Pastoral Encouragement

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The federal government’s decision to ban gatherings of people in public buildings has meant that churches have had to resort to livestreaming church services. It is a totally new situation and challenges the believers, office bearers and ministers in various ways. Ministers have sent out pastoral letters. The following pastoral letter by Rev A Pol—sent to his congregation, the Free Reformed Church of Mundijong, a few days ago—illustrates some of these challenges and how to respond. The letter is published here with his kind permission.

JN

“Some Pastoral Encouragement”

As of this coming Sunday we will not be able to worship in our own building at all anymore. At this point in time there is no clear answer as to how long this situation will continue.

Many of us are feeling discouraged with this latest development, as well as the imminent layoffs, disrupted school schedules, postponed events, and reduced opportunities to spend time with family and friends, to mention but a few. There is a pervasive sense of anxiety in the air. It therefore seemed fitting to write you a pastoral letter of encouragement.

The Lord reigns!

Let me say the single most encouraging thing that I know of: The Lord reigns! (Ps 97:1). He has made the heavens and the earth by his great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too difficult for him (Jer 32:17). He has made everything beautiful in its time (Eccl 3:11). He sees all mankind and considers everything they do (Ps 33:13,15). His eyes are too pure to behold evil (Hab 1:13), and he sees that even the very inclination of man’s heart is wicked by nature (Gen 6:5). Therefore we should not be surprised when he sends disaster and calamities into the world (Isa 45:7).

Yet the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy (Ps 103:8). He is patient with you and is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance (2 Pet 3:9). Because of his great love he revealed himself to you and made you spiritually alive (Eph 2:4-5). He has loved you with an everlasting love (Jer 31:3) and planned each day of your life before you existed (Ps 139:16). He carried you from birth and will sustain you to old age (Isa 46:3). He has numbered the very hairs on your head (Matt 10:30) and delights in your prayers (Prov 15:8). What he begins in your life he will also finish (Rom 8:30) and nothing will separate you from his love (Rom 8:39). You can trust him completely, because he is completely good (Mark 10:18). There is no darkness in him at all (1 John 1:5).

Our greatest danger

Our greatest danger right now is not that we succumb to COVID-19. Our greatest danger is that we lose our focus on that God and succumb to idolatry. The mechanism of idolatry works like this: We know we are in a situation beyond our control. This knowledge produces fear. Fear makes us want to regain control. We perceive ourselves to have more control when we know all the facts. So fear drives us to spend disproportionate amounts of time reading the news, hoping to regain a sense of control. This kind of fear-driven behaviour is functional idolatry. The purpose of an idol in ancient times was to harness powers beyond your control (such as the weather) and channel them into a more manageable form (such as a statue of Baal). Today that function is fulfilled by the media. Since the media needs readers to survive, its reports tend to verge towards the sensational. As a result, our worst fears appear to be confirmed and we are driven to browse and read more and more frantically. This perpetuates the cycle of idolatry. We spend more time meditating on our circumstances and less time meditating on the greatness and goodness of God. God’s people have always been susceptible to idolatry in the past, and we should not assume that we are exempt.  

So what can you do to ward off the sin of idolatry? Don’t spend so much time reading about COVID-19. It is quite possible for you to browse from one article to another and become more and more anxious. Don’t do that. By now the basic facts are known and will not change. Make a conscious choice to restrict your screen time. Don’t reach for your phone first thing in the morning and don’t browse the news right before going to bed. “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Tim 1:7). Do not sabotage what God has given you.

Our second greatest danger

Our second greatest danger is that we become complacent. Our church could be closed for a number of months. During these months you will be worshipping at home with your family, or perhaps even on your own from time to time. We should not get too used to this situation. It would be easy to slip out of a worship mindset and treat the Sunday as yet another day at home. Don’t do that. Make it a day of spiritual rest. Don’t read the news. Treat the times at which the live feed is broadcast as if you were at church. Dress respectfully. Stand at the appropriate times. Sing the psalms as family and pray. This may be challenging for families with small children especially because the home is a familiar environment for them, one which is normally not associated with church. You may find that some Sundays are easier than others. Don’t be discouraged. If it doesn’t seem to work, learn from the experience and see if you can make some adjustments for next time.

