wife and I noticed that I get the blues whenever I went on vacation or an extended trip. We asked what my problem was: Was I that restless that I got depressed whenever I wasn’t “working”?

No, I get down when my routine goes awry. This virus has interrupted everything, and I can’t even get a package of paper towels (its our routine to buy a package once a month, and we just ran out at home!!). You know how annoying that is? To go to the store and deal with people buying things that we are not likely to run out of in a week or two? I’m just glad I have enough toilet paper for the next week. I swear….

So here I am, World! Please tell me I’m not alone, because I know I’m not. This is the coronavirus blues, and I ain’t the only one singing them! Comment below and share your woes. We have the time.

Awaken to the World

By Matt Sapp

During Lent at Central Baptist Church (the six weeks between Ash Wednesday and Easter) we’re focusing on the humanity of Jesus and the ways that Christ’s teaching “awakens” us to what it means to be fully human.

This spring as we remember that God has a hand in all of creation as it awakens from its winter slumber, we’re praying each week that God will awaken us, too–and in these five ways.

Awakening to Scripture
Last Sunday we looked at two potential responses when faced with temptation. One approach to temptation is to buttress yourself with the word of God. Jesus literally quoted scripture to turn back temptation (Matt 4). Adam and Eve, though, were easily convinced that God’s word wasn’t true—or that it didn’t apply to them—when they rather easily gave in to temptation (Genesis 3).

Let me challenge you to use Lent this year as a time of awakening to scripture—as a time to reflect on the role the word of God plays in your life. How familiar are you with scripture? How often do you read the Bible? What habits can you develop to help you both embody and believe the word of God?

Awakening to Curiosity
This week in worship we’ll explore the value of honest questioning and of acknowledging intellectual uncertainty as we look at the story of Nicodemus (John 3). It’s okay to have questions for God. It’s even okay to have real, lasting uncertainty about the full nature of our faith.

Let me challenge you to use Lent this year as a time of awakening to curiosity—and as a time to enter into conversations with God and with one another about real questions that may not have easy answers—or ANY answers—but that allow us to explore our faith more fully.

Awakening to Guiding Narratives
We all carry unconscious stories that guide our thinking about our lives—internal narratives that we tell ourselves about who we are. Many of us have mostly good internal narratives. Some of us can be pretty hard on ourselves. But no matter what your internal narrative is, the story that God would tell about you is far greater than the stories you are telling about yourself.

We’ll explore this idea as we talk about the Samaritan woman at the well in a few weeks (John 4). Let me challenge you to use Lent this year as a time of awakening to the internal narratives that guide your understanding of who you are.

Awakening to New Vision
The thing about blind spots is we don’t know we have them until someone else calls it to our attention. When Jesus heals a man who was born blind (John 9) the whole community—and especially the Pharisees—were forced to acknowledge blind spots in their thinking.

You may have some blind spots, too. Blind spots in your relationships. Blind spots in your behavior. Blind spots to things you don’t know or properly understand.

When we acknowledge our blind spots, we have the chance to gain new vision. Let me challenge you to use this Lent as a time of awakening to your blind spots and as an opportunity to increase your vision.

Awakening to God as a New Creator
On Palm Sunday (Matthew 21), the crowds were cheering the arrival of a king. And Jesus IS a king. But Christ is not the kind of king the crowds were expecting.  Jesus is not someone who comes simply to upgrade the talent on our team. Christ is not the All-Star who swoops in to help us win the big game. He’s not just a good guy here to help us defeat the bad guys.

When Christ comes, he comes to introduce us to a whole new game, governed by a whole new set of rules, and aiming for a whole different set of outcomes. If we’re looking for someone to step into our game and play by our rules and become our champion, then we have a grave misconception about what God is doing in Jesus Christ.

God is coming to create something completely new! Our job is to understand the new rules, to play the new game, and to get on God’s team—rather than expecting Christ to join our team.  Let me challenge you to use this Lent as a time of awakening to the full scope of what God is aiming to accomplish in Jesus Christ.

And, one more challenge: Be in church as often as you’re able between now and Easter. These weeks of preparation really are worth it. They help us wake up to all that Easter means for our lives and for our world.

The Reverend Matt Sapp is pastor of Central Baptist Church, Newnan, Georgia. This article was reprinted with the author’s permission.

