Pastoral Reflection 2020
The following post was sent out one year ago in a newsletter on January 2, 2020.
Dear Church Family,
The following is a pastoral reflection on the year 2020. It seems appropriate to at least recall the ways in which God was at work in 2020, in order to provoke a sense of sincere optimism about what God will do in 2021. So, what shall we say about 2020 for us as a church?
We started the year strong with the second half of our sermon series on 1 Peter. The first sermon of 2020 was called, “Blessing is Mission” from 1 Peter 3:8-17. The sermon was about the seemingly impossible call of the Christian. God calls all Christians to something that seems impossible: “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called” (1 Peter 3:9). God has called us to endure evil, persevere through trials, bear with strained relationships, and remain humble under irritating circumstances. God expects every single one of us to respond to pain with blessing: “bless, for to this you were called.” To the natural man, this seems like an unrealistic expectation from God, but to the child of God there is something motivating our hearts to respond with gentleness and grace to the grit and grind of life: “bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.” Every time the Father administers a handful of afflictions to his children, behind his back there is an even bigger handful of blessings to follow.
The following month on February 9, a similar theme was preached from 1 Peter 4:12-18 called “Rejoicing in Suffering." The main point was: at the end of the day, the presence of suffering is not a sufficient reason to be suspicious of God. Peter states one of the most perplexing truths about the relationship between God’s judgment and the church’s suffering: “For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God” (1 Peter 4:17). Every time a wave of judgment or hardship washes over a place, it begins with the church. This judgment is not punishment, it is refinement. God is not disciplining his people for some sin in their life but is purifying his people for greater holiness. So, Peter tells us to not be surprised at the “fiery trials” we face, but to rejoice as we share in Christ’s suffering and prepare our souls for the future joy of heaven (1 Peter 4:12-13).
A month later, COVID-19 ripped through New Jersey and would lock everyone indoors for months. On March 11, the board had to make one of the hardest decisions in the history of Church at Bergen: closing the church building and cease physically gathering for worship. Then on Sunday, March 15 the first sermon was delivered exclusively online called "Onward." We had just begun our series on 2 Peter. The Sunday after, a sermon was delivered called, “An Urgent Reminder” from 2 Peter 1:12-15. At the conclusion of the sermon, three urgent reminders were given relating to the peculiar temptations that come with a pandemic and quarantining. These urgent reminders still stand:
- While washing your hands is urgent, nothing is more urgent than where you stand with Jesus Christ.
- While isolation is good for stopping the spread of the virus, isolation is terrible for the deceitfulness of sin and the temptations of Satan.
- While there is security in the safety of your homes, nothing is more secure than the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Locked away in our homes, each of us would face new temptations and hardships. God has hardwired us for fellowship and worshipping with the family of God. Little did we know, COVID-19 was only the beginning of what we would endure as a church. The Sunday after, a very timely sermon called, "Good News for Troubled Hearts" from John 14:1-6 was given to steady our hearts through this unsettling time.
Towards the end of May, the nation was faced with another challenge: the death of George Floyd. The nation was ripe with pent up discontentment from the pandemic, and the whole country was turning to social media for communication, information, and the garnering of social opinion. After wrestling as a board through the difficulties of closing the church building, we now had to navigate one of the most volatile and racially charged moments of our nation’s history. Although we sought as best we could to lead with compassion through this difficult season, we walked away from that experience knowing there is room to grow in how we address the reality of racism toward all skin colors. May the Lord lead us well in the future. One timely sermon preached during this month called, "The Perfect Timing of God," helped us see God's careful control over all that happens every moment of our lives.
Eventually, the pandemic curve would begin to flatten and the discussion of when and how to regather as a church came up. Once more the board met on a weekly basis to discern how to best lead the church to the regathering phase. This, too, was a challenge, because of the “mask issue” and the differing opinions on the threat or non-threat of the virus to the public health. Furthermore, this challenge opened us up to the world of livestreaming. We had never made livestream a core practice for our church, but it seemed like we had no other option to care for those unable to physically gather. Eventually, we decided on Sunday, August 9 as the official regathering day for our church. We were wrapping up our summer series, “Encounters,” looking at the different people Jesus encountered in the gospels. Even though regathering was a joy, there was a sadness in the air because the last physical gathering was exactly 5 months prior, and there were triple the amount of people singing with unmuffled about the glories of the gospel. The final sermon in that series was called, “Jesus is Lamb of God.”
The following Sunday, September 13, we began our annual Fall sermon series called, "Encourage" from 1 Thessalonians. There was much anticipation in the body, but that day we would face yet another trial: the resignation of our former lead pastor. It is hard to forget the tears shed by all of us as we announced the tragic news. The board grieves over the pain this news has caused us, but we have been encouraged by the fruits of forgiveness and restoration in everyone. One of the most powerful nights for us as a church was the prayer gathering the Wednesday night after the announcement. We pled with the Lord to be prove himself as "Jehovah-Rapha," the God who heals. Thus, we are confident in the Lord’s work that is still to be done in and through Church at Bergen. This church has and will forever belong to Jesus Christ and not to any of us pastors. Jesus will heal us all in his own time.
That same Sunday, the sermon preached was called, “Grateful for God’s Work.” In this sermon, there was the illustration of Aaron and Hur supporting Moses’ trembling arms during the battle with the Amalekites. This was to demonstrate the purpose of encouragement: to hold up the arms of one another’s faith when it grows tired and weary. We have seen and experienced many “Aaron and Hur’s” in this church since that Sunday.
Soon after this, we were faced with one of the most politically charged and controversial presidential elections in our nation’s history. Major church leaders and pastors were announcing their unwillingness to even vote for either candidate. All of this came upon us in what seemed like the worst time. The whole country seemed divided: Should we gather, or should we not gather? Is public health more important, or religious freedom? Do black lives matter, or do blue lives matter? Should Trump be president, or should Biden be president? What is the future of Church at Bergen? One has to ask, “God… what were you doing?”
But the final sermon in the Encourage series was called, “The-Never-Giving-Up-God” from 1 Thessalonians 4:23-28. The main point was that God is the kind of God that cannot and will not ever give up on you in your growth in spiritual maturity. No matter what we go through or have gone through as a church, the Lord will see to it that we all become more like Jesus. Therefore, our future will always look bright. Nothing that happened in 2020 hindered God from continuing his sanctifying and maturing work in all of us.
We wrapped up the year with our annual Advent series called, “Light.” We concluded the series at our Christmas Eve service with the words of Jesus from John 8:12, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” The title of the sermon was called, “Hang Tight.” The point being made was to hang tight to Jesus and he will sustain us and grow us through this season. Jesus has done this, and he will continue to do this. Even though much darkness seemed to be cast over us in 2020, the light of Christ has shone, and shall never be overcome as we walk with our heads held high by God's gentle hand of hope.
So, where does that leave us? It leaves us desperate. Desperate for what? For God to personally and corporately renew us as a church. This is why we are beginning the year with a series on prayer called, “Souls in Paraphrase,” and why we are holding prayer gatherings every Wednesday in January. We want to open up our souls to God that he might begin a rapid and permanent renewal process within us all. It is very possible that God is merely pruning and preparing us for something far greater than we could have ever dared ask or dream (Ephesians 3:20-21). Before we do anything in 2021, we want to plead with our Father, who delights to hear from his children, that he might move mightily in us once again. We want to urge everyone to join us as we bare our souls in prayer to our Heavenly Father.
Finally, is there anything at all that we can look forward to in 2021? Yes...
Pastor Mike McKinney