Navigating Holy Week

Holy-Week

This year the entirety of Holy Week will look and feel a little different as we gather online for our worship services. However, if we navigate our journey through Holy Week with a compass of honest inquiry and prayerful reflection, this year’s trek may strengthen and equip us to live with faith and hope in all seasons.

This Sunday is Palm Sunday which marks the beginning of Holy Week, a week that is to be different from a normal week.  For Christians, Holy Week is a season for soul-searching and contemplating the depth of God’s love.  During this week, Christians, all around the globe will be reflecting on the events that led to the death, burial and resurrection of Christ.

Let’s review the important mileposts of Holy Week:

The traditional observance of Holy Week seems to have originated in the Christian East, emerging out of the practice of pilgrimages to Jerusalem.  Each day of Holy Week is important but at least four days call for specific reflection.

Palm Sunday is a day to revisit the royal welcome extended to Jesus by the curious crowd as he entered Jerusalem.

On Maundy Thursday believers recall the occasion when Jesus washed the feet of the disciples as he gave them a new mandate to love and serve.  Then, many Christians receive communion in commemoration of the Last Supper Jesus shared with his disciples.

Good Friday is a day to deeply reflect on the suffering of Christ on the cross and to contemplate the final words from the cross.

Finally, Resurrection Sunday, or Easter, is a festive day to affirm the ultimate victory of life over death as we proclaim that “Christ is risen; He is risen indeed.”

As we navigate our way through each episode of Holy Week, John 12-20 may serve as a helpful travel guide.

Along the way, take time to listen to the voices of the crowd.  Hear again the teachings of Jesus and think about his days in Jerusalem.  Contemplate the cruel injustice of the cross. Experience the passion of Christ’s suffering. Then listen to the sounds of silence as we await Easter morning.

At the end of this slow and deliberate journey through Holy Week, we will be better prepared to celebrate the resurrection and to renew our commitment to follow in the footsteps of Jesus as we navigate life.

Considering the challenges of our current state of emergency, I am praying that the message of Easter will infuse us with faith, hope, and courage.  N.T. Wright offers us a timely reminder that, “The resurrection gives you a sense of what God wants to do for the whole world.”

Let’s rise above the obstacles and inconveniences posed by the current health pandemic, and let’s navigate a meaningful and memorable journey through Holy Week.

(Barry Howard currently serves as pastor of the Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta and as a leadership coach with the Center for Healthy Churches.)

Update from a Friend in China

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One of our friends is currently serving in China near Wuhan. Long before COVID-19 became a concern we have been praying for her just because she is on the other side of globe. Little did we know that the eyes of the world would be on the area where she is serving because that area reported the first outbreak of coronavirus.

For the past few weeks, we have been messaging our friend to affirm our prayers and to check on her status. I am grateful for the way she has been letting her light shine during a dark season.  She certainly embodies the Good News!

A couple of days ago I asked her if she would share an update on the current situation in China. Here are her observations:

Before travelling to China, some friends casually mentioned to me to be careful because they had seen news of a new type of virus that had emerged in China, but it wasn’t too concerning at that point. I arrived in China on January 19 and about three or four days later the severity of the virus became public (at least on Chinese news outlets). After another 2-3 days the village I reside in announced it would be going on lockdown (strictly monitoring all movement in and out of the village).

Currently, the situation has stabilized in China. Over the past few days there have been almost no new cases. All the new cases are “imported” cases of Chinese citizens returning from overseas where they contracted the virus. While it is much safer now, China in general is still taking very stringent precautions. I am in a province near Beijing. Even now I have not returned to the city center. If I returned to the city center, I would still need to be quarantined for 14 days (likely in a hotel), so my movement within China is still very limited even two months after the initial nation-wide lockdowns were put in place. 

