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by Derek Allen

In March, April, and May, our church staff braced for a wave of Covid-19 cases to sweep through our church family. It never happened. In fact, for the first three months of the Covid-19 outbreak, our church family of about 1500 only experienced a handful of coronavirus cases. As far as we know, none of those cases were spread at one of our events. Two weeks ago, that all changed.

Like most churches, we moved to an online-only format in March, but as soon as our governor and state department of health gave us the green light, we started meeting in socially distanced services. A few weeks into those services, we had a coronavirus scare, but it was short-lived and impotent. One of our staff members was exposed to someone who later tested positive for Covid-19, and our entire staff was with the exposed staff member in a two-hour staff meeting a few days later. The exposed staff member tested positive so we had the rest of our staff tested.

Everyone else tested negative. No one, including the one staff member who tested positive, showed any symptoms. We breathed a collective sigh of relief, and many of us, including myself, came away from that experience more convinced than before that the only real threat we faced from Covid-19 was the threat of our services being shut down again. Then it happened. The first phone call came on a Friday from a staff member. “Bad news. I’ve got a fever, body aches, and 6 out of the 11 symptoms on the CDC’s checklist.”

The next week was filled with phone calls and text messages about symptoms and tests and who had been exposed to who. By midweek, we learned that the virus, which would eventually work its way through about half of our staff, had spread to some of our volunteers. Almost two weeks after that first phone call, we are still waiting to find the end of the virus’ spread among our church family. This has been extremely challenging as a pastor and leader, and I hope I can share my experience with others who might learn from our mistakes dealing with Covid-19. Here are five lessons I learned.

1. There is a second wave. While I’m not going to get into the debate about the national and international second wave of Covid-19 cases, the second wave is real for our church family. In fact, this is really the first wave. We didn’t see anything like this in March, April, and May, but what we are watching now can only be described as a wave of infections spreading through our church.

2. It happens fast. One week from the time I received the first phone call reporting symptoms, we were aware of more than a dozen people showing symptoms. What was even more shocking was that we could track four generations of transmission from the original person. We are two weeks in, and the numbers are growing at a faster rate now than they were last week.

3. Assume every sniffle is Covid-19, and act quickly. Like most churches and organizations, we had been following the recommended steps of isolation, testing, and notifying those who have been in contact with anyone who tests positive. We’ve learned that the tests take too long, and false positives are possible along with false negatives. We’ve experienced both. We’ve also learned that most Covid-19 cases mimic other common illnesses and even allergies in the early stages. The phrase, “I thought it was just allergies” has been heard all too often among our staff in the past two weeks. At first, we followed the health department guideline of quarantining anyone who had been within 6 feet for more than 15 minutes of someone who is showing symptoms. Now, we quarantine anyone who even walked by the same building as someone with symptoms. If we had acted quickly to quarantine the entire staff, we would have cut our church-wide cases by at least 50%.

4. Covid-19 is a serious illness. Some of our staff experienced a day or two of mild symptoms, but several are still dealing with severe fever, fatigue, breathing problems, and other symptoms. It has been a harrowing and demoralizing journey for our team, and the first symptom reporter has just started feeling some relief in the past few hours.

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Chatting with buddies at the bar or coffee shop helps us think more clearly, and that’s sorely missing right now

By gathering in community spaces and chatting with friends and strangers, we really are solving the world’s problems.

Humans don’t just desire complex forms of human contact, from the intimate contact of love to the more distant contact of political order. We cannot do without it.

When Southern Methodist University announced in March that it would close campus after spring break because of the global pandemic, I was teaching a course on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian in Germany in the 1930s and ’40s who was eventually put to death in a concentration camp for his anti-Nazi activities. As we continued to abide by the shelter-in-place orders, my students and I, forced to meet exclusively online, commented several times about how poignant it was to read Bonhoeffer together during this time. By the last quarter of the term we were reading Bonhoeffer’s prison writings, many of which are weighty meditations on the challenges of forced loneliness. Bonhoeffer’s writings, from his early works to these later ones from prison, emphasize how important sociality is for human beings.

