God’s Ordinary Means of Grace
by Aaron W. White
1. What has been the greatest challenge for you as a minister during this crisis?
I found the hardest aspect to be that life goes on. What I mean is that while COVID had the spotlight, there were other important concerns in our congregation. As I write this, I am preparing to do a funeral for a three-year-old boy who fought a long and difficult battle with cancer. It is hard to imagine something harder than this. So, while COVID took the limelight, COVID was not what wore us out last year, though it certainly didn’t help.
I think the most difficult thing that I have dealt with is wondering what God is up to. I am a firmly committed Calvinist, and I treasure God’s sovereignty since that is the only thing that will, in the end, give any of us the assurance of salvation we desperately need. His sovereignty, however, is a double-edged sword. I have found myself in the place of the psalmist very often asking, “How long, O Lord?”
I think, finally, I have personally struggled to look busy. This is a point of pride that needs to be defeated by the Cross. In a year when we did not have in-person worship for several months, many events canceled, and so on, I believe the perception of my job could be that I was not really up to much. The complete opposite is actually the case, and I was busy doing many things that are not in my wheelhouse. I want to note, however, that despite all these difficulties and how tired my elders and I are, God has worked to further His Kingdom in our midst.
2. What do you think you and your congregation may have learned through this crisis?
The most important thing that I hope our congregation has been learning is that the church is borne up by God’s ordinary means of grace. It is by the regular reading, hearing, and hearing preached the Word of God, taking part in the Supper, observing baptisms and being baptized, and praying in community that the elect are made effective in ministry.
3. What do you see as the greatest challenge facing your congregation in the future?
I am always fearful that either they would look to me to save them, at which point I will fail them almost immediately, or that they would seek to be their own savior. In a year when all the experts are recommending ways that one can save one more moment of one’s life, I have observed that the messiah complexes natural to all sinners are being encouraged with greater force. As the church, we must always be pointing to the finished work of Jesus Christ and declare to all who will listen, “I am not the Christ. I must decrease and he must increase.” The trouble I see with not making the gospel the major message of all that we do, is that we make an experience like 2020 simply an interruption from which we learned nothing, instead of a disruption that gives us the opportunity to be made new. Without the gospel at the center of all things, confessing we can do nothing to save ourselves but that God has done this work of saving first to last, we are the world with a Jesus tag slapped on us.
4. What good do you think might come from this crisis?
We like silver linings, don’t we? Isn’t it OK to admit that some things are merely a total loss; that they really were terrible and there was nothing redemptive about them; that the lesson learned was the perseverance of the elect? Part of me wants to say that 2020 was terrible, divisive, stands unresolved, was horribly managed by many of those who “lead” us in government, and that we just need to put it behind us and move forward. A silver lining could lead us to end up thinking it was us all along, and our many precautions, that upheld us in 2020, and we end up back at square one confessing the wrong savior again.
However, I believe the important lesson we can walk away with was expressed by one of my ruling elders: “We have been shown how little we actually do have control over anything, and how powerful and wise God is compared to our limited knowledge and accomplishments…. To know and sense God like that is a huge honor and that I got to have it bashed over my head as a reminder this past year is a lesson I hope not to forget anytime soon.”
5. What have been the best sources of encouragement for you during this crisis?
My wife, kids, elders, and colleagues. The partnership I have with my wife is the richest blessing in my life. I am also revived often by my kids. Because of COVID, our family has spent much more time together, and that has been a place of deep encouragement for me.
My elders and other men in the church have been a great blessing during this time. I also have three pastor-friends with whom I am in almost daily contact. We share life together, discuss issues we are facing, and come together for honest confession and forgiveness.
Aaron W. White, Ph.D., is Pastor of First Presbyterian Church (EPC), South Charleston, Ohio