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Experts from the fields of psychology and neurology claim that our memory is susceptible to error.  Sometimes we are sure we remember something that we actually never encountered.  I saw a click-bait sort of article recently that listed 10 things many people claim to remember that they never actually encountered.  A common one is the belief that their mothers had prepared them peanut butter sandwiches for their school lunches made with Jiffy Peanut Butter.  Except there has never been a brand named Jiffy.   There is Jif.  There is Skippy.   And in some wires-getting-crossed collision in our brains we remember a brand that we never really saw: Jiffy.

Something similar happens when people answer questions like “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” or “Where were you when the Twin Towers were attacked on 9/11?”   Quite a few people answer correctly but others—it has been determined—misremember their circumstances and locations.  Sometimes they are not even close.  Other times they are slightly off.  For myself the answer to “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” is a slam dunk: I was in my mother’s womb 3.5 months out from getting born in March 1964.

The assassination of JFK is certainly one of the greatest national tragedies of the last 60 years.  It was also the first major event that brought the nation into a common, shared experience coast to coast because of live television coverage of it all.  I cannot remember that time personally but I can remember when the space shuttle Challenger exploded and I certainly remember that other single most traumatic national event of my lifetime: the 9/11 attacks.

In all of those instances, however, as well as at other moments of great drama—the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, for instance—it seems like people mostly came together.  There was a spirit of resolve and unity.  In the weeks immediately after 9/11, President George W. Bush’s job approval rating was around 92%.  At blood banks, in churches, mosques, and synagogues, and all over the nation people came together, pulled together, felt a common purpose.

Historically the pandemic of 2020 may go down as the single most traumatic event to happen in a century.  That’s true for all kinds of obvious reasons, not least the global nature of it but also the fact that within any given nation, we all were affected, involved, or actively suffered and mourned.   Most Americans did not know a single person who perished on 9/11 and though we collectively grieved JFK and our hearts bled for his little children, few of us knew them personally.   COVID-19 is, however, an up close and personal event for tens of millions.

Yesterday I heard from yet another pastor the same thing as I have heard from numerous pastors around the U.S.; namely, for some reason, the pandemic has brought out not the best but in fact the worst of a whole lot of churchgoing people as well as Elders and other leaders in local congregations.  This pastor was yet another casualty of it all as he was forced to leave the church he had been serving faithfully for a long while.   These stories have multiplied and even in places where pastors have managed to remain in place, they are the walking wounded, barely hanging on, fighting burnout and sometimes almost suicidal depression at every turn.

In Sunday’s Op-Ed section of the New York Times, conservative Ross Douthat mused about his astonishment not just that a sizeable part of the American electorate has come to believe the 2020 presidential election was rife with fraud but that some friends of Douthat who are far from wild-eyed conspiracy mongers also embrace what is manifestly a false narrative.  And Douthat says he cannot for the life of him quite figure it out.  He tries to anyway in his long column Sunday but I am not certain that even he is sure he has it all sussed out.  

That is how I feel about how a lot of Christians have behaved in the pandemic: I don’t get it.  Why hasn’t this brought us together?   How did wearing a mask get so politicized?  Or even taking the pandemic seriously?  In a world where there is real persecution of Christ’s Church—talk to people from China or from various countries in Africa—how did some prominent pastors dare to claim that public health guidelines that restricted or prohibited gathering for worship was a true persecution by the government?  How dare they say that when people in some parts of the world are literally murdered for their faith?

It has brought out the worst in people, pastor after pastor has testified to me.  I don’t get it.  I do not understand it.  And I am sure that if I suggested that when this is all over the church should engage in a long season of repentance, I too will be pilloried by those who will claim they have nothing to be sorry about or to confess, therefore.

Maybe something as traumatic as a global pandemic could never have avoided creating lasting change and also lasting damage on multiple fronts.  But the Body of Christ has been wounded.  The Body of Christ has fragmented.  To riff on Paul’s imagery from 1 Corinthians, maybe it is not quite literally true that the eye has said to the foot “I have no need of you” but there is a sense in which the eye has said to the foot, “If that is your political opinion, I have no need of you.”

If 2020 has been a long season where Lament was the proper response to so many things in society and the wider world, then post-pandemic 2021 and 2022 ought to be a long season of Repentance.  But right now I would wager that pastors who suggest that to riven congregations will find that this suggestion will not only fail to heal the Body, it may just inflame things all over again.

Christ has been crucified in two ways, Philip Yancey once observed: first literally on that cross of wood at Golgotha.  But Christ has been re-crucified repeatedly in history on the “cross” of how badly his Church has conducted itself.   The first and real cross yielded life.  I fear this second cross and its most recent instantiations in the U.S. will lead only to death.

