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Jesus says, “For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’” Luke 15:25-30

I. All Bully, No Pulpit

President Trump’s failings during the Coronavirus pandemic have been numerous and well-chronicled. We have all witnessed his downplaying the seriousness of the threat, his hyping untested and dangerous remedies, his misallocating key supplies, rewarding supporters and threatening detractors.

But Trump’s greatest failure has been his inability to impart any spirit of national commitment, a greater good, resolve. And that’s exactly what we Americans have needed most. He’s been all bully, no pulpit.

In recent memory, great leaders have met the challenge of the moment with powerful words. Think of FDR’s “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” or Churchill’s “greatest hour” speech. Reagan’s 1986 national address after the Challenger space shuttle disaster — they “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God” — was masterful. It was pastoral. It was poetic. It was sorrowful. It helped to heal a stunned nation.

It was easy to be cynical about Bill Clinton’s “I feel your pain.” But World War II vets marking the 50th anniversary of D-Day, not to mention victims of floods and hurricanes, all seemed to judge him genuine. George W. Bush’s bullhorn moment — “I can hear you…” — in the rubble of the World Trade Center galvanized a nation. Obama could teach a class on pastoral care, and his singing “Amazing Grace” at the Charleston funerals still brings a lump to my throat.

“Civil religion” — the mixing of national identity with sacred symbols and mythological tropes — has always been one of my great bugaboos. I’ve been a reluctant patriot. But I have to say that I’ve felt more patriotic in the last ten weeks than ever before. I’ve been rooting for our country. We can do this. We can let our better angels shine. We can inspire future generations. Maybe this pandemic can strip away some of our worst habits. Maybe we find a common good, a deeper hope. If an enemy, a scapegoat, unites a people, then what could be better than an inanimate virus as the enemy?

And yes, so many individuals, groups, and institutions have acted selflessly and beautifully, courageously and graciously in the last three months.

Now that is fraying. Division, recrimination, recklessness, selfishness. They’re all back. And I put most of this at President Trump’s feet. We’ve known he is no poet, not a visionary. His empathy bone is fractured. Still, that’s no excuse. Leaders surmount. Leaders inspire. As someone observed, Trump is now doing what all presidents who are losing battles, losing support, and losing interest do — declare “Mission Accomplished” and go golfing.

Trump’s failure to help us as a nation “count the cost,” to make no effort to stir our hearts and elevate our priorities, not to valorize sacrifice and honor the dead, this is a huge and inexcusable blunder. It is an abject failure of leadership. It will cost thousands of lives. Equally grievous is the long term damage to our already tattered social fabric.

II. The “Rush” to Re-Open

For a week or more already, there’s been a torrent of messaging on social media about churches “not rushing” to reopen (gather for worship). But it was nothing compared to the tsunami of rage and invective unleashed at President Trump’s announcement that houses of worship were “essential” and should be “reopened,” even ready to go by last weekend. Many of my friends and colleagues jumped in — ministers, regional leaders, denominational officers.

So severe, so unbending, so absolutist were the anti-opening/don’t rush messages that I wanted to remind my friends of the sage counsel I often receive from them. Don’t be reactive. Examine your own motives and stories. Avoid villainizing.

I recognize the ironicy of it (that’s a made-up family word when the irony of a situation is so pure and so fine it is beyond ironic). A government official telling houses of worship what to do, in order to placate defenders of religious liberty!

So I ask my colleagues, “Where exactly is this ‘rush’ to open happening?” And to those who are so loudly lambasting it, who are you addressing? Of course, there are the limelight lunatics, the media darlings. They may not have a machine gun and a copy of the Declaration of Independence on their communion tables. Still, their entire view of the pandemic is vastly different from yours. They’re not reading your tirades or listening to your polemics. Don’t flatter yourself. Don’t waste your time.

But beyond them, I’ve only encountered pastors moving cautiously, researching thoroughly, trying to hold community together. Really good pastors.

