“Patti, would you be interested in writing an article? Here’s the topic we were thinking…”
“Sure,” I said, in the middle of February. When life was normal. When I was under the impression that I knew what I was doing, more or less. It was a good topic, one I had addressed many times. I would be able to write an article like that without too much effort.
Then the coronavirus shut the world down and everything changed. The original topic now seemed a bit redundant, so what would I write? Something wise and profound about pastoring in a pandemic? I don’t know how to pastor in a pandemic! No one does despite the plethora of podcasts and articles that have suddenly appeared (including this one).
Even as I write this, so many things have changed so fast—it’s all a blur. The first week, we had every plan in place to successfully manage what the government said we were allowed to do on-site on a Sunday; then, Friday morning, we threw that plan out and shut down on-site services completely. The second week, we had every plan in place to live-stream from the platform with a worship team and a tech team; then, Saturday afternoon, we threw that plan out and replaced it with just me, my husband, and our tech guy. I haven’t been back to the building since.
Nothing accurate is noted in my calendar or to-do lists from those first few weeks; there was no time to delete appointments that never happened, no time to add or check off new tasks. If I look at my calendar and note when so-and-so was away on vacation and recall that they returned just in time for the first online-only service, I can figure out that this coming Sunday will be our eighth one, and that seems impossible.
It’s impossible that it’s already been eight weeks. It feels like two.
It’s impossible that it’s only been eight weeks. It feels like a lifetime.
Everything has changed and will change again. We aren’t on the other side yet. So we wait, we adapt, and we learn. We are perhaps tempted to see all of this as a temporary blip, during which we just hang on until we are permitted to return to normal church life.
But what if we don’t return to normal church life?
Even more disturbing, what if we aren’t supposed to?
I’ve been caught by John 21 recently. The crucifixion and the resurrection had happened, changing everything. Despite this, one day Peter announced he was going fishing, and all the others went with him.
Fishing. After their miracle-working, religion-disrupting, sinner-loving teacher literally rose from the dead, they went … fishing.
Could it be that they were looking for a return to normal? That the whole experience was a bit of a blur, something that seemed impossible, and they couldn’t imagine what that meant for the future so they just went back to normal life, to something they knew how to do?
I am captured by that. What if our world has changed and we’re just looking for a return to normal? To what we understand?
They weren’t even very good at fishing. This wasn’t the first time they fished all night and caught nothing. But fishing was normal. They understood it: the ups and downs, the rhythms, the how-tos of it.
Perhaps stretching the point, fishing was what they had done their whole lives; it was what they were trained to do. Maybe they even wrote articles about how to fish.
I am haunted by that. Because—dare I say it?—the church in Canada has been struggling for years despite our conferences and our articles and our podcasts. It’s not for lack of hard work or sincere hearts. It’s not for lack of training. We have done everything we know to do, and some of us have done it really well and seen good results. But overall, many of us spend a lot of nights fishing, with less to show for it than we would like.
What if Jesus is calling us to something new, something different, something we haven’t imagined?
At the end of John 21, Jesus had a simple message for Peter: “Follow Me.” It implies movement. It implies leaving something behind. It implies travelling to another place. It implies that we don’t know how to get there on our own.
As far as I can tell, Peter and the boys never went fishing again. Instead, empowered by the Holy Spirit, they carried the gospel message to places and people they had never dreamed, in ways they had never imagined. They launched the church. And the world was never the same again.
I ache inside, almost physically, for something new. On Easter Monday, I texted a friend. “I’m longing for God in this whole thing. Longing to see where He brings us. Where He wants to take His church. I’m looking for the big thinkers who know God. I’m looking for authentic prophetic voices.”
I am finding a few of those thinkers, those voices. They strengthen my resolve. They tell me I am not alone in longing for God. They tell me I am not crazy to watch for something new.
I am also starting to hear the still, small voice that invites me to follow Jesus, to help our church come along, though we don’t know yet how to get where we are going. Sometimes that voice shakes me to my core with whispers of what God might have in mind to do.
Sometimes the call to follow Jesus, as the pastor of my local church in the middle of a pandemic, leaves me gasping. I don’t know where that call will take us. I don’t know what gets left behind. I’ve never been in anything like this. The possibilities are far beyond my capacity to lead.
I find myself desperately seeking the wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit, one moment at a time. I spend more and more time sitting on the floor in my prayer closet (yes, it’s an actual closet), looking at Scriptures and encouragements I taped on the wall a year or more ago, praying over God’s promises, seeking God’s leading.
And, of course, that is a good thing. Everything I’ve ever learned as a Christian suggests that when we don’t know the way, when we are in over our heads, when we finally realize that we are wholly dependent on God, that is when we see that the God of Abraham, the God of Elijah, the God who raised Christ Jesus from the dead, is all that we hoped and so much more than we imagined.
I am excited by that.
So I write an article, not knowing how it should end except to say that a return to the normal we know may not be the goal. May we hear the voice of Jesus inviting us to follow Him, to move with Him, to trust Him, to leave fishing behind. May our hearts be delighted by His call. May our churches be made new. And may our world be changed.
“Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it’ ” (Isaiah 30:21).
Patti Miller is the lead pastor of Evangel Pentecostal Church in Montreal, Que.
This article appeared in the July/August/September 2020 issue of testimony/Enrich, a quarterly publication of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. © 2020 The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. Photos from Unsplash.