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.

30 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    There. You’ve said it. (We’re in your debt.)

  • Alicia Mannes says:

    Thank you Scott; I fear for the future of our churches. Thank you for your support and for saying the difficult things that need to be said.

  • mstair says:

    If Paul was correct in 2 Thessalonians about the apostasy of the aged church, and we see in the Gospel of John what caused many of Jesus’ followers to leave him, could it be that this year’s pandemic reveals a similar faith-tipping-point as in Jesus’ time…? Erosion and wear has hardened and made-desert the soil, allowing those enabled by The Father to become more obvious… ?

  • David Jones says:

    Well said. Thank you

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Scott, for your insight into the state of the church, having been influenced and presently being influenced by the 2020 world pandemic. But hasn’t this state that the church finds itself in been coming for some time before the pandemic? Maybe the pandemic is the capstone to what has been coming all along. Societal issues, like LGBTQ, Me Too, racism, politics and our two party political system all have been part of the ongoing divisive character in our culture. And the church, as much as anything, maybe more than anything, is contributing to such a split. And every side thinks God is on their side. Really?

  • Tom says:

    It all goes back to Adam and Eve . . . . and that apple.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    I’ve long thought that most Americans believe in two religions at the same time: Protestant/Catholic/Jew and Americanism. One is the private religion and the other is the public religion. Sort of like the Japanese, who believe in both private Buddhism and public Shinto. (And maybe like the Israelites who thought they could believe in both Yahwism and Baalism, so to speak: see Jacques Ellul). The presence of the American flag in sanctuaries is wrong to me, personally, but it makes all the sense in the world that people want it in church if it’s a religious symbol. I believe that for many years the liberal version of the American religion held cultural and political sway, but that liberal version is less and less Protestant/Catholic/Jew, while the conservative version, which sits better with Protestant/Catholic/Evangelical, is contesting the liberal version for power, and claiming the Bible as the sacred book of both religions. I can think of many evangelical churches in which the only cultic symbols are the Bible and the Flag, with no Font, nor Communion ware. For years we American Christians have emptied the Gospel of its pubic political claims. Once we started reclaiming that, the conservative version of the American religion took it over. I believe that what Scott describes is so bad in so many congregations because people believe that one of their religions is at stake.

  • Boy, you hit the nail on the head. I’ve been bullied and dismissed, merely for asking that we protect one another’s health. I’ve been criticized for being too political when I was preaching the gospel. I suspect that there are a number of factors at play, but ultimately my sense is that both the civil religion and the too-linear theology that got off track centuries ago are both revealing that they cannot bear the weight of the realities of human existence any more, if they ever could. Not to mention the environment and creatures that are suffering too. Something/things have to die, and I wonder if the way we have been doing church is one of them. Resurrection will follow.

    • Tim says:

      I read your reply and I hear my it in my own Pastor’s voice. Be brave in speaking the truth. “Too political” is code for “how dare you challenge my biases.” As you say, some things in the church of empire need to die.

    • Randy Buist says:

      Thank you. I should have read your comment — your words reflect much of my response as well.
      Peace.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Thank you for saying it. I share your same fears, but have hope that what emerges in some quarter, will return to ‘in Christ alone’.

  • Douglas MacLeod says:

    Thank you, Scott. My instincts are for a church as a present day societal witness to a kingdom where we love our neighbors with more than words is not a church which equates nationalism with Christianity, or a community that uses “faith not fear” as a slogan for believers to demonstrate their faith by not wearing a mask, nor a church which nods to recognize that Christians are the most persecuted group of people in our country (cf. “Fox News Republicans). This year has uncovered the cracks in our “very nice” churches. It is as if the pandemic has revealed that, underneath the veneer of health felt by Sunday attendance, there are underlying health conditions (co-morbidities). Those conditions have coalesced into real trouble. Comorbidities such as such as thin discipleship, nationalism over kingdom character, rights over responsibilities, moral relativism over loving Jesus with obedience, and political identity merged with faith. These have, as you say, brought out “the worst of a whole lot of churchgoing people.”

  • Vern Swieringa says:

    It seems there is a great pruning taking place, which hurts like hell, but must take place for the church to flourish. If the church was purely a human institution, I would fear for its future. But since the church is the Body of Christ it will rise out of this fiery trial more pure and more prepared to proclaim the Kingdom of God is near, nearer than you think! I lost my pastorate, but I have not lost my faith in what God is doing in this broken world. Thank you Scott for your thoughts! Yes, death, but not without resurrection!