It’s stunning that, surrounded by the terror and murder of the Nazi regime, Bonhoeffer spent so much of his time writing not about murder and war, but about these basic forms of social life. As Bonhoeffer saw it, even before the mass murder began, the Nazis posed an existential threat to human flourishing because of their attempt to flatten out human relationships. From the beginning of the regime, Hitler insisted that everything must be Nazified — church, family life and even bowling leagues. There were no distinct places with their own integrity, goals and practices. There was only Nazi space.

Bonhoeffer was concerned about the loss of these spaces because he thought they do more than simply connect us with others. Rather, these spaces actually help us think. It’s easy to conceive of thinking as a human activity best accomplished in isolation. But on Bonhoeffer’s telling, it is by inhabiting these social spheres that we learn to think well.

For instance, if I ask myself whether my responsibility as a father means that I should pick my son up early from school in order to spend more time with him, I also have to ask if in so doing I would be failing to fulfill my responsibilities at work. This sort of very ordinary moral question, and the ordinary form of moral reflection that accompanies it, depends on the difference in space between work and home. Without that kind of difference, our ability to think is diminished.

Bonhoeffer combined a long tradition of Christian theology with the more recent insights of sociology when he argued that humans need multiple different kinds of social relationships — or spaces — in order to flourish. Humans want good home lives and work lives, and we depend on good political order to make those possible, but we also need other places where we gather and converse with friends and strangers alike. These are what sociologists sometimes call “third places.”

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As followers of Jesus, we are people of the truth. Falling for (and spreading) conspiracy theories does not honor the Lord, but it does cause people to question our judgment.

On Christians Spreading Corona Conspiracies: Gullibility is not a Spiritual Gift

Image: Photo by Engin Akyurt on Unsplash

The current global pandemic has created a bumper crop of conspiracy theories.

Sadly, Christians seem to be disproportionately fooled by conspiracy theories. I’ve also said before that when Christians spread lies, they need to repent of those lies. Sharing fake news makes us look foolish and harms our witness.

We saw this in the last election when some of the troll factories focused on conservative, evangelical Christians. Here we go again.

What now?

First, we need to speak up— particularly to those fooled yet again— and lovingly say, “You need to go to trusted sources.” Social media news feeds are not a trusted source. That’s why we created coronavirusandthechurch.com, to provide credible information for pastors. But, there are plenty of credible news sources— generally from outlets that do not have a track record of conspiracy peddling.

Second, God has not called us to be easily fooled. Gullibility is not a Christian virtue. Believing and sharing conspiracies does not honor the Lord. It may make you feel better, like you are in the know, but it can end up harming others and it can hurt your witness.

Yet now we are dealing with a new flood of conspiracy theories. Look at the list on Wikipedia, or just search for yourself using a few keywords. They are as diverse as they are strange.

And Christians are sharing them. Again.

Mistrust of Media and Government

I understand the mistrust many Christians have toward the media and government. Pew indicated that the most likely people to believe the virus was created in a lab were Republicans, who tend to be the most religious—and most distrustful of government.

However, this mistrust too often leads believers to become more gullible, rather than more discerning.

God’s Word calls us to be “wise, not unwise” (Eph. 5:15).

We need to be discerning and thoughtful in our beliefs—and in what we share with others.

If you want to believe that some secret lab-created Covid-19 as a biological weapon, and now everyone is covering that up, I can’t stop you. If you want to believe one of the dozens of conspiracy theories already circulating, that’s your call. But if you do, what will you do when people start believing that the vaccine is also part of this conspiracy?

Similarly, we see some Christian leaders hyped up the idea you are being persecuted if you ignore the current guidelines and try to gather a thousand people together for worship in the pandemic. We saw a few pastors making a spectacle of themselves at Easter when we should be making much of Jesus.