The “don’t rush” message does not help, comfort, or give backing to such pastors. Instead the strident tones sound as demanding as any from the right. So many of these messages feel patronizing and shaming. They leave me drained. If you have the need to give Trump the finger, go ahead. But please don’t couch it in concern for me and my congregation.

This meme struck me as one of the more measured and helpful responses to the “re-open” announcement.

A colleague pastors a small, rural congregation. She received word from her district leader suggesting that January 2021 would probably be an appropriate target date for reopening. “If we don’t meet until next year, there will be nothing left,” she remarked.

She and thousands of pastors like her aren’t simply concerned about financial viability. She isn’t bowing to right wing pressure. She isn’t longing nostalgically for simple solutions. Instead, she is aware of her ministry context and her people. She loves her congregation and wants valiantly to protect them. She sees there is a need to think creatively and in a make-do manner about her congregation’s future.

Many pastors and churches are agonizingly wrestling with every little angle of this discussion. They realize that no one is going to get it exactly right the first time. There will be adjustments and learnings. But the perfect shouldn’t stymie the good.

Like everything else these days, communal worship, whenever it begins, will have many less-than-ideal alternatives. Adequate is about as high as the bar can go.

No Lord’s Supper. No Lord’s Prayer. Probably no singing. Masked and six feet apart. No children’s ministries. No coffee time. Many people preferring, even needing, to stay home. Why even bother to gather under these constraints? This thought has crossed my mind numerous times. But maybe that is a privileged perspective of an aesthete. Worshippers in POW camps, prisons, or the catacombs probably didn’t have the luxury of such demanding expectations.

This may depict a sad reality, but it also leaves out another circle that might be labeled “Don’t reopen the building because then the ‘other side’ wins.”

Just to be clear, the church I pastor will not have face-to-face worship in the next few weeks. I am not denying the genuine dangers of communal worship. I’m certainly not advocating that churches should “open” rashly.

I am saying that conversations, preparation, compromises, and experiments have to be in the mix for the church today. Risk and failure are inevitable parts of the church’s future.

Moreover, I am saying that the blistering, unnuanced “don’t rush” messages feel more about branding and marking territory, a litmus test driven by ideology more than public health concerns.

And they certainly aren’t received as supportive by pastors simply trying to make a way.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

16 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Like a couple of editorials. You nailed some things here. And apparently you can stand the heat!

  • Jim Payton says:

    I understand and appreciate your caution and concern. But I grew up in a very different segment of Protestantism (fundamentalism — kind of like evangelicalism on steroids) than the Reformed tradition to which I now belong. And I still have Facebook friends from that earlier background in the region where I grew up. Believe me, there is PLENTY of pressure from congregants and pastors alike to reopen church buildings and gather for worship there … with a lot of “God won’t let you catch the coronavirus in the church building” stuff … and a welcome mat spread for conspiracy nonsense. I have welcomed the “we’re not rushing to re-open” declarations … and the recognition that concern for others (and not just for “my rights” ) is one way to love others.

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Jim, I agree with you that there are pastors and churches who are rushing to “re-open” — in some cases probably for ideological reasons. I’m simply saying such people definitely don’t listen to me, and quite honestly, they probably don’t listen to you either. Let’s not pretend were conversing with them or changing their minds when in reality we’re just tossing red meat to “our” base — and that’s what many of the “don’t rush” messages seemed like.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Whatever blow back you may get here in the commentariat as this day wears on, know that many of us appreciate your courage in posting this and in naming the obvious truth of our national leadership vacuum. And let’s call the President’s sudden and rash call to re-open churches what it was: a base pandering to his base, a lashing out by a POTUS who is seeing his poll numbers sink about as fast as the COVID death toll is rising. This wasn’t about God, religion, spirituality, or the centrality of prayer and worship. It was about what it is always about with this President: Donald.

    • Marty Wondaal says:

      Most Reverend Hoezee,

      The commentariat has moved on…

      Matthew 10:14.

