Reflections on the lessons I learned in pastoring a small church and the value of these congregations.
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In this lifetime, we face a great many milestones. Some happy. Some sad. Many both at once.
Help us to navigate the fullness of both our joys and our sorrows for the many transitions we undergo in our lives, especially when the emotional weight of it all at times feels too overwhelming to name and too heavy to carry.
In this season of graduations, we celebrate the joy of new beginnings as well as grieve the inevitable arrival of endings. For both good endings and bad, may we show grace to ourselves and to others.
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IT WAS A SUMMER SUNDAY MORNING IN 2020 AND THE VERY LAST TIME I WOULD PRESIDE OVER THE LORD’S TABLE IN MY SMALL CONGREGATION.
No one besides me had entered our sanctuary for months, and it showed. I unlocked the wooden double doors bearing my handwritten sign that read: “Sanctuary Closed Due to Pandemic. Worship With Us Online.”Hot, stagnant air draped over me once I stepped inside the modest, single-room country church. As I walked up the center aisle, the wooden floors creaked in surprise at my unexpected feet. Pale morning sunlight illumined the chalky dust coating each unoccupied pew.
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In 1786, Friedrich Schiller published his best-known work, a poem entitled “An die Freude,” known in English as “Ode to Joy.” Schiller’s poem was an instant hit. In fact, it was such a success that it soon sparked the imagination of another famous German artist. Shortly after its composition, Ludwig van Beethoven aspired to set the text of “Ode to Joy” to music.
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I love waking up early on a quiet winter morning to a fresh snowfall. I am perennially amazed when overnight everything is instantly transformed under a dusting of sparkling white. The trees sigh and relax under a weighted blanket of snow and ice. The whole world outside your window softens. Even the sky turns pale. Everything seems to melt together, forming a tranquil blank canvas. It is as though an invisible hand has artfully prepared for us a clean slate of frost and snow, one inviting intrepid footsteps and unabashed possibilities.
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Like many others, my church pivoted to virtual-only worship and programming for much of January. It was a difficult decision, but one that our pastoral and leadership team felt was necessary considering rising COVID cases. As a result, our worship attendees found themselves back at home in their respective living rooms on Sunday mornings, eyes affixed to their devices, and tuning in live with us from afar. Déjà vu. Reluctant as we were, our church family settled back into this all-too-familiar Sunday morning rhythm. So, I found myself asking, “What have I learned about virtual worship after all this time? What is particularly unique about virtual worship? Appealing? Perhaps even … beautiful?”
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It was one of my very first nights at seminary. Some new friends and I explored the town: walking the Princeton campus, crossing under the great stone arches, passing by the ivy-laden Nassau Hall, and landing at a local pub surrounded by many other college and grad students. At some point during the evening, I briefly left our table and went up to the bar to order another drink. While I was waiting, I noticed a gray-haired man watching me with a sour lip.
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Every Christmas, my late grandmother made peppernut cookies, (or pfeffernüsse, as she called them). Crunchy little morsels filled with warming spices, these cookies represented her family’s German roots. In a labor of love, Grandma created and then divided a lump of peppernut dough into several pieces and rolled out each by hand. She cut “nut” sized bites by wrapping a strand of dental floss around the ends of each long, thin tube of dough and by pulling tight. She baked cookie sheet after cookie sheet filled with the small, peppernut cookies, flooding their Iowa farmhouse full of cozy and comforting spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves…
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Each Wednesday morning, I make a piping mug of tea, click a Zoom link, and am soon heartened by the panel of sleepy, smiling female faces checkered across my computer screen. Our Women’s Bible study has gathered early and faithfully throughout the pandemic. They graciously invited me to lead them on a journey through the Old Testament, specifically, to examine stories of biblical women. We started in Genesis, continued sequentially, and recently concluded with the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31. Together, we encountered the tragic pain, tender love, and resilient faith of the brave women of the bible.
We laughed with Sarah. We encountered God in the desert with Hagar. The collective courage of the daughters of Zelophehad empowered us. The appalling fate of the Levite’s concubine horrified us. The swift courage of Jael and her silent tent peg shocked us. We mourned and kept watch in the darkness with Rizpah. We discovered a model of resistance in Vashti and an advocate for justice in Esther.
The female saints of the Bible give voice to the failings of its many patriarchs, not to mention the pervasive brokenness of the whole community of faith. In scripture, God’s people repeatedly exploit the powerless and distort God’s teachings. Women and children are too often oppressed and violated. As our Bible study wrestled with these texts together, we never lost sight of the truth that these stories—however ugly or tragic—are all a part of our story.