Are there some issues? Yes, some mayors and a governor or two have done and said foolish things. Those actions are already being pushed back in the courts. In a global crisis, some overreact and others respond to them, and they back down. This is not a deep state conspiracy.

Furthermore, China has neither been helpful nor transparent, and more details need to be demanded. Legitimate questions can and should be asked (and are being asked!), but there are stunning and bizarre conspiracy theories about biological warfare, nefarious vaccine plans, plots to wipe out religious liberty, 5G cell towers spreading disease, and so much more.

They fill up the social media feed of many self-identified Christians. Again.

One of the reasons I wrote Christians in the Age of Outrage: How to Bring Our Best When the World Is at Its Worst is because Christians are becoming outraged about things that are not true. The end result is they are being easily fooled and join into ideas that can bring real harm, particularly when we do develop a vaccine that can bring substantial help to our communities.

We who know Jesus as Lord ought to do better. A lot better.

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Ed Stetzer

We have all been stirred by the events surrounding the death of George Floyd as well as the protests happening across the country. To better understand the reaction to his death, to think about how we can respond as believers to the protests, I interviewed my colleague and friend Esau McCaulley. The following multi-part series will walk us through that important interview. You can listen to that interview on my Moody Radio show, Ed Stetzer Live, right here. This is part one of four.

We see daily the effects of the horror and shame of racism that continues in America. Watching George Floyd pinned down, a knee to his neck, until he no longer had breath, and as bystanders called for the police to let him up, will not be easily forgotten.

Nor should it.

“I Can’t Breathe”

Videos of the officers and their treatment of George Floyd have gone viral globally. We have since seen the termination and arrests of all four officers involved including Derek Chauvin, the officer whose knee caused Floyd to cry, “I can’t breathe.” We pray for justice on behalf of a man who died needlessly and cruelly.

We saw the unrest that followed. We’ve seen protests in cities across our country. Many of the protestors, seeking to do so peacefully, were also opposing others who invaded the protests, inciting riots. We heard articulate calls for peaceful marches from Mayor Bottoms of Atlanta.

She called on protestors: “What I see happening on the streets of Atlanta is not Atlanta. This is not a protest. This is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. This is chaos.”

Social distancing measures were quickly forgotten as thousands gathered in cities nationally, portending a potential spike in the coronavirus in the middle of the outcries for justice.

We saw Ahmaud Arbery killed in February, followed by the arrest and murder charge of father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael. On March 13, just as the pandemic’s impact was beginning to be fully realized, Breonna Taylor was killed when police executed a search warrant for selling drugs. Now, captured on video, Floyd’s helpless body on the ground, with a knee to his neck, brought back painful images for people of color of abuse, and even of lynching in our history.

Interpreting What We Are Seeing

Depending upon your preexisting narrative it can be hard to process this. You might be thinking, “Well, this happened because of ________.” I don’t know what ________ is for you, but I believe whenever there is a community that is hurting or experiencing unrest, the first thing that we can and should do is listen to people in that community. I don’t know what it is to be a minority in America. That’s why this series will focus on the thoughts of those who do.

In the past, following Ferguson, I posted articles that featured thoughts from pastors of color who can help us understand. After Ferguson, I thought, Why do white evangelicals, or whites in general, poll with a different reaction than African Americans?

Listening to African American Leaders

We’re being provoked to love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24) by African American leaders.I launched a series called A Time to Listen. The subtitle was “Listening to African American Evangelicals on Race.” These were followers of Jesus, Bible-loving, gospel-proclaiming African American evangelicals who had a different reaction to Ferguson, and likely today as well.

Again, I think that’s a good time for us to listen to our sisters and brothers in the African American context. In this series we hear from Esau McCaulley, an evangelical New Testament scholar and a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. Esau is fairly new to the faculty at Wheaton College and has become a friend.

Esau’s book Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope will be released in November of this year. I believe you will understand more clearly and be more sensitive personally to the issues of our time because of what Esau has to say.

Ed: Can you start with your own personal journey?

