Sometime in the near past our pile of plastic toys produced a kaleidoscope. (As an aside…we have tried to keep our house free of cheap plastic toys, but alas, it now appears that they have learned to reproduce themselves. Unknown and unbidden our feet find new ones in the night. I don’t think it qualifies as creation ex nihilo, but it is a great mystery. We blame the grandparents.) Anyway, it was quite a lot of fun showing the kids how turning the kaleidoscope would make new patterns. More about kaleidoscopes shortly.
While the majority of churches are in “lock down” states where gathering is prohibited, one way the eldership can still minister is through pastoral care. In general, most seasoned pastors have an idea of what to expect when walking through life with their flock. For example, we know what rocks to pry under and what wounds to expect when death takes a loved one. There is a chapter in the counseling handbook about grief. Similarly, we know the kinds of fears that might assail a believer during the loss of a job. These topics are documented, analyzed, and discussed.
But there is no category for pandemic. We have no cultural structure (yet) to lean on. We have no personal history to evaluate. We cannot even ask a more seasoned pastor how he handled it. The whole world has been affected in a novel way. 9/11 is the most recent event which has exerted such a strong social response, but in that case, there was a broad sense of unity in outlook and sympathy. Most hearts tended to lean in the same direction; the difference was just in the degree of the lean. Contrast that with our current situation where within the same congregation, believers may be leaning in completely different directions. Let’s turn the kaleidoscope together and see what we find:
Our first view through the kaleidoscope is of a recently married couple who are college educated and live with their dog. They have both been sent to work from home and apart from some feelings of isolation, they have not had any major changes to their life. Without meetings and office politics they are able to finish work early every day. They take morning and afternoon walks together. They go for drives when they are stir crazy. They take advantage of their evenings alone. They miss their friends and they miss their church and they miss going out to eat, but in a way they are enjoying this time and will look back on it with fondness.
We turn the kaleidscope and fast forward to where that couple might be if they were 10 years farther along in their union. They have 3 young children, the eldest of which is doing school work from home. Mom is only working part time so she can take care of the kids which is making finances tighter than before. Doing school with a first grader while fighting off a toddler and a four year old leaves her strung out and tired. Meanwhile, her husband is trying to work from home and show value to his company. But with 3 kids to care for and basically living on a single income, he battles anxiety that he will be laid off. This anxiety often exhibits itself in frustration as the kids manage to do something loud, which is followed by their mom yelling at them, just at he is starting his most important cloud meeting of the day. Their home is always on the verge of tension. They just want life to go back to normal as quickly as possible.
If we turn the kaleidoscope again, we may encounter a believer who works with the public in some capacity and finds herself constantly wondering why so many people are out when they should be at home. In her mind she criticizes each one of them for exposing her to a higher probability of sickness. She finds herself disgusted with human behavior in general, and wishes everyone would #juststayhome.
And if we spin the kaleidoscope again, we may find a man at his computer, reading all the articles that clearly show the government is doing this all wrong. He doesn’t believe any of the information that the government is sharing and thinks that the cost to state of the country is too great a price to pay. He thinks more people need to get out, spend money, and live their lives.
You get the idea. Within the same congregation there are vastly different responses to this unexpected obstacle in our path. Similar life circumstances may yield vastly different responses based on personality, while similar personalities may have varied responses based on individual life circumstances. With every variable comes a turn of the kaleidoscope. This presents a great challenge, but also a great opportunity. When was the last time we saw hearts revealed so clearly? Believers are not responding out of muscle memory, but out of instinctive reflexes.
A great comfort is that all the means of sanctification that God has provided His children are still effective. Scripture is still sufficient to address the soul of man. The blood of Jesus is still sufficient to wash away sin. The Spirit is still imparting the love of the Father to our hearts. And while every believer is experiencing some different pattern in their own soul, these all stem from the basic building blocks of the inner life with which every pastor and counselor should be familiar: fear, faith, trust, desire, affection, truth, lies, love, etc…
So as a pastor, here are some mistakes that I don’t want to make while counseling in this kaleidoscope:
- I don’t want to assume that I know how any given believer is responding. (Proverbs 20:5) I want to ask questions first. I cannot take for granted that those who seem in a better position to face this from a circumstantial perspective are well equipped to deal with it from a spiritual perspective. Don Whitney posted 10 good questions to ask when providing pastoral care over the phone, and it’s a great list to aid us in our pastoral care.
- I don’t want to rush to assure about things I don’t know (like whether or not anyone of us will even be around tomorrow) when I should rush to assure about the trust-worthiness of God. (Matt 6:25-33) In principle, this would be like going to visit a member at the hospital and spending all your time talking about the hopeful things you have learned about their affliction. “Don’t worry, there’s an 80% recovery rate and you’re in good shape…” Instead, I want to point believers to a greater assurance. Nothing wrong with pointing out the positive in the circumstances, but the priority needs to be pointing out the hope that is beyond the circumstance.
- I don’t want to bind another’s conscience to mine. (Romans 14:5) There’s a lot of new information coming at us quickly and we all have to figure out how to respond in a way that shows love to God and love to neighbor. What’s tricky is that you could show love by going to see a neighbor or by NOT going to see a neighbor. What to do? Well, don’t make your political, medical, and social viewpoint the standard you require of others. Clarity of conscience will grow when those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil (Hebrews 5:14), not when they are faithlessly behaving as recommended by you.
As we turn the kaleidoscope, let’s respond with wisdom, insight, and truth that the Holy Spirit can use to further the work of personal sanctification.