At the turn of the year – A Time to Mourn, A Time to Dance. And where to find the funky stuff.

Set aside your calmness, your carefully balanced and emotionally clear stance, which you may well have taken to lead a church through chaos. I want you to be honest with God about what’s being going on. And the wise writer of Ecclesiastes would encourage us to leave the balancing calm behind, and head to both ends of the spectrum.

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So let’s catch our breath, and pause. Grab a piece of paper and divide it down centre. It’s time to process not just what has been happening, but how you feel about it.

There is a lot of popular level material on ‘mindfulness’ around, and I don’t intend to mock it. In a crazily frantic schedule, forcing yourself to do something creative and imaginative with paper and paint can clear the mind. It stops you thinking in words. Bestselling books like Matt Haig’s Notes on a Nervous Planet[1] encourage people to be still, calm and know their place in a vast cosmos. Ryan Holiday has produced a collection of 365 daily readings, called The Daily Stoic[2] which points us to one of the deepest intellectual traditions that mindfulness frequently draws from: the Stoicism of Ancient Greece and Rome. Suddenly, intelligent people are reading intelligent authors, like Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Aratus, Epimenides, Seneca and Lucretius.

Their common wisdom is to find serenity, balance, calm, in whatever life throws at you.

When I say I don’t intend to mock it, that doesn’t mean I intend to accept it. Paul engaged with the Stoics in public, in Acts 17, and in his address even quoted them: ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ (that’s Epimenides) As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ (that’s Aratus)but he then branched into a quite opposite view of the cosmos, with a passionately loving creator and a salvation plan for individuals, by name.

Now, you may not spend your time reading Greek and Roman philosophers (although, pastors, if I’m right, it might be worth dabbling a bit, just to see what people are reading, just like Paul did), but I’ll bet you’ve been influenced by their message. When COVID-19 takes you into emotional turmoil, find the quiet place, empty your mind, and breathe. And again.

Instead, I want to take a biblical root, into passion. The Stoics saw ‘God’, as an abstract, almost mathematical first principle. When they use the word, it’s almost by custom or habit, rather than seriously thinking about what such a God would be. But the Bible talks about a God of extraordinary emotional force, whose love for his glory, and his people’s blessing, blazes:

For out of Jerusalem will come a remnant,

  and out of Mount Zion a band of survivors.

The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this. (1 Kings 19:31).

Don’t rush this: that remnant would a handful. That band of survivors would be left from the bruising encounter with exile in Babylon. There, without a temple, priests, land, or monarchy, they felt abandoned by God in an alien land. For many Christians today, living in Babylon is a powerful explanation of why they feel so distant from their culture.[3] But God didn’t leave his people there, and he taught them to long for home, weeping, but with a faithful optimism. The zeal (the enthusiasm, the passion, the focused energy) of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.

And he expects us to mirror that, too: Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord (Rom. 12:11).

So for the moment, I want you to set aside your calmness, your carefully balanced and emotionally clear stance, which you may well have taken to lead a church through chaos. I want you to be honest with God about what’s being going on. And the wise writer of Ecclesiastes would encourage us to leave the balancing calm behind, and head to both ends of the spectrum. That’s where the funky stuff is found.

A time to mourn…

Make a list, would you, of things about church that you miss? I’ll kick you off: I miss seeing people at church, out of the corner of my eye, the casual conversation prompted by a sermon or a question, the new faces checking us out. I miss singing together, and communion, and being able to see smiles rather than a mask. I miss the prayer ministry. I miss packed carol services. I miss being able to say, ‘Turn to your neighbour…’

Make up your own list.

Now some of those have been adapted to an online version, and some we know will come back. But is anything on that list something you think has probably gone for good? Mark it with an asterisk. Is your big, grand plan for 2020, the year of vision, worthless?

Has the grind of this got you down? Are you tired of the restrictions, the need to make decisions, the need to think, again?

You’re allowed to mourn.

…A time to dance

And, say it softly, some of this has been a little bit exciting, hasn’t it? New skills, new challenges, new ways of doing stuff. There’s no map to follow, no heroes to emulate. There’s no conference laid on to spotlight the latest church innovation, because we’ve all had to make it up for ourselves. Resistance to change has evaporated. Decisions which would have taken years to make, have gone through, quickly.

It’s kind of fun, sometimes. As the productivity writer Michael Hyatt puts it, when a crisis hits, we should dare to ask ‘What does this experience make possible?’ [4]

So, on the other side, make a list – a secret list, probably – of the things that you’ve enjoyed.

Again, I’ll kick you off: I’ve enjoyed the challenge of learning to preach and lead services in new ways: first just to a camera, and now to a church and a camera. I’ve enjoyed learning to construct services that work in quite a different way, to feed people a long way away. I’ve enjoyed seeing members of the church step up into whole new areas of responsibility and ministry, which we didn’t know we needed. I’ve enjoyed the flattening of the church landscape, where every church pastor has faced the same challenges in real time, and ‘big is best’ has ceased to be true. 

I’ve enjoyed the challenge of writing a book against a deadline.

You’re allowed to dance.

You turned my wailing into dancing;

  you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy (Psalm 30:11)

God did not leave his people weeping in Babylon; he brought them home. And, ultimately, with the Lord Jesus, he fulfilled every one of those promises with more to come. We have no idea how good God’s plan is going to be.

He doesn’t expect us to be calm and unmoved. He doesn’t expect us to see-saw between gloom and gladness, sway by the latest news story.

No, God’s persistent movement is to turn wailing into dancing, remove sackcloth and clothe us with joy. One day, we shall see the final resolution of that, as Isaiah promised:

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare

  a feast of rich food for all peoples,

a banquet of aged wine—

  the best of meats and the finest of wines.

On this mountain he will destroy

  the shroud that enfolds all peoples,

the sheet that covers all nations;

  he will swallow up death forever.

The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears

  from all faces;

he will remove his people’s disgrace

  from all the earth.

The Lord has spoken. (Is. 25:6-8)

 Until that moment, when the sackcloth of grave clothes is tossed aside forever, we wait, with hope. Knowing mourning and dancing, but always with a bias to the dance.

So, we need to move to now. We need to bring our theory and theology to the pressing questions you and I are facing as responsible church leaders: responsible to our members, maybe to our denominations if we have one, and to our governments too, but principally as those who are responsible to the Lord of the Church. It’s a general truth that each of us will give an account of ourselves to God (Rom. 14:12), but it’s a particular truth for those of us who lead congregations: Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account (Heb. 13:17).

The decisions we make lie heavily with us.

Under normal circumstances, we have the opportunity to think, reflect, pray and persuade. My bookshelves tell stories of issues that have come up in society or the church, or from the bible itself, where I have felt the need to read around, get a range of views, and form my own mind. Under normal circumstances, that’s a normal thing for me to do.

But I feel like I’m making this up as I go.

This is an adapted excerpt from @church: is online, off limits?

UK readers, now available on a Kindle near you!

US readers, now available on Kindle near you, too!


[1] Matt Haig, Notes on a Nervous Planet (London: Canongate, 2019).
[2] Ryan Holiday, The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living: Featuring new translations of Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius (London: Profile Books, 2016.

[3] See, for instance, Richard John Neuhaus, American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile (New York: Basic Books 2009), or Michael Frost, Exiles: living missionally in a post-Christian world (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006).

[4] https://michaelhyatt.com/a-question-that-changes-everything/

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