Esau: I come from a family of ministers. My grandfather was a black pastor; he still is a black pastor. He’s retired, but he still preaches. Black preachers never retire. I have aunts and uncles who are in the ministry. I grew up in a largely African American neighborhood and I knew about the gospel.

I also grew up in Alabama in a racially divided city. There is a black part of town, and there’s a white part of town. I know what it’s like to be treated differently. I was pulled over by the police for nothing other than driving while black.

I have been searched and humiliated in a variety of ways. Part of what it meant for me to be a Christian growing up in America was making sense of the fact that, especially in a place like Alabama, we all believed or claimed to believe the same gospel about who Jesus is. But it seemed that some of the white Christian brothers and sisters who believed in Jesus were also the people who were oppressing us.

Or when something happened in our community, they were often slow to partner with us in pushing back on that oppression.

Ed: But, when a lot of people hear that and knowing your age, they might ask, “How would you see oppression in the ’90s?”

Esau: Here’s one of 15 stories I could tell. I’m driving from my home back to my college, about an hour away. A cop starts following me. I have a seatbelt on, and I’m following the law completely. A friend of mine is in the car with me. The policeman follows us for a couple of miles. We went from one city to the next. The city went from 50 miles an hour to 35 miles an hour. The cop pulls me over and says, “You had a sudden change in speed, so I pulled you over.”

I said, “Well, we went into a speed zone.” He asked, “Where are you going?” I said, “We’re going back to our college.” He says, “Well I don’t believe that you go to that college. Can I see…” Not your regular ID, which you had already given to him. He asked to see our college ID to prove that we were actually going back to the university. It’s a largely white university. He also said he needed to see my friend’s ID, although he was in the passenger seat and wasn’t driving.

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Pastor Keith Anderson Zion Lutheran Church

 

“Letters and Papers From Prison” is a collection of letters to and from Dietrich Bonhoeffer while he was in Tegel prison in Berlin, Germany. He was arrested on April 5, 1943, because of his involvement in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He was executed April 9, 1945, just three weeks before Hitler ended his own life.

On July 21, 1944, he wrote a letter to his friend Eberhard Bethge. In that letter, he said, “In the last few years I have come to know and understand more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity.”

This statement came from someone who carefully observed the world in which he lived. He saw a “Christianity” that was too cautious to speak the truth in the midst of a crumbling and dangerous society.

He ponders the silence of the disciples on the night in which Christ was betrayed. How could no one stand up against the hatred of the world? How could no one have courage in the face of death? I believe self-preservation is part of the “this-worldliness” of our lives. We want this life, even if it is sometimes angry and out of control.

Bonhoeffer then says that when we can let go of our own suffering and “stay awake with Christ in Gethsemane,” then, we know more of the other-worldliness (my phrase) of heaven and eternal life with Christ. He said, “And I think this is faith; this is metanoia (repentance.)” That is the turn around when we know that it might be possible that protecting the powers of this world is a point where we let go of the power of Christ. That should pain us all who claim the name of Christ in this world.

A statement he made near the end of this letter really becomes a prayer. “May God lead us kindly through these times, but above all, may God lead us to himself.”

BISHOP CLAUDE ALEXANDER

Board Chair, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

DR. SCOTT W. SUNQUIST

President & Professor of Missiology


For a second time in a month a series of posts on theological education is disrupted by national events. As we write this post, rioting and looting continue to spread across the United States, and U.S. Embassies in Africa are having to respond to criticisms and accusations about U.S. injustices. Pastors like myself (Bishop Alexander) are called upon by mayors to help identify the causes of coordinated violence. Seminary presidents like myself (Scott) need to ask if we are really preparing Christian leaders who are firmly rooted and at the same time adaptable to the global pandemic and then resurgent racial injustice leading to civil unrest. American racism is deeply rooted, and the church has too often been complicit.

The recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, along with Amy Cooper’s false accusation and calling police on Christian Cooper once again remind us of the intractability of race and racism in America. Across the country, people are expressing their anger in legitimate and illegitimate ways. Unfortunately, when people have expressed it legitimately and they don’t see change or they feel that they do not have access to be legitimately heard, they do what they know will be heard. We do not believe this to justify the violence and looting of recent days nor do we believe that the violence and looting dismisses the legitimacy of the anger and pain.

Invariably some will ask, “Why is this so difficult to solve?”

The difficulty is rooted in the fact that there has never been a time when race and racism did not exist in America. Race and racism are the amniotic fluid out of which America as a nation was born. This past August commemorated the 400th anniversary of the beginning of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in the English Colonies. That is one year before the arrival of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower, 113 years before the birth of George Washington, 157 years before the formation of our republic. Race and racism are within the ground of our democracy and the text of our Constitution with the 3/5 Compromise designating the African slaves and their descendants to be 3/5 human. The denial of essential personhood and the denial of place and belonging are inherent within America. The occurrences of the past few weeks have sadly reinforced that fact.

Upon realizing this, we must conclude that America must be recreated into a nation that is antiracist. We need a rebirth. Such a rebirth calls for conscience, conviction, and courage. More specifically, it calls for whites to assume a leadership and responsibility that has never been assumed before.

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WHILE BONHOEFFER’S CONTEXT OF PERSECUTION IS FAR REMOVED FROM OUR CONTEXT OF SOCIAL DISTANCING AND SELF-ISOLATION, OUR INABILITY TO GATHER PROVIDES US WITH A FRESH LENS TO CONSIDER HIS WORDS.

“It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.”—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

As COVID-19 has prevented us from gathering together for worship, I was reminded of Bonhoeffer’s meditations on the value of fellowship.

Bonhoeffer’s classic on Christian community was written during a time when the Confessing Church had been scattered under the Nazi regime. As religious freedom evaporated in Germany, Bonhoeffer trained pastors at an illegal seminary in Finkenwalde. Life Together records many of his thoughts from his time of fellowship there.

While Bonhoeffer’s context of persecution is far removed from our context of social distancing and self-isolation, our inability to gather provides us with a fresh lens to consider his words. 

With that in mind, I invite you to read the excerpts from Life Together below, and I encourage you to read this book in its entirety during these unusual days apart. From these excerpts, following are four precepts. 

1. Every gathering of the local church is a gift of God’s grace.

Bonhoefer writes:

So between the death of Christ and the Last Day it is only by a gracious anticipation of the last things that Christians are privileged to live in visible fellowship with other Christians. It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and sacrament.

Not all Christians receive this blessing. The imprisoned, the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the Gospel in heathen lands stand alone. They know that visible fellowship is a blessing. They remember, as the Psalmist did, how they went ‘with the multitude . . . to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept holyday’ (Ps. 424). (pp19-20)

Whenever we gather together as a church, we receive a gift from our gracious God. Every gathering of the saints provides a taste of the greater reality of heaven, and we look forward to the day when all the saints will be together with our Lord forever.

Consider Hebrews 12:22-24:

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

Gathering together with our family of faith is a blessing that becomes all the more apparent when the gift is taken away. Let us prize the grace we have been given in our fellowship, and look forward to the day when we can know it again.

2. The scattered look forward with faith.

When we must worship alone, we remember that our union with Christ and our fellowship with the Spirit is not dependent upon our geography. We look to the heavenly fellowship of Hebrews 12:22-24, and know by faith that we worship God with the saints of all the ages.

Those who are unable to enjoy the gift of gathering with brothers and sisters should take heart, for as God gives trials to scattered saints, he refines and reassures his people of their inheritance (1 Pet 1:1-9).