      • Kevin Caspersen says:

        Please don’t move on Marty, your commentary was much welcomed by myself and I’m sure others.

      • HENRY R POST says:

        I agree that conversations with those wearing blinders about the behavior of the current occupant of the Oval Office are seldom helpful to them nor to those who have no doubt this occupant is solely interested in his own wellbeing. Shaking the dust off our feet is a fitting metaphor for taking reasonable action toward the immutable among us. Stop talking toward them. They have no ears to hear.
        Henry R. Post

      • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

        Don’t go, Marty! (John 21:18) You’re always a good sport and often a helpful voice.I would think you would appreciate what I said in Part II, and have to acknowledge that I was pretty measured in Part I.

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Thanks, Scott. Honestly, I was less concerned about blow-back to Part I than I was to Part II. Certainly, many voices, inside and outside the church, have been harder the President than I was. Even the staunchest Trumpians have to know that inspiring, uniting, and use of powerful rhetoric are simply not his gifts. Whether they’d admit that this vacuum has deep consequences, we’d have to ask them.
      But in Part II, I was really parting ways with many friends and colleagues. As I said, I haven’t found their strident declarations about “rushing” to reopen at all supportive or comforting. That’s where I expected push back.

  • mstair says:

    Christian worship works well – under a pandemic quarantine … or under a totalitarian state .. or when sparsely attended … or under persecution. In fact, it started that way. Jesus built-it-into the system.

    “Again I assure you that if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, then my Father who is in heaven will do it for you. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.”

    ” After taking the bread and giving thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

    Could this virus visitation be an opportunity for obedience … ?

    “But the time is coming—and is here!—when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth. The Father looks for those who worship him this way.”

    Perhaps of greater worry is that this virus threatens the clergy as occupation and the maintaining of church buildings…?

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      I want to agree with you on so many levels. Who could be opposed to an authentic, unadorned Christian community? But I have to say I find your tone what I’d call “pious primitivism” — a false and romantic nostalgia for the pure church of the first century. Yet, of course, that church wasn’t so pure then either. Given human nature, I don’t think such a pious and primitive church could ever exist. And while the church has more than a few foibles, I also think you’re probably being too hard on the church. Corruption? Ego? Schism? Of course! Lots of good being done and love being shared? More than you might expect.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Steve, This was a needed message. Keep preaching it. Thanks.

  • Tom Ackerman says:

    Thank you for this posting. Your turn of phrase was delightful (even if the subject was not so). And thank you for “ironicy” – I can use that word. We worship in a small congregation in a large urban area. There is no easy answer here for when to resume face-to-face services.

  • Jan Price says:

    Well done! Wow.

  • MARK LUCAS says:

    Thanks very much – it’s a treat to read such a thoughtful and bold reflection. It brought two things to mind:
    I’m reading “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” and LBJ’s speech to the gathered Congress just a few days after Kennedy’s death seems to also be one of those kairos moments in the history of the country, so much riding on it, and so much suspicion about Johnson’s ability to take charge and sustain the nation. Word has it that he nailed that speech.
    The other, on a lighter (maybe sputtin’) side was posted by a Trump supporter, gun rights friend on FB – that pic showing a pastor, baptizing a baby, at the proper 6-foot distancing . . . with a water pistol. This friend saw it as something which would horrify liberals because it showed a gun in church. O well . . . It is a bit of sickly humor but does at least call the question about how to be church in the age of the virus. Thanks again.

  • Mike Weber says:

    Thank you. In Part II You have given eloquent voice to concerns that I have had.

    Such strident and unhelpful posts do not do anything to advance solid solutions. I even saw one of my colleagues threatening to bring a law suit if Trump and the governor “compelled” them to reopen.

    Careful pastors are going to seek the good of their congregation regardless of the political posturing on both the right of the left.

    At this point I think before we respond to the President’s latest provocation, we would do well to remember the words of Proverbs 26:4 “Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.”

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