In the area where I am staying, I estimate that the quarantine restrictions (basically a 14-day period for anyone coming from other cities/areas of China) will persist at least until the end of April. Many universities in China have tentatively set the end of April as their date to re-open. Considering that the start of the semester would entail a mass wave of domestic travel, and congregations of students from all parts of China, then this decision was likely made with the presumption that it should be safe to move about freely within China by the end of April. (However, this is only the tentative date for universities in some areas of China, and is likely subject to be pushed back even further if necessary).

I am optimistic about the situation in the U.S. and pray for my country every day; however, I think it is wise for those in the U.S. use the experiences of China to prepare themselves. Even under a strict nation-wide lockdown (measures which far surpass those which have currently been taken in the US) it will have taken about 4-5 months for the country to return to “normal” (considering the first reported cases in December and the re-opening of universities in April). I hope the situation in America will pass by quickly; however, I think it is wise for Americans to make appropriate preparations.

Be mentally, emotionally and most importantly spiritually prepared for the situation to last several months. Use this time to share the hope of Christ in word and deed with those who may be struggling during this period. Don’t become too inward-looking in your faith just because of “social distancing” and the desire to protect yourself and your family. Don’t hoard stuff like masks, toilet paper and other important supplies. I would say the best prevention method is to stay home. If you are more experienced at living on this earth (60 and over) I would suggest asking a family member, friend, or younger church member to help with shopping. If there have been reported cases in your area, and your job requires contact with many people,  I would suggest changing clothes and  wiping down your body before entering your house. For those with long hair, try to keep your hair up when outside. Other than that, just stay in good health and good spirits! There’s no need for anxiety (in Christ we have peace), but it’s better to be a little-overly cautious during this time period. I think this is simply being wise.

I pray that the Church in America would use this unique period of time as an opportunity to share Christ’s love to the most vulnerable. I also pray that this outbreak would awaken many Americans who don’t yet know God, pointing them to Christ. I pray that the Church’s faith would grow stronger through this period of time.

(Thank you to our friend, whose name needs to remain unpublished, for sharing her observations from her first few months in China.)

Update from a Friend in Southern Italy

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Amanda and I are blessed with friends around the world, many of whom are like family to us.  During the last few weeks as we have observed the global spread of COVID-19, we have been contacting friends around the globe to check on their well-being and to offer a word of encouragement.

Katarzyna Sadowska, who has served in the medical industry in the past, has been a friend for several years.  She and her husband currently live in Campania in southern Italy, an area that Amanda and I visited just this past summer. I contacted Katarzyna and asked her if she might be available to respond to a few questions that might help us be better informed about the current situation in Italy. Here are the questions and her responses:

When did you first become concerned about the threat posed by COVID-19?

I first become aware of the spread of the novel coronavirus at the beginning of February, when the media started sharing more and more information about a serious outbreak in China. I don’t remember exactly when Italy announced their first infected cases (which was in Lombardia in the north region, one of the most affluent areas), but it must have been around early Feb as well. 

Initially people were only advised to minimize their social contacts and larger gatherings. However, from what was easily noticeable, not many took the advice seriously. 

The numbers of confirmed and suspected cases were growing rapidly, and the authorities had to introduce broader restrictions. After ‘gentle’ suggestions and reminders in form of hand-cleaning ads on tv, they had to implement more rigorous measures. It was only then, it seems to me, when people came to understand the gravity of the situation. 

What are the current conditions and restrictions where you live?

I live in Napoli (Campania) which is one of the southwest regions. Current restrictions here are the same as in the rest of the country. The whole of Italy is currently in lockdown:

  • People are generally advised to stay home. There are only few valid reasons that can justify you leaving the house:
    – work (if working from home is not possible)
    – food shopping
    – urgent medical appointments
    – physical exercise i.e. jogging (not allowed in groups)
  • Schools, universities, pubs, restaurants, local businesses, shops are closed. Some offices, if operating, are only dealing with urgent matters. 
  • Hospitals, pharmacies and food stores remain open, however access to the latter two is restricted: only one person from a household is allowed to go in, people have to obtain a numbered ticket first, queue outside to only be let in when their turn comes. This way the grocery shops are trying to limit the numbers of shoppers and minimize the risk of transmitting the virus.  
  • Border closures and travel restrictions have been imposed. Travelers coming from abroad have to undergo a strict quarantine process. 
  • Police and supporting forces are patrolling roads and can issue fines for travelers who do not have a justifiable reason to travel
  • Public transport restricted their schedules
  • Tests, as far as I know, are only done on people who present with symptoms or may have been in contact with an infected patient.  