Bonhoeffer writes about those who must worship alone:

But they remain alone in far countries, a scattered seed according to God’s will. Yet what is denied them as an actual experience they seize upon more fervently in faith. Thus the exiled disciple of the Lord, John the Apocalyptist, celebrates in the loneliness of Patmos the heavenly worship with his congregations ‘in the Spirit on the Lord’s day’ (Rev. 1.10). He sees the seven candlesticks, his congregations, the seven stars, the angels of the congregations, and in the midst and above it all the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, in all the splendour of the resurrection. He strengthens and fortifies him by his Word. This is the heavenly fellowship, shared by the exile on the day of his Lord’s resurrection. (p20)

Throughout history, the church’s weekly rhythm has been one of gathering and scattering. We gather on the Lord’s Day to celebrate our risen Lord, and we are scattered throughout the week, carrying the gospel to our workplaces and neighborhoods. We regather the following Lord’s Day, and continue this rhythm of life.

This rhythm of gathering and scattering serves as a parable. As we are scattered during the week, we are reminded that we are in exile. As we are regathered, we are reminded of the future day when all the saints will be gathered to worship the Lord forever.

For as long as the church experiences this prolonged season of being scattered, we must trust the wisdom and will of our Sovereign Lord, and seek all the more to take refuge in his Word. If persecution and suffering does not remove one from the love of God (Rom 8:31-39), neither will social distancing and stay-at-home orders in these days of COVID-19.

3. We experience the love and presence of God through one another in Christ.

Do you feel grief or loneliness in this season? It is right to feel a sense of loss. Two-dimensional fellowship through technology is a gift, as was Paul’s ability to send and receive letters from prison. However, it is innately unsatisfying as we were created to be physically present with one another.

Bonhoeffer elaborates on this as he describes the blessing of physical presence with other believers:

The believer therefore lauds the Creator, the Redeemer, God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for the bodily presence of a brother. The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile sees in the companionship of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God. Visitor and visited in loneliness recognize in each other the Christ who is present in the body; they receive and meet each other as one meets the Lord, in reverence, humility, and joy. They receive each other’s benedictions as the benediction of the Lord Jesus Christ. But if there is so much blessing and joy even in a single encounter of brother with brother, how inexhaustible are the riches that open up for those who by God’s will are privileged to live in the daily fellowship of life with other Christians! (p20)

God’s grace calls us to assemble together to sit under the preaching of the Word, to recognize brothers and sisters through baptism, to confess Christ together at the Lord’s Table, to lift up our voices and sing, and to give and receive ministry within our church family as we are built up to become more like Jesus.

As we assemble together as the body of Christ on the Lord’s Day, we encounter Christ in his Word and in his people. We know the love of Christ through one another as we serve as his hands and feet. Our gatherings are an incredible gift for us to treasure. It is right for us to desire to be face-to-face with each other. Consider the apostles’ great desire to be present with the church (1 Thess 2:18; 3:17, 2 John 12, 3 John 14).

In these days of waiting, many of us will feel the weight of loneliness and the emotions and temptations that accompany feelings of isolation. Let the brokenness of this world lead us to prayer. May we be faithful to pray for one another. May we not be distant with our words, but let us use the communication tools we have to encourage one another.

4. Let us praise God for this grace.

In today’s age of individualism, far too many professing Christians see the gathering of the church as an optional activity, and many others are content with “internet church.” Even for those who are faithful to gather, the weekly blessing of assembling together is easily taken for granted.

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For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Civic Duty Began at Home

How a tour through his private living quarters helps us better understand his public responsibilities—and ours.
For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Civic Duty Began at Home
Keys to Bonhoeffer's Haus: Exploring the World and Wisdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Laura Fabrycky and her husband and three children moved to Berlin in 2016. From there, she watched the American presidential election in dismay. “Something seemed to have snapped in our hyperpolarized and tribal politics that could not be easily put back together,” she writes in the introduction to Keys to Bonhoeffer’s Haus: Exploring the World and Wisdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And though her book is unlikely to repair our factious political scene, it may serve to unite and inspire Christians struggling to find a faithful stance within it.

Keys to Bonhoeffer’s Haus is not primarily a biography, although it’s rich with biographical information. Fabrycky knows her stuff. For three years she served as a volunteer tour guide in the Bonhoeffer house, immersing herself in study, interviews, and explorations of the ethics and events surrounding the rise and fall of Nazi Germany.