Over and against harmful supercessionist interpretations of scripture, the Reformed tradition emphasizes our common kinship with the community of faith in the Old Testament. Amy Plantinga Pauw writes, “The church hears the judgments and promises of the Old Testament as God’s Word to them. The idolatries of the Old Testament are snapshots from the church’s family album. Both Israel and the Church struggle to be obedient and faithful; both often fail.” Our journey through the Old Testament this year reminded us how broken the church has been from its beginnings—and how much we utterly depend upon God’s grace to sustain us.
A global pandemic has taught us all a thing or two about the imperfections of our earthly community of God. Our collective experience has dealt us each a sobering reminder of human mortality—and made the institutional church acutely aware of its own fragility. Dispersed and scattered from our buildings last year, we worried how our congregations would survive. Now as we reopen our physical spaces for Sunday worship, church leaders wonder who will return—and what the future holds.
My suspicion is that we, the Church, will probably fail in many ways to meet this watershed moment: that once back in our buildings, many congregations will hastily revert to old patterns of “business as usual.” I think we need to accept now that the Church will not be radically different than it was before the pandemic, at least not overnight. Yet whatever happens next, God’s promise to the Israelites and to us remains the same: I am with you. When the Israelites were in exile, God promised them: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you know perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” God promised new possibilities for God’s people. These new possibilities were not contingent upon a perfect record of faithful obedience going forward. God’s people had already established a long track record of screwing things up. God hadn’t forgotten that—and yet God promised them a future with hope anyway!
God made a way for the Israelites through the wilderness and will make a way for us, too. What “way” will God show us forward? That has yet to be seen. The Church has overcome many trials and taken on so many forms over the course of history. Our Reformed tradition relativizes all singular forms of church worship or procedure. The Scots Confession states that no “policy or order of ceremonies can be appointed for all ages, times, and places…” The architects of our early Reformed theology recognized that all earthly church forms are fragile and finite. As we discovered, our pandemic season ushered forth rapid innovation. The church had to quickly adapt to fit the current context and to become an exclusively virtual community during a time of physical quarantine. What a pivotal moment in our church’s story! Together, we have demonstrated that God’s community on earth is truly capable of faithfully stepping out in hope to meet our future.
Friends, we must not lose sight of our church’s story: that in all times and places the community of faith has been utterly dependent upon the grace of God. So why shouldn’t we boldly step out in hope for new possibilities now? We can learn much from the brave biblical women who relied on God’s grace to sustain them in troubled times. Now more than ever: let’s welcome the stranger, become fierce advocates for justice, and bear witness to this amazing story of God’s enduring grace for us.
On most Wednesday mornings these days, you’ll find me on Zoom, engaged in deep discussion about one of the many fascinating women in the bible. Our women’s early morning Bible study group has graciously invited me to lead us on a journey through the Old Testament. It is utterly astounding to me that the protagonists who greet us from the pages of scripture have voices, strengths, and struggles that resonate with us so plainly still today—even in these Ancient Near Eastern narratives that have been told for some three thousand years!
I confess, never before have I read through all the stories of women in the Old Testament one after another sequentially. We are presently navigating our way through the books of Joshua and Judges. As we read, we can’t help but take note of one glaring recurring theme: violence.
The Israelites’ first encounter with a woman in the Promised Land is just before the bloody battle of Jericho. Joshua sends two spies into the city for a reconnaissance mission. Rahab, a citizen of the city who works as a prostitute, a notably dangerous profession, hides the Israelites in her home. She puts herself and her family at great personal risk in order to save the lives of two strangers. In the battle of Jericho, Joshua and his army “devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city,” including women, children, and livestock (Joshua 6:21). Only Rahab and her family are spared. All their friends and neighbors are slaughtered.
Emerging from this story of ultraviolence, Rahab is remembered for her bravery and public profession of faith in the God of Israel. She goes down in biblical canon as an exemplar of faithfulness. She is mentioned multiple times in the New Testament, even appearing in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus.
Another woman extoled for her virtue is Jael, lifted up in song as the “most blessed of women” (Judges 5:24). The Canaanite army has just been overtaken by the Israelites, with the Canaanite general Sisera on the run. Sisera sought shelter in Jael’s tent. Jael made Sisera comfortable, covering him in a blanket and even giving him milk when he asked for water. Once Sisera fell asleep, Jael “went softly to him” (4:21) and drove a tent peg through his head with a hammer “until it went down into the ground.” When the Israelite general Barak came searching for Sisera, Jael showed him to her tent, where he found Sisera “lying dead, with the tent peg in his temple” (4:22).
