Terror and Amazement

by | Mar 30, 2020

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said
nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Mark 16:8

We are in a season when pastors would normally comment on the challenge of preaching on Palm Sunday and Easter. It’s hard to get the congregation to grasp the extent of fear that gripped Jesus’ disciples those three days, when Jesus was arrested, executed, and then his body disappeared from the tomb. It’s hard for us to experience that level of fear because we’ve heard the happy ending so many times, we can emotionally skate over Good Friday and even Easter sunrise, because we think we know what it all means.

We might even critique those silly disciples, they of little faith. As often as Jesus attempted to warn his friends about his death and resurrection, when confronted with unprecedented and disorienting tragedy, their faith failed them. They didn’t see the shadow of the cross on Palm Sunday; they didn’t have to come up with creative ways to evoke the shock and horror they lived through when seeing Jesus writhing in pain on the cross; they didn’t wake up before dawn thinking about the pancakes they will eat after a sunrise worship service. They lived through that last week in Jerusalem, with every day, sometimes every hour, revealing one confusing experience after another.

It occurred to me this last week that we might learn a little empathy for the disciples, as we are living through unprecedented and disorienting times of our own. This surreal, virtual life we are all managing from our homes, afraid to see anyone or touch anything, with new tragedies popping up overnight first in China, then in Seattle, then in Italy and Spain and New York City and New Orleans and Detroit—and here in LA. And now we are being told that 100,000 Americans might die in the coming weeks—and that would be a good thing, because the alternative is 2,000,000 dead Americans. At this moment, with 2,500 having passed away in the US, can we really believe all that death is before us? On the other hand, can we fully accept that it was only a month ago when the very first American passed away of this mystery disease?

But some of us do have faith that this will blow over. It will be horrible, but it won’t be forever; in our case it might be a matter of months, which isn’t that long, really. Can we ride through these very choppy rapids without panicking, trusting that we will come out of the rapids, perhaps changed but for the most part alive?

And here’s one more parallel with the Easter story—when Jesus rises from the dead, when we do see that happy ending, does that mean we go back to life the way we always knew it, or will the world never be the same?

Some of us are seeing hints that life will not go back to “normal” once this horror has passed. We are seeing glimpses of things that never occurred to us, or we didn’t think possible before. Jeff O’Grady told the people of San Marino that by streaming worship, people with disabilities who didn’t feel comfortable coming into the sanctuary before can now join on equal footing with everyone else. Puente de Esperanza’s Facebook worship attracts and connects people from many nations, and is reaching more people than they would see on a typical Sunday morning. Taiwanese churches join together every Sunday for one joint worship, with leadership coming from multiple different pastors and congregations. And I get to more fully experience the rich ministry of San Gabriel Presbytery, as in one day I can join worship held in Arabic, Taiwanese, Spanish, and English, all without leaving my home or our presbytery family. Truly this crisis has sparked more creativity in the old mainline church than I think I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime.

This has also tested the way we relate to church finances and stewardship. Many if not most churches automatically assumed their offerings would evaporate, perhaps forever. I don’t yet know what will happen, during this alone-together time, or once we are able to gather again. I do know, and am so grateful to be able to announce, that the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii is offering financial help for presbyteries to help our churches weather this storm, up to $150,000 for each presbytery. Our Presbytery Executive Commission is meeting tomorrow night to discuss how we will implement this, so keep tuning in.

And I have noticed that we can invite people to give in different ways, and the churches who figure out how to make it easier for their people to give, will likely be able to continue to receive offerings far into the future. Just make sure you let folks know, like for One Great Hour of Sharing:

And I also noticed that it’s easier to ask people to remember to give to someone else’s church, so just as Paul asked for funds for the saints in Jerusalem, just as the Taiwanese joint service urged attendees to remember to continue supporting their own congregations, I can urge you to continue to show your faith and gratitude by continuing to give to your church, even during this quiet time. You can even give to the Presbytery of San Gabriel and some key missions of the Presbytery, as we have also streamlined our own online giving portal, at https://sangabpres.org/donate/.

Some of us are also trying to figure out how the Federal government’s recent bill can help our churches. We have posted some information on our website, and continue to listen to webinars and find other resources. But if in fact this is a temporary stall, then depending on the amount of funds you need, it may not be worth the trouble, but you can certainly try, with the forgivable loan from the Small Business Administration (SBA), or worst-case working with the State Employment Development Department (EDD) on cost sharing for staff if your church cannot afford your payroll. But I would ask that you contact me before you lay anyone off.

One final note: as the stress of this uncertainty creeps up, and as you are unexpectedly cooped up with your family and the only place you can act out your frustration is at home, as this situation pushes different buttons in each of us, I ask you to pay attention to your spiritual and emotional concerns, and to reach out if your stress is becoming a gathering storm. My first full-time job was with a battered women’s agency, and we knew that Christmas holidays usually led to increases in domestic violence, mostly because everyone’s in the house. Already two pastors have mentioned family tensions they had to deal with, and I want you to know that domestic violence services are continuing as usual.

We have information on the Board of Pensions’ counseling network (where members and/or family can get 6 free sessions), as well as the names of counselors in our San Gabriel family who are willing to take a call from pastors, and will help identify a referral. It’s all on the sangabpres.org website.

So is it OK to be afraid? Yes. Will there be an end to this confusing time? Yes. Will we soon go back to the way things used to be? Probably not. Will there be help, and companions on the way? Yes. Will God continue to provide for us and save us, as God has always done? Yes. Are we able, through the Holy Spirit, to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ in many ways, and perhaps in new ways that will reach broken people who didn’t think the church would welcome them? Yes, by the grace of God, yes.

May this season of confusion and creativity, even of terror and amazement, give birth to a new awareness—of the living Christ in our churches, of the abundant blessings God has in store for us as we seek to serve, and of the gifts that arise among us as we work together for the gospel, as the one body of Christ. May we have eyes to see the risen Christ in our midst, now and always.

In Christ we live and love,