As Fabrycky leads us through the rooms of Bonhoeffer’s large house, she presents stories from her family’s own attempts to make sense of a foreign land. In one chapter, she moves seamlessly from a survey of Germany’s history and the evolution of the concept of citizenship to her family’s visit to Colonial Williamsburg, where two actors hold a lively debate on religious freedom. She takes us to her daughter’s harsh, mandatory bike-safety training to examine her own instinct to yield to authoritarianism. We see her struggling to love a cranky neighbor who disapproves of her gardening skills.

In all of this, she reminds us of the fuller definition of politics: “civic housekeeping,” by which she means “the hard, often boring work of living a common life” and the practice of neighbor-love “expressed in pothole filling and road paving, trash collecting, and pollution solving, compromise and deliberation, justice and restoration.” Even in times of societal disorder, we cannot avoid our housekeeping responsibilities.

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Bonhoeffer would have seen this pandemic as an opportunity to reorder our priorities, says Will van der Hart

I was reading a segment of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together in the garden this week. He says, “We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans…”

Bonhoeffer’s own life was interrupted by the second world war and then cut desperately short in Flossenbürg concentration camp.

I realize that I have been feeling as much anxiety about the interruption of my plans as I have been about getting physically sick. My life up to this point has been so diarised, every moment has been allocated to work, family, or charity. I even have a stock email about bookings needing to be made six months or more ahead of time! I have been so busy doing what my schedule dictates that I have not considered the divine interruptions God has been offering me.

When I am feeling unsettled, I often return to the most familiar stories of scripture. Like an old friend, their wisdom is comfortable and obvious. I was settling into Luke 10; The Good Samaritan and noticed that the characters in the story were all “going down the same road” (v31): In the same way, we are often living with automatic assumptions and priorities, particularly around success and failure. We plan our lives accordingly.

Catastrophe struck in the form of robbers (but it could have been a pandemic), who left the man “half-dead”. Then a priest and a Levite walked past the broken body of the beaten man. I guess that they epitomize so much of what is being shaken collectively and individually right now: It wasn’t their problem; he was a diversion that they weren’t willing to take.

Bonhoeffer’s point is not that we simply “hear the divine interruptions” but that we “allow ourselves to be interrupted”. While sitting in the garden I was surprised by the volume of the birdsong and wondered if it was unusual. Then I realized that this is probably the first time in a few years that I have been still enough to hear it: God is always speaking, but we aren’t often listening.

I am wondering now if I am finally willing to hear, but it isn’t comfortable! Like many anxiety sufferers, I have become addicted to activity and scheduling in order to distract myself from my worries. My busyness is a product of culture, ambition, and illness, not something that is easily broken on a whim. Yet I feel that it must break, not just for the sake of my living attentively, but so that I might live more compassionately.

The Samaritan had every cultural and social excuse not to attend to the wounded man. Yet, he allowed himself to be interrupted. No doubt he had a schedule and worthy plans, but he expended his resources of time and compassion in response to God’s directing.

This interruption to life is an opportunity to reorder our priorities so that we might be more able and willing to hear.

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So how are you doing, really?

It’s a question I ask friends, leaders, family and myself more and more.

Last week, once again, we learned about a mega-church pastor who appears to have taken his own life. Although I didn’t know Darrin Patrick personally, my heart aches for him, his wife and children and the many friends who knew him well that I also know.

I can’t imagine the pain that those who knew Darrin well are going through, and my prayers and heart go up for them and out to them.

And as you probably know, tragically, we’ve seen a number of suicides of well-known and well-loved pastors, many of them really young, in the last few years.

I saw many people who knew Darrin talk about having just spoken with him recently, texting and emailing days before he died.

It often seems that leaders don’t show immediate signals about how deep their struggle really is.

I’m familiar with the dark struggle of leadership.

The struggle, obviously, doesn’t always end in suicide, but it does often end in discouragement, defeat and even quitting leadership because of the pressure.