Lynn Japinga writes, “The story of Jael confounds stereotypes and assumptions about women in the Bible. She was not a quiet nurturing woman in need of protection and guidance. Instead, she committed a violent act and was praised for it.” As a matter of fact, just before Jael’s act, Deborah, a female prophet and military advisor, predicted that a woman would receive all the glory for Israel’s victory!
These Old Testament stories are immersed in violence. And with a few exceptions, the women generally aren’t the ones with any agency within this culture of violence. In this biblical wartime context, women are raped, murdered, and taken captive as slaves. In Judges 11, Jephthah sacrifices his own daughter as a burnt offering to God for his recent victory in battle. Judges 19 is a horrible tale of a poor woman who is gang raped to death. The woman’s master cuts her body into twelve pieces, subsequently sending them out to the twelve tribes of Israel with the intent purpose to incite a war. As a result, the entire Book of Judges ends with the gruesome slaughter of thousands and the mass abduction of hundreds of young virgin girls.
But then, preluded by this depraved scene of graphic cruelty, we find one of our fondest narratives of biblical women. For just after the bloody conclusion of the Book of Judges, we turn immediately to the beloved story of Ruth and Naomi…
Violence surrounds women in the Old Testament, whether explicitly or implicitly. Women in the Bible have scarce agency over their own lives. Whether it’s a narrative of rape (like that of Tamar or Dinah), or the story of young Achsah being forcibly given away by her father to another man as a prize won in battle, women in the Bible are stripped of their power and choices, brutalized, and forced to do whatever it takes to survive.
Specifically, the Book of Judges is a story of a community collapsing in on itself in a perpetual cycle of sin. Judges like Deborah are appointed to lead and advise, but again and again, the people fall away into moral depravity. God is, at best, a background character, advising and infrequently pouring out God’s Spirit. Though one commentator notes, “In Judges, the occasional outpouring of the Spirit is, itself, diverted and perverted as Israel falls under the weight of its own corruption.”
In her book From Widows to Warriors, Lynn Japinga laments that God often doesn’t explicitly condemn the bad actors. Notably though, at the very end of the Book of Judges, the narrator does. In Judges 21:25 it states: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” Japinga writes, “Still, the narrator at least made it clear that this kind of ridiculous violence was no way for a community to live.”
The voices of the women in these biblical stories cry out to me. I feel their pain. Their suffering mirrors the suffering of women throughout history. Through the words on these pages, the women of scripture publicly face their accusers—and we, the readers of scripture, are their witnesses. God’s presence may not always be made apparent in these stories, just as God’s presence sadly isn’t always clear in lived moments of acute trauma.
When we step back and take the Bible into consideration as a whole, we see how God’s faithful presence pervades throughout the whole of the biblical narrative. Though I admit, this may not be a satisfying answer to the problem of God’s absence in certain individual bible stories. I’m reminded these days that scripture isn’t always satisfying; sometimes it’s messy and complicated, often leaving us with more questions than answers.
This is one reason why, in my Presbyterian faith tradition, we don’t worship the Bible. We worship God. So we can lift up these difficult stories of the Bible to God, in the same way we entrust God to carry the burdens of our troubled souls. We ask the Holy Spirit to shed some illuminating light upon these stories, to reveal for us how these stories of human evil might bear witness to the truth of God’s salvation for us.
As women, as persons of all genders, and as survivors of trauma and violence today, may these stories of brave, strong, and faithful women serve for us as God’s Word in a very special way. The world is a fragile, broken place, ever dependent upon the grace of God. Yet the women in these stories demonstrate anything but fragility. These biblical women are fierce warriors; protective mothers, wives, and daughters; intelligent and wise counselors; and courageous saints of the faith. The voices of the women of the Bible rise up and speak to us from generation to generation, reminding us today that we need not be defined by the brokenness of the world around us. By God’s grace, we are so much more.
By God’s grace, we are strong, beautiful, and beloved.
 Our Bible study companion book has been Lynn Japina’s From Widows to Warriors: Women’s Stories from the Old Testament.
 Lynn Japinga, From Widows to Warriors: Women’s Stories form the Old Testament (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2020), p. 87.