Benjamin Vrbick of Community Evangelical Free Church of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania writes about being a pastor as COVID-19 impacts life. In a moving blog post he recalls dealing with swine flu in 2009 when his young son contacted the illness while he lived in St. Louis, Missouri.
“Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.“
Be sure you know the condition of your flocks,
give careful attention to your herds;
24 for riches do not endure forever,
and a crown is not secure for all generations.
Proverbs 27:23-24 NIV
There is a lot of updates to do on the COVID-19 situation that has become a pandemic in the United States. One of the fears is what does one do if they catch the virus. While going through posts and blogs I read I noticed one that is worthwhile to read. The blog post comes from Benjamin Vrbicek at Community Evangelical Free Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In the post Benjamin reflects on being a pastor as services and events are canceled. He then shares a difficult time in St. Louis, Missouri when he and his young son came down with swine flu in 2009. He writes about his helplessness in watching his son deal with the disease. I will have the post down below but if you want to go over to Benjamin’s blog and comment please feel free at, “When My Little Boy Got the Swine Flu: Learning to Lament.”
On Wednesday of last week, I put on Twitter that I experienced a “Lenten miracle.”
“What was that miracle?” you say.
I finished my sermon early. That might not feel so miraculous to you, but I’ve struggled to complete a sermon before Saturday most weeks over the last year because we’ve been short-staffed, and pastoral attention is spread thin.
But I had to finish early because I traveled to Philadelphia at the end of the week for a conference with other pastors. The conference was before everything was being canceled because of the pandemic—or I should say during when everything was being canceled. I say this because as announcements were made nationally and at the state level by our governor, you could see and feel the attention of all the pastors in the room shift to our vibrating phones.
The Fear of Being Helpless
Our church, like all churches, has members with different levels of fear on the one end and skepticism on the other. I’m sympathetic to both. But I keep thinking about November of 2009. I got the swine flu, and so did my eighteen-month-old son. I was a fulltime seminary student, and I worked nearly fulltime in the construction industry too. We didn’t have a ton of money. I was afraid. The news told me people were dying, especially children and the elderly. A classmate was a former physician. I begged him to write a prescription for Tamiflu which was being rationed. I couldn’t focus on lectures or work, always thinking about what would happen to my little boy and fearing the worst.
I don’t feel that same fear now, but I pastor some who do.
Because I finished the sermon early on Wednesday, when it came time to preach it to a video camera on Saturday afternoon so we could share it on Sunday morning (another first for us), looking over my message felt odd. I wrestled with whether to set everything written aside and start a new sermon from scratch or to simply preach it as written. The world had changed so much in just a few days. In the end, I chose something of a middle road. We continued our sermon series: “How Long, O Lord? Learning the Language of Lament.” As our church journeys toward Good Friday and Easter, we are preaching through several of what are called Psalms of Lament. We couldn’t have planned it better.
I Find the Psalms Difficult to Read
I wonder if there are parts of the Bible that you read with more ease. Perhaps when you read certain parts of the Bible, twenty or thirty minutes go by without difficulty. Maybe the passionate gospel logic from the book of Romans captivates you. Or perhaps the parables of Jesus arrest your attention. Or maybe you love the Old Testament narratives, as in the book of Esther. You love reading about the hidden hand of divine providence that orchestrates events, turning the heart of the king toward his wife and the good of God’s people, which, by the way, is a helpful reminder for right now: God’s hiddenness does not indicate the absence of his power.
Some of you feel this way about the Psalms. I hear you talk about them this way. “When things are wonderful,” you say, “I read the Psalms.” “When things are hard,” you say, “I read the Psalms.” That’s good. I admire those of you who feel this way. I confess that I find the Psalms the most difficult of all portions of Scripture for me to read and enjoy. I’ve tried to think about why. I have a few ideas.
I think I’ve struggled to read and enjoy the Psalms because my method of Bible reading does not cooperate well with the genre of the Psalms. Reading four chapters every day as I make my yearly revolution from Genesis to Revelation, doesn’t allow enough time to go deep with each Psalm.
I’ll put it like this. You can drive your car to church on the highway in sixth gear. But if you want to back up out of your driveway, sixth gear is not so helpful. You need reverse. You need to gently tap the brake pedal as you cycle your eyes through your mirrors and glance over your shoulder, constantly adjusting the steering wheel. The Psalms are like reverse. The Psalms demand individual attention. They demand time. They demand a lingering and contemplative approach. This is true of the whole Bible, but especially when reading the Psalms because each new chapter of the Psalms is like beginning a new short story with a new author, new plot, new characters, new struggles.
When the Academic and Theoretical Becomes Experiential
In Psalm 38, which was our passage last week, the author says in verse 2, “For your arrows have sunk into me, / and your hand has come down on me.” In our piety, we would likely be inclined to say, “For it seems like your arrows have sunk into me, / and it seems like your hand has come down on me.” But the Psalms encourage us not to be so tidy with language. Psalms of Lament come from the gut. We shout Psalms of Lament with vocal cords warn raw from groaning. In this way, the Psalms of Lament are best studied not under a microscope while we wear a white lab coat, but rather in sackcloth with dust and ash on our heads. Biblical laments are learned by fathers with an open Bible and a toddler who can’t stop vomiting.
I am not thankful that some in our congregation feel helpless and afraid. But given where we are, I am thankful that this Lent season we have a chance to slow down, a chance to linger over just one Psalm each week. When we began planning a sermon series called “Learning the Language of Lament,” I never expected that our “learning” would be so experiential. God knew better.