Napoli has just under 1 million habitants. Latest national statistic update (as of 3.18/20) shows that in Campania there are 460 cases confirmed, of which 127 are hospitalized with 24 in intensive care, 272 are isolating themselves at home. There were 9 deaths and 28 recoveries recorded. 

As the official sources suggest it is the older population who are more susceptible to contract the virus. Sadly, some reports suggest that elderly people die in their homes, following the isolation directive. 

The national shortage of PPE is also concerning. It’s impossible now to find masks and the prices for disinfecting products are skyrocketing. We should understand that those who work directly with infected/suspected cases and risk their lives to tackle this pandemic, need them more than those who can safely isolate themselves at home.

Has your area begun to see any improvements in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 or reducing the number of persons infected?

The south of Italy has not been as severely affected as some of the northern regions, partially thanks to the travel restrictions. It’s still very early days to say but the numbers are relatively low, considering the total national case count. 

As I mentioned before, the statistics say that 28 Campania’s patients have already recovered. 

I do not personally know anyone who have tested positive so I’m unable to give any information regarding their treatment. However, it was reported in the media a few days ago that doctors from one of Napoli’s hospitals administered drugs normally used for treating cancer side effects to successfully help patients infected with COVID-19 to recover. Obviously, there’s still a very little research behind this practice. 

What advice would you give to your friends in the United State regarding precaution, protection, and prevention?

Be wise. Be aware. Don’t panic.  Follow the national guidelines in prevention of cross-infection and hand hygiene:

  • Use protective gloves when going shopping. Sneeze like Batman (in your elbow).
  • Wash your hands more often.
  • Use disinfecting gel/wipes/spray to disinfect your phone and commonly used surfaces at home/office (including handles).
  • Avoid big gatherings, events, crowded places.
  • Reschedule non-urgent meeting, trips.  
  • Shop only for necessities and make sure the elderly can find something on the shop shelves too.
  • Call/send messages to your elderly neighbors to check if they need any help.
  • Avoid social visits – symptomless cases of infected patients have been recorded, do not put anyone at risk (including yourself). 
  • Stay home if you can. 
  • If you develop symptoms, contact an appropriate medical body for advice, as per your national guidelines. 
  • Watch the news regularly. 
  • Read only from trustful sources such as WHO and your local Health Department. 

The situation may seem under control and still not look too serious, but it can escalate very quickly if we don’t make a common effort to stop it.

As the problem is undeniably global, I believe all nations should work together to not only carry out research on developing vaccination but also exchange all valid information and their observation on the virus tendencies, successful treatment etc. 

(Thanks to Katarzyna Sadowska for sharing this update from Naples, Italy.)

 

 

Proactive Self-Care Is Essential for Ministers, Especially in Times Like These

pastor self care

Long before we knew that concerns related to the COVID-19 virus would shift churches from in-person gatherings to online communities, those serving in the clergy and other caring vocations were considered to be more at risk for burnout and depression than other professions.

Recent studies indicate that stress, burnout and mental fatigue have been becoming more intense among clergy for years, leading even some of the most devout ministers to leave ministry.

While no one knows the exact percentage of ministers who experience depression, long before COVID-19 concerns were on the radar, Matthew Stanford, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University suggested, “The likelihood is that one out of every four ministers is depressed.”

Like many other care-giving vocations, ministry is tough on the mind, body, and emotions. Simply put, those who care for the souls of others often find it difficult to work in time to take care of themselves. But proactive self-care is essential for ministers, especially during times like these.