So in this post, I’ll take you into some of my own struggles and share 5 things that I realize today that I didn’t always know about leadership. These insights have helped me sort through what I’m feeling and experiencing and helped me discern where the next path might be.

Whether you’re struggling with suicide, or if you’re just feeling isolated, unheard or misunderstood in leadership, I hope this post helps.

If you have the most remote question in your mind about your will to live, or if you are suicidal, please stop reading this post and call 911 or, in the US, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, available 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line (in Canada call 1.833.456.4566.)

Although I don’t regularly struggle with depression (I did suffer a deep bout of it in 2006), and I’m not a counselor, I do know the daily struggle of leadership. I can empathize with how dark it feels sometimes.

And that’s our common connection point. Almost any leader knows the deep struggle of leadership. You don’t have to be in it long to know how dark or difficult it can get.

I hope this post feels like hope and help to you.

MY OWN SUICIDAL SEASON

Although I write about leadership all the time, it’s difficult for me to write about leadership and suicide, in part because it’s a desperately complex subject, and in part because I don’t even like to admit I was there a number of years ago myself.

The way I got to my suicidal season was through burnout. And the worst part of my burnout in the summer of 2006 was a season when I thought that ending it was the most logical and least painful way out.

Let me say it again before we dive into more words and my attempt at some insights: maybe you think the only way through your pain is to end it. It’s not.

In my last book, I have an entire section on burnout and how to overcome it, but I only gave five paragraphs to my battle with suicidal thoughts.

Honestly, I was just too terrified/embarrassed/ashamed to write more.

The fact that I entertained thoughts about ending my life still comes as a surprise to many people who follow me online, and to some of my friends and people who know me personally. It’s just so hard to talk about.

But it happened.

I tell the whole burnout story in my book  Didn’t See It Coming, and here’s an excerpt from the book about my own personal suicidal season:

My situation grew even darker than all that. Over a decade later, I still can’t believe I’m going to write this next section. Part of me doesn’t even want to admit this portion of the story is true. But it is, and I know this is an aspect of the experience far too many people can identify with.
By late summer, I began to think the best way to get through this burnout was to not go through it. Because hope had died for me in those months, I began to wonder whether that should be my preferred option as well.

For the first time in my life, I began to seriously think that suicide was the best option. If I had lost hope, was no good to anyone, couldn’t perform what I was expected to do, and was causing all kinds of pain to others (a conclusion that wasn’t coming from a place of objectivity), then perhaps the best solution was to be no more.

By God’s grace, I’ve never owned any weapons. If I did, I shudder to think about what I might have done to myself in a weak moment. I’m not terribly coordinated or technically skilled, so I figured a kitchen knife would probably result in me doing things horribly wrong. In my mind, my preferred path was to take my speeding car into a concrete bridge support and end things that way.

I don’t know how close I came to doing it. I’m far from an expert at determining how serious a threat like that is. Although I never undid my seat belt and never sped up far past the limit as a bridge approached, I do know the thought of ending it that way became a false friend to me, a strange and perverse source of comfort. And, in a twisted way, maybe a way of getting back at a God and a life I felt were letting me down.

As I look back now, over a decade later, on how I felt at that time, it seems like it was someone else who struggled with those thoughts. It’s amazing how an episode like this can play with your mind, but that’s exactly what burnout does: it messes with your thinking.

Its arena is your thought life, and burnout can be a merciless, savage beast. I’m so grateful I didn’t listen to those voices, but I share this in case you might be hearing something similar.

Do the people you love a favor: Don’t listen. Don’t give in. Don’t give up. The negative voices are lying. That’s not who you are, and that is definitely not the solution, even though some days it can feel like it is.

Looking back on that now, there’s still so much shame and stigma mixed with gratitude that I didn’t listen to the voices in my head that were telling me the only way out was out.

I can’t tell you how grateful I am I didn’t listen.

For the rest of the post…

July 2020
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