Bartholomew Gosnold was among the first settlers to the New World. He came ashore in 1602 and named Cape Cod. Things were friendly with the Natives until the day two of his men were in thick woods foraging for food. Four tribesmen surrounded them, ready to attack. One of the Englishmen had the presence of mind to pull his knife and cut the bowstrings drawn against them. No one was hurt.
These days, pastors must remind ourselves that we’re not at war with our churches. As the colonel in Black Hawk Down barked to the sergeant who thought he was the only one bleeding: “Everybody’s shot!” The pastor is just the easiest target.
I hear from the mask alliance and mask atheists, social-justice advocates and those with social-justice anxiety, QAnoners and those who wish I’d make pulpit sport of them. They’re all seated before me every Sunday, or livestreaming from home, afraid of this New World we’ve landed in.
Some in my congregation believe churches are being attacked. I believe we’re being exposed. COVID-19, civil unrest, and contentious partisanship haven’t led us into a wilderness so much as revealed we are a wilderness unto ourselves, to employ Marilynne Robinson’s apt description. What the seeds of consumerism and nominalism eventually yield is a disrupted, anxious church that turns on its own.
What the seeds of consumerism and nominalism eventually yield is a disrupted, anxious church that turns on its own.
On a recent Saturday night, I told my wife I was going to resign in the morning. After 18 years in the church. Just like that. I’ve taken enough shots! She cut my bowstrings and walked me back from the ledge. I’m a pastor, which means I have to navigate this wilderness the church isn’t just in but is.
But to whom can I look for ways through?
Looking to Moses
Moses got tired of being fought and blamed, doubted and opposed. In Numbers 20, Israel again came against him over lack of water. The first time God quenched their thirst (Ex. 17), Moses was instructed to strike the rock. But this second time, God told Moses to merely speak to the rock and the water would flow. Instead Moses struck it, twice, and yelled at the people about how much he’d put up with from them.
A few months back, I said during a sermon that I wasn’t accepting complaints from the congregation anymore. I told them I was throwing away letters unopened. I goaded them about “hate email.” It was me striking the rock. If I’ve learned anything in nearly three decades of pastoral ministry, it’s that anger expressed like that contains all kinds of relational surcharges you’ll keep paying long after you’ve cooled down.
[Most pastoral] anger contains all kinds of relational surcharges you’ll keep paying long after you’ve cooled down.
In Moses, I see the need to lead with repentance. We know from leadership studies that he had a tendency to take too much on himself; that’s why his anger flared. He was good at keeping score. Like me. I wrote an apology to our church for lashing out at them.
Aren’t we all learning this year how little we control? Moses couldn’t control God’s nation. I can’t control God’s church, or sometimes even myself. Owning my faults is one way I get release from the pressure to be in control of what others think of me. I have to serve the people of God as they are, not as I would make them.
Looking to David
We can learn from David, too. “In the David wilderness story,” Eugene Peterson observes, “we see a young man hated and hunted like an animal, his very humanity profaned, forced to decide between a life of blasphemy and a life of prayer—and choosing prayer.”
In the ordeal of everything turned against him, David occupied himself with God. The David we love most—courageous, generous, zealous-for-God, captivated-by-grace David—comes out of suffering the wilderness. When David was at ease at home, that’s when he was a wilderness to himself.
After Absalom ignited a coup, David was thrust into the wilderness again, as when Saul chased him. But there in the wilderness, old disciplines kicked in. He was at his best with God when he was subject to the worst of others.
David was at his best with God when he was subject to the worst of others.
Old disciplines are also kicking in again for me. I’m getting up extra early to pray. I’m keeping a prayer journal again, writing out my appeals to God. I may be in a wilderness, but I don’t have to be in the ditch.
Looking to Jesus
Jesus had his own 40-day wilderness “quarantine.” Tested there, everything that bubbled up from him was Scripture. It was in his veins.
If I’m getting shot, I want my Bible to bleed out. Over the din of voices telling me what I need to do and think and say, I need to hear from the God who loves me and gave himself for me. That’s why I had to resolve not to check social media before I’ve opened my Bible. I’m too weak to do otherwise; it keeps my mind right.
If I’m getting shot, I want my Bible to bleed out.
But that wasn’t Jesus’s first time in a wilderness. He’d been there with David in his loneliness. Read David’s miktam psalms (Pss. 57–60), written in the anguish of being doubted and rejected. Jesus was even there in Moses’s failure: “Our fathers in the wilderness . . . all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:4).
The Rock that followed them.
Turn around and look who’s behind you, pastor. Neither one of us has been abandoned. Though we strike the rock in frustration; though we cannot find common starting points with everyone; though we’re ghosted by those we thought were with us, Jesus is following us so that we’re never out of his sight or care (Ps. 23:6).
We follow him. He follows us. We’ll get through.