Self-care includes developing and maintaining healthy practices that promote and preserve good physical, spiritual and mental well-being.

While these three areas of wellness are intertwined and inseparable, in my own life and the experience of many of my colleagues, I recognize that prioritizing physical and spiritual health to the exclusion of mental health, usually results in the diminishment of all three.

In his book, “Surviving the Stained-Glass Jungle,” respected pastor (now deceased) Bill Self contended that, “Self-care is not destructive self-indulgence, but rather it is being a steward of some rather special gifts – the human body and soul, along with the capacity to bring joy to others as well as to experience it.”

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been checking in with dozens of other pastors. When I asked, “How are you doing?” their responses have mostly fallen into three categories:

  • “I’m doing okay most of the time, but I have my moments.”
  • “Some days my anxiety gets the best of me.”
  • “Pray for me. I’m not sure how I am going to get through this.”

If you are a minister and you are feeling a little frazzled, you are not alone. It’s no wonder the anxiety of ministers is elevated. Think about it. When the crisis hit, we jumped into ministry overdrive:

  • We are ministering to a highly anxious group of people in our congregations and surrounding communities.
  • We have been called on to make a large number of pivotal decisions about online worship schedules, campus closures, pastoral visitation, virtual committee meetings, electronic giving initiatives, expense reduction strategies, and staff schedules, all in an extremely short period of time.
  • Almost everything in our course of work is transitioning, including the way we connect for worship, the way we communicate with our congregation, the way we do pastoral care, the way we perform weddings, the way we officiate funerals, and the way we relate to our colleagues.
  • Many of us thrive on personal contact with our parishioners, but now we are temporarily limited to impersonal contact with them.

We don’t know how long this season of elevated concern will last. Although we can hope for a return to smaller in-person gatherings in the near future, it is likely that some of the precautionary guidelines such as limited physical contact and reduced group sizes will continue for months, not weeks.

As we navigate these uncharted waters, it is imperative that we practice healthy self-care, or our energy and creativity will fizzle when our people need us most.

As we upgrade our commitment to caring for ourselves so we can better care for others, I offer the following suggestions:

  • Deepen your devotional life. The further we progress in ministry, the easier it becomes to neglect personal growth.
  • If you are married, make your marriage a priority. We can’t put our marriage on cruise control, or we will likely lose our marriage and our ministry.
  • Strengthen connections with your colleagues. The adventure ahead requires that we become even more collegial. Though this requires doing so from a distance for the time being, we can use technology to maintain and strengthen relationships.
  • Practice sabbath consistently. Though our “ox” might be in the proverbial ditch for a week or two, it is urgent that we return to the practice of sabbath, taking an off day, and temporarily disconnecting from media as soon as possible. Carey Nieuwhof reminds us that, “Leaders who never take a break, end up breaking.”
  • Become even more flexible. Ministry has always required a certain amount of elasticity, but this chapter will require outside-the-box thinking and extraordinarily adaptive leadership.
  • Upgrade your “EQ.” I don’t think it is realistic for anyone to be a completely non-anxious presence, but healthy emotional intelligence (also referred to as emotional quotient) enables us to be less-anxious presence in highly anxious times.
  • Be transparent with your congregation. Let them know that you love them and that you are honored to lead them. But also let them know that we are now pioneers on a new adventure going “where no congregation has gone before.”

Life in the stained-glass jungle has unique rewards and challenges. Self-care is absolutely essential.

Bill Self reminded us that, “It takes courage to take care of yourself. One of the hallmarks of a professional is the ability to keep healthy – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. You must take responsibility for yourself and not expect others to take the initiative to care for you.”

Practicing good self-care can empower a pastor to be mentally sharp, emotionally balanced, and spiritually perceptive in all seasons, even times like these.

(Barry Howard is a pastoral counselor and leadership coach who currently serves as pastor of the Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta.)