There will come a time, probably in a month or so, when the new Sunday routine may seem plain and ordinary. Yes, it is plain and ordinary. But like Jacob at Bethel, we can find that even the living room can become “the very gate of heaven” (Gen 28:17). Don’t be fooled by the familiar surroundings or the (possibly bored) looks of your teenage children. We don’t look to our children to set the tone. That is a sign of weak leadership. We look to God’s promises. It is when we live out faith in those promises that we enter true worship. The Lord is using this time to test our resolve as individuals. How much do we really love his Word? How much do we really love his people? Are we glad to be exempt from corporate worship for a while? Or are we like the psalmist in Ps 42:2-4 who was longing for the day when he could join in corporate worship again?

Community sermon discussion

Worshipping at home is not the biblical ideal. The biblical ideal is to assemble in worship together as God’s church (Heb 10:25). For the time being we cannot do so. However, as much as possible we want to create conditions that foster a sense of community. In an effort to help create such conditions consistory has given me permission to host a Q&A session after each sermon. When the service concludes and the blessing has been given, I will step down from the pulpit and take a five-minute break. During this time, you can text me any questions you have about the sermon. My number will be on the screen. I will then return and take the questions live as they come in. In this way we can have a community sermon discussion in which the whole family can be involved. This part is optional. If you want to join in the discussion over coffee, that is fine.

Hearts of trust and gratitude

God has given us a once-in a-generation opportunity to examine ourselves on a scale that we have never done before. It is easy to sing “He is my strength in all my tribulation, of whom shall I then ever be afraid” (Ps 27) when your real strength comes from your routines and conveniences. It is easy to attend church out of custom without really putting your heart into it. Now the Lord has taken all of the crutches away. This will expose our hearts more than anything else. We may be disappointed at what we find in our own hearts. We may become discouraged at what this crisis reveals about who we really are. That should make us even more grateful for the grace of God. He knows our hearts completely (1 John 3:20) and yet loves us with an eternal love through Christ. So let us be grateful to him. Gratitude is the best antidote to anxiety and its accompanying idolatry.

Read and pray

Many of us will be working reduced hours or possibly even be completely unemployed. Some of us will have a lot of time on our hands. Don’t waste this opportunity. If you are quarantined, don’t spend your two weeks clicking your way through YouTube or binge-watching Netflix. Instead, spend more time in the Word. If you spend an hour a day reading the Bible, you can read the entire book in a little over two months. If you spend an hour reading it after each meal, you can read it in just over three weeks.

Finally, do not neglect prayer. What should we pray for during this time? – Praise God for upholding, sustaining, and governing this world. Nothing escapes his attention and nothing is beyond his control. All of us respond inadequately to our circumstances on some level. Pray that God would enable you to respond in a way that glorifies him, and that he would expose the areas in your life where you don’t.

  • Praise God for the endless grace that he shows to us, even when we respond inadequately to his work in our lives. How gracious he is! How patient with us! How willing to work all things towards our good!
  • Pray that God would prevent you from wasting the opportunity to grow through this crisis.
  • Pray that God would protect the elderly and vulnerable in our midst.
  • Pray for persecuted believers around the world. If you think being socially isolated or quarantined is difficult, imagine how much more difficult it would be knowing that your neighbours will kill you if they find out who you really are.
  • Give thanks for your church community and pray for their well-being. Print out the ward list and pray for one ward per day. Or pick one person per day from your own ward and pray for that person or family. If you don’t know what to pray for, call them and ask. They will appreciate it.
  • Pray for your office-bearers, that they be able to continue their work in the congregation in spite of the new restrictions. Pray for wisdom and strength as they shepherd their own families as well as the congregation.  
  • Praise God for his grace. The effects of coronavirus on our society are severe, but they are only a very pale reflection of the judgment that is coming. God is giving the world a preview of what judgement looks like. Yet most will miss the message and resent the restrictions that have been imposed on their lives. Nevertheless, God is patient with the world as a whole and wants all people to come to repentance and a knowledge of the truth.
  • Pray that God will give you opportunities through the current crisis to share the gospel with those who do not know him yet. If you have an unbelieving neighbour who is struggling with anxiety or fear, ask if you can pray for him/her. Don’t forget to ask about their physical needs either (James 2:14-17).  

Brothers and sisters, there is a lot to be thankful for. We have something that the world desperately needs right now. We have hope. So we can give thanks even in the midst of difficulties. In fact, it is through these difficulties that God enables us to grow in our hope (Rom 5:3-5). So let us hold on to the hope that we have. We will not be disappointed.

With Christian love,
Rev. Pol