Beware of False Teachers?

Image result for false teachersBy Joe LaGuardia

Beware of false teachers, who come to you in sheep’s clothing” (Matt.  7:15).

Lets reflect on false teachers for a moment.   We don’t talk often enough about them, and I have a feeling that we hesitate to call anyone a false teacher because we don’t want to be jerks.  But Jesus commands us to do so in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:15).

The question is, how do we differentiate between true and false teachers when, in the very same chapter, Jesus instructs us to “judge not, lest ye be judged” (Matt 7:1)?  Google an image  of “false teachers,” and you will get montages of famous pastors and preachers that have the loudest voices among us.  That’s not very nice.

The first step in any biblical exegesis worth its salt is to put yourself in the shoes of those who heard this command in the first place.  Jesus was talking to his disciples upon a mountain around the Sea of Galilee.  He was far from the Temple, and he had yet to interact with the official priests of Jerusalem.

In warning his followers of false teachers, however, Jesus was setting himself apart.  He came not to abolish to law, but to fulfil it.  He began his teachings with repentance  and the Kingdom of God, (which implied revolution and revolt from the first-century worldview), but then reversed expectations by blessing the poor, the meek, and the weak.

His signature teachings did not perpetuate violence against oppressors, but included the unavoidable fate of persecution and the forgiving of enemies.  What kind of teaching was this?

Later in the Sermon, around Matthew 7, Jesus accentuates the authority of his teaching.  Only God can judge, but you are to discern true and false prophets by their fruit.  Those who hear Jesus’ words and fail to obey him are like people who build homes on sinking sand.  Ask, seek, and knock and God will take care of you.

This Teacher has authority, and the fruit of his teaching are attested by the works he accomplishes (see Matt. 4:23-25).  When crowds amass, however, beware of distractions, false teachers, and the self-righteous.

Nowadays, we want to apply the label “false teachers” to anyone who touts a  theology we either deem heretical or exploitive.  We poke fun at television evangelists, and the downfall of not a few major celebrity preachers have only reinforced our habit to judge those who are famous.  I’ve been called a false teacher several times by people who are so far to the right even Jesus stands to the left of them.

We can’t call just anyone we don’t like false teachers, and we can’t be jerks or judgmental!

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So there must be a second step in figuring out what Jesus means in his warning, and that is to see what people he confronted the most: namely, the Pharisees, scribes and experts on the law.  He called them white-washed tombs.  He warned his disciples to “be not like the hypocrites” who stand in the marketplace with elaborate prayers.   He didn’t want his followers to make their righteousness rather than God’s grace the center of their testimony.

But if this is true, then this brings us to a definition of “false teachers” by a very uncomfortable standard: Jesus warned his disciples against those who were the most religious among them.

Pharisees were normal folks like you and me; their concern was obeying God because they believed that Roman occupation was a result of Israel’s sin.  What is wrong with a group of people policing others for the sake of holiness and obedience?  Seems legit to me!

But that is the very problem.  Jesus says that false teachers are “ravenous” (RSV), and their appetite for others are in their concern not for the log in their own eye, but for the speck in others.  People who fail to accentuate God’s love and grace, mercy, kindness, and redemption are too focused on the letter of the law rather than the Spirit of the law.  They push for an agenda of personal, feel-good spirituality at the expense of an active faith that works and persists in doing justice.

Their teaching is divisive, and results in distrust, discord, and (often) unnecessary disharmony as a result of this kind of religious zeal.  How many churches split because one group of people believe they are running the church more effectively (which translates into “more holy”) than another group in the church?

The fruit of false teachers are false because the fruit turns sour.  It sucks the life and air out of rooms that can otherwise be safe sanctuaries in which people are filled with the Holy Spirit.  False teachers don’t start off as such; rather they become false because their season of fruit turns bitter.

That means that you, if you are a leader, can become a false teacher if you are not heeding Jesus’ warning.  No one is exempt from this temptation!

As a religious leader I am cognizant of the power that we pastors wield in the lives of others.  I often ask: Do I offer a life giving word of God, bearing fruit that feeds others and leads them into the relentless grace of God; or do I embody bad news that focuses too much (without a sense of perspective) on the downfall and failure of others?  Its a good question to ask and consider.