 

 

Navigating Our Emotions in Times Like These

mindfulness-and-emotional-intelligence

If it feels like your emotions are “all over the map” during these days of sequester and “physical distancing,” you are not alone. In addition to altering our schedules and delaying many of our plans, the closures and life interruptions may potentially disrupt our sense of emotional balance.

Stress can be a good thing. For example, the stress of preparing for the final exam motivates us to study diligently. Or, the stress of getting ready for a speaking engagement or a presentation at work inspires us to rehearse thoroughly. However, the introduction of multiple significant stressors simultaneously can put us in a state of distress. Distress often upsets our emotional equilibrium.

Emotions are complex. I find it helpful to think of my emotional flow as a traffic pattern. When we are following a normal routine, our emotions follow familiar roads. For instance, when we arrive at an intersection, there is a traffic light or stop sign that prompts us on when to stop and when to go. The intersection entails certain risks, but we feel safe and confident because we are familiar with the pattern and we have a fairly high degree of certainty that others will follow the prescribed prompts.

However, when multiple stressors are suddenly and unexpectedly introduced into our life, our normative emotional traffic patterns are disrupted and often rerouted. Imagine that you are approaching a major intersection at the juxtaposition of two four-lane highways only to discover that there has been a power outage and the traffic signals are not working.

Every vehicle approaching that intersection is trying to determine who should stop, who should go, and who is next. And because the normal standard (the traffic light) has been removed, chaos ensues until common courtesy is extended and cars proceed to navigate the intersection carefully knowing that though the drivers share the same goal (to get through the intersection), they do not have a mutually agreed upon method for navigating the new dynamics.

Describing a similar change of patterns, Terry Pratchett cautioned, “This isn’t life in the fast lane, it’s life in the oncoming traffic.”

In recent days, in an effort to flatten the curve and minimize the impact of coronavirus, the preventative measures we all need to be taking have also created new and significant sources of stress for us. Depending on our individual circumstances, we may be adjusting to stressors such as working from home, providing childcare at home, loss of job or reduced income, caring for a sick friend or relative, adjusting to economic realities, or loss of contact with your primary social group or community of support.

Based on their level of emotional intelligence (EQ), some individuals can manage one to two significant stressors without throwing their emotional balance into a tailspin. But for most of us, the sudden and simultaneous addition of two to three significant stressors creates a traffic jam in our emotional traffic flow.

What is the best way for us to navigate the rush hour traffic of our new emotional realities?

  • Slow down. Whenever we are navigating unfamiliar territory, we need to travel at a slower pace.
  • Anticipate emotional fluctuations. Momentary surges in anxiety, frustration, anger, and melancholy are normal.
  • Exercise patience. Be patient with yourself as the new normal actually becomes more normal.
  • Own your emotions. Discuss your emotional fluctuations with a trusted friend, accountability partner, or counselor. Verbalizing your emotions may prove to be therapeutic.
  • Nurture important relationships. Invest in encouraging others and stay virtually connected to your closest friends.
  • Become more grounded in your faith. Let your spirituality serve as an anchor. Emotions are fickle, even when they are held in balance.
  • Fly by the instrument panel. Like a veteran pilot landing a plane in the fog, make decision based on what you “know,” not how you “feel” at any given moment.

In this season of temporary shutdowns, heightened anxiety, and elevated concern, be assured that we are all novices, not experts, at dealing with the ramifications of a health pandemic. And based on age, health, genetics, and many other factors, every individual has a unique emotional composition.

As we navigate the emotional turbulence associated with these days, let us be patient with ourselves. And let us be patient with others who are struggling with emotions that are “all over the map.”

(Barry Howard is a pastoral counselor and leadership coach who currently serves as the pastor of the Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta.)

Fear Not!

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Fear can be antagonizing and paralyzing. It can affect our physical health, our emotional health, and our spiritual health. It causes us to make poor and uninformed decisions. And more importantly, fear can distract us from our God-given mission.

Perhaps the disruptive effect of fear prompted Paul to underscore, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (II Timothy 1:7).

There is an old German proverb that says, “Fear makes the wolf bigger than he is.”

