Physical distancing leaves us grieving in many ways. I miss my church family, and, like all of us, I have been wrestling with the emotions that come when a core part of our life is uprooted suddenly. The grief comes in different stages, and we see it expressed all around:
Anticipatory: “I’m not sure what all this means, but I have this sinking feeling that things are about to get really bad.”
Denial: “The pandemic isn’t that bad. Everybody is overreacting.”
Anger: “The government can’t tell me what to do! My civil liberties are being encroached upon!”
Bargaining: “If we had only done [fill in the blank] sooner, we wouldn’t have to deal with all this.” Or “Maybe in two weeks we can get back to normal.”
Depression: “I’m feeling so alone, and I don’t have energy to focus on anything.”
Acceptance: “Things will not be the same for a very long time, and it’s likely to get a lot worse before it gets better.”
We can, of course, experience more than one stage at the same time, and we can move between stages from moment to moment, such as every time we read a news story or listen to a gubernatorial press briefing. With all this grief, on a societal level perhaps not seen since 9/11 or the stock market crash of 1929, we pastors and other church staff sure could use more ministers.
“Perhaps now, more than ever, it’s time to embody the theology we have always claimed since Christians began to call themselves Baptists.”
Enter the priesthood of all believers. The idea is rooted in the New Testament reality that God’s Spirit lives in every believer and that pastors do not carry any special measure of revelation or grace. Sadly, we have had a watered-down view of the priesthood of all believers in Baptist life for as long as I’ve been alive.
In many churches, women still don’t serve equally as clergy or deacons. In other congregations, even those with open postures toward ordination of clergy and deacons, presiding over communion, baptism, weddings and funerals by anyone other than ordained clergy is frowned upon. In many churches, serving communion is restricted to ordained deacons.
COVID-19 has the capacity to change all of that, if we let it.
In his book, Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life, Henri J.M. Nouwen wrote,
“This leaves us with the urgent question: How can we be or become a caring community, a community of people not trying to cover the pain or to avoid it by sophisticated bypasses, but rather share it as the source of healing and new life? It is important to realize that you cannot get a Ph.D. in caring, that caring cannot be delegated by specialists, and that therefore nobody can be excused from caring” (emphasis mine).
Interesting that in a book about solitude Nouwen names the formation of a caring community as an urgent need. Now consider that in our current predicament, the word “care” is interchangeable with the word “ministry.” The care that is needed in our society and in our own household is a pastoral kind of care, a ministry kind of care, a Jesus kind of care.
This global health crisis calls for the creative and courageous ministry of believer-priests. When you see people going through hardship and grief in these trying times, don’t think, “They need a minister.” Think instead, “I am a minister.”
This way of thinking changes our posture and has the potential to make the COVID-19 exile a time where the priesthood of all believers flourishes as never before. There is not only a probability but a likelihood that every one of us in the weeks and months ahead will have the opportunity to offer ministry to our own families and immediate neighbors, not only through acts of kindness and prayer, but through remotely-but-just-as-meaningfully praying with family as death nears for a loved one, offering communion to sisters and brothers gathered virtually at the Lord’s table and proclaiming Christ’s resurrection in the face of death.
We Baptists are not only an Easter People and a People of the Book, but as the author of Hebrews reminds us, we – like all Christians – are a royal-priesthood. What would it look like for you and your church to embrace a more radical, and I would argue, a more biblical practice of this great truth?
The COVID-19 pandemic presents daunting challenges for all nations and all peoples. Even amid tragedy and grief, it also presents many gifts and opportunities for service and for reframing the focus of our ministry. Perhaps now, more than ever, it’s time to embody the theology we have always claimed since Christians began to call themselves Baptists.
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