  • Karl VanDyke says:

    Scott,
    Thank you for the courage to state your position. I was in college when you were in utero and have to admit age has not brought wisdom. How sad that those preaching the gospel are under attack. The Screwtape Letters were prophetic in the way we have been led astray.

    Advent looks forward to the second coming, it can’t come too soon.

  • Thanks Scott. The article however reveals your own bias…and therefore reveals the issue in the church. I think we were all caught off-guard. We were disobediently ignoring the issues of the world around us and just preaching the Word in a bubble of our four walls – as the world around us was crashing. Because we didn’t train our people how to deal with these conflicting world issues in truth and love, because we haven’t taught our people how to yield to and walk step by step with the Holy Spirit, they haven’t known how to respond. And they have done it badly. Lesson learned. From now on, we are going help our people deal with difficult issues by holding on to the absolute truth and morality of God’s Word, speaking His truth in love and always forgiving, praying in the Spirit on all occasions, and joining God as He brings His transformation into our spheres of influence.
    Concerning your bias, should we condemn and dismiss people who think there was extensive fraud in this election? Or, wouldn’t it help to bring this stress into prayer times on Sunday morning and model how to pray about it? Also, should we condemn those who believe governors have abused their authorities with the pandemic mandates? Or, wouldn’t it help to actively engage our church by publicly working to help businesses who have had to shut down by praying for them or even helping with benevolence. We need to step beyond our bias and our four walls and break into the world around us with powerful presence and healing grace in Jesus. We are the ones who can lead the charge in our communities to bring a positive response to a difficult situation.
    For example, our church partnered a number of times with another church near the “George Floyd epicenter” in Minneapolis. We provided food and services to the community and reached out with love. We also took teams of people to the epicenter and prayer walked around it more than a dozen times – and during the walks we encountered and prayed for many people. This did more than just mobilize our people, it taught them a proper response to dividing issues and gave them opportunity to touch and love people who were perhaps political opposites.

    • Tom Van Engen says:

      Thank you, Dave. I’ve been thinking and praying about this and how to respond, and you have done it better than I could hope to. It grieves me that so many in the CRC (and even the Pastors Group) just overlook the bias you correctly pointed out. I hope we all can step back enough to know and conquer any bias that is not Biblical and true. I’ve tried to understand and empathize with both sides and speak the truth in love, as difficult and unproductive as it often is.

    • Randy Buist says:

      I’m thankful that your church is actively seeking justice. Regarding bias, however, praying for serious issues while ignoring facts seems counter to a faithful witness to the gospel.

      When we know how the virus is spread, when we know masks slow down the spread, when we have elected leaders who tell us they want to stop the spread, when we have elections that have no sign of voter fraud, then bringing these things to God in prayer as if to say, “God help fix the things we do not like” feels like a mockery of God.

      I am not against prayer, but my non-believing friends are simply looking at us and shaking their heads. We have betrayed wisdom and the knowledge given to us by God, particularly in these times. We will not automatically become faithful to the gospel; we have entire generations of our congregants who have believed that accumulating wealth and living the American Dream are the same as following Jesus… We have pastors who have been asked to leave their church because they promoted masks… and in so doing we again crucify Christ.

  • vern vanderzee says:

    Thanks Scott, right on! How about we invite our folks to put on their mask and to take a walk on a Sunday morning down the streets in a half mile radius of our church building and when we see someone, greet them, and if they are open to conversation, identify ourselves as with the church located at….. and ask anything for which you would like me to pray when I get home. They may tell us other needs to which we may be able to respond and help out. I think this is one way to heal our neighborhood. Vern Vander Zee

  • Randy Buist says:

    Thank you beyond words, Scott. Without question, the American church has lacked faithfulness for decades. Kristin Kobes DuMez, in her recent book, “Jesus And John Wayne,” traces our failures well.

    As I interact with my atheist and agnostic friends in these times, I see more faithfulness to the gospel in their lives than in much of the church. I’m reminded of Phyllis Tickle, who suggested that the church in America in going through a sort of reformation. Sadly, we will not see the church reemerge with any sort of voice to speak into our culture until most of us have died. These things take generations. My teenagers currently look at the those in our community who claim Jesus while rebuking masks and are simply aghast in horror, wondering what kind of Jesus wants to kill our neighbors.

    I long for the resurrection of the church here in America, not for the sake of America, but for humanity. Yet, I doubt we’ll see resurrection while we continue to place our nation’s flag and our politics of self-centeredness ahead of loving our neighbors.

    Thanks again for this piece.
    Baraka.

  • Mark Vermaire says:

    Thanks, Scott. Amen!

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