Depending on the translation we are reading, over 100 times the Bible specifically urges us to “fear not.”

I don’t think this means that as believers we never feel a wave of fear. I think it means that we should never give into our fears or be dominated by our fears.

There are many things that strike a chord of fear in our world: the threat of war, the perils of financial collapse, or the risk of being exposed to a pandemic virus.

As with SARS, Bird Flu, and Ebola in the past, the coronavirus has certainly and rightly stirred concern with population groups around the world. Fears related to COVID-19 have adversely influenced world markets, have limited travel abroad, have restricted public gatherings, and have closed numerous schools and universities. While the virus has spread rapidly in China, Iran, and Italy, to this point there have only been a relatively small number of cases in the United States compared to flu and other viruses.

Our faith urges us to resist the temptation to give into fear. Rather, we should educate ourselves in the facts of the virus and we should take proactive precautions.
Here are a few practical suggestions:

• Prioritize prayer and refuse to panic. Pray for those infected, those who are working toward an effective vaccine, and those who live in more at-risk regions of the world. Dorothy Bernard proposes that “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.”

Practice proactive hygiene. The recommended precautions are similar to the precautions recommended for the flu. Switch from handshakes to fist bumps, and wash hands regularly and rigorously.

• Postpone travel to high risk areas. Don’t be afraid to take your family vacation but avoid the high-risk regions of the world.

• Proceed with your schedule and your daily responsibilities as normally as possible until advised to take additional precautions.

• Persist in maintaining a positive attitude. Fear makes us cranky and irritable. Some even suggests that fear and other negative emotions may compromise our immune systems. However, a positive attitude and an informed mind helps us to counter our fears and to be salt and light in our church and community.

Frederick W. Cropp surmised that, “There is much in the world to make us afraid. There is much more in our faith to make us unafraid.”

In any and every circumstance, refuse to be dominated by fear. Take courage, stay informed, and “fear not!”

(Barry Howard serves as the pastor of the Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.)

I Think I Will Give Up Worry for Lent

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This year I think I’ll give up worry for Lent. Earlier this week I watched news footage from the Fat Tuesday celebration in New Orleans, a day where many indulge in gluttonous feasting or revelry. Yesterday we observed Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the season of Lent, a time of intentional preparation for Easter. During this season, believers focus on self-examination, reflection, and repentance.

Traditionally, Christians give up something of importance to them during Lent. I have friends who give up one or more of their favorite things such as chocolate, coffee, sugar, or soft drinks. But since I have a genetic predisposition to worry, I think I’ll try to give it up for at least 40 days.

I don’t really like to worry. In fact, it’s not constructive. Worry is like spam or junk mail. It just takes up valuable space in my mind, space needed for creative thinking, planning, visioning, and problem solving. And I know I function better when I am not weighted down with excessive worry. But each time I kick worry out the front door of my mind, it seems to sneak around and re-enter through the back door.

Years ago a friend of mind had a huge poster mounted on the wall over his desk that said, “Don’t tell me worry doesn’t help. Half of the things I worry about never happen.”

Erma Bombeck quipped that, “Worry is like a rocking chair: it gives you something to do but never gets you anywhere.”

I think worry can be inherited. I witnessed the wear and tear of worry in my parents and grandparents. I have noted that many of their offspring struggle with this mental distraction.

And I am in good company. I frequently have coffee with CEO’s, ministers, business owners, attorneys, physicians, and educators and they all tend to suffer from a similar dilemma. That is not surprising because there are so many things about which a person can worry… your business, your family, your investments, terrorism, the economy, the future. The list seems endless.

Perhaps my friends should give up worry for Lent also. Since Lent is a time of intentional preparation for Easter, maybe we should listen again to the words of Jesus who urged his followers to give up worry:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? Matthew 6:25-27

As we begin our Lenten journey, I am going to try to give up worry for at least 40 days…and maybe, hopefully, longer.

(Barry Howard currently serves as the pastor of Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta.)