Rotating Header Image

a pandemic preacher (part 1) – geoff new

COVID-19 has forced people into isolation and lockdown with little notice. Suddenly the nature of Christian ministry has changed. Much of what is usually done face-to-face, such as pastoral care and preaching, now needs to be conducted at a distance.

What is the impact on the preacher and preaching at a time like this?

With the rapid impact and turmoil that COVID-19 has wrought; the preacher’s spiritual, mental and emotional strength can be profoundly affected. In the rush and pressure to decide how or even what to preach – the preacher needs to be mindful of their spirituality. For the how-and-what-of-preaching comes directly from the who-is-preaching.

Preachers in lockdown face new pressures. Such pressures are internal (e.g. confined to home and finding it difficult to find time and space to write a sermon) and external (e.g. uncertainty about financial income). These pressures take a toll. The preacher endeavouring to prepare a sermon can find themselves depleted mentally, spiritually, physically, and emotionally. The local, national, and international news threatens to overwhelm with the latest statistics and stories about the unrelenting impact of COVID-19.

So, the “who” of preaching requires attention and auditing.

In lockdown and as a preacher, are we increasing or decreasing?

Is our vitality leaking or peaking?

One thing I love about Scripture, is how it teaches us to consider our family–in–the–faith from generation–to–generation (e.g. Heb 11). We have the opportunity to consider their way of life and faith to help us as we seek to be faithful to Christ and his call on our life. We will reflect on the life of one of the great preachers in church history.

Let us consider Gregory the Great (ca 540–604). Gregory was an outstanding preacher and leader in the sixth century church in Rome.

What would Gregory say to us today as we are confronted with the challenges and uncertainty of ministry in a pandemic?

“Listen to God’s call in the presence of change”

Gregory’s first love and call was to a life of prayer. Gregory was drawn to life in the monastery and would have happily lived and died there. However, given the huge disruptions to life and society, his extraordinary gifts (such as administration) were needed by the wider church. This caused deep inner conflict for him: whether to serve God as a monk dedicated to a life of prayer or leave that life to serve the church as her leader? Then in 590 circumstances dramatically forced Gregory into a new season of ministry. Pope Pelagius died of the plague and Gregory found himself as Pelagius’s very reluctant replacement leading the church. He remained a monk living in community and attended to the office of leading the wider church.[1]

A painting of Gregory gives us a visual aid of the inner conflict that Gregory suffered. This painting is by Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652). Ribera was known as the “Spanish Caravaggio” and his depiction of Gregory gifts us insight into what Gregory faced and how he responded.[2]

“Gregory the Great” by Jusepe de Ribera

The painting has a play of light and darkness. The darkness forms the background and spills onto Gregory. Yet the prominence of the dove speaks of the fact that Gregory is not alone in this. The presence of the dove in the painting, a regular feature in art works of Gregory, is representative of the Spirit. Like on Gregory, light, and darkness interplay on the form of the dove. In fact, the dove is even more enveloped with light and darkness than Gregory. But the flight path of the dove is from the darkness, into the light and towards Gregory and about to alight on Gregory. Beautiful! Light or darkness be assured of this: God is God. And God is with us. “Light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).

The painting positions Gregory so that he is half turned away from the viewer. The symbols of the office of leadership sit on the desk. His shaven (tonsure) head in the tradition of monks is emphasised. Books are stacked on the desk. He has a quill in hand and is writing. All this depicts the inner conflict for Gregory. His back is not only to the viewer but to the world. His shaven head signifies his desire to spend a life in prayerful contemplation. The books represent his monastic life and his writing which resulted in deep theological reflection for generations since.[3] But what ministry space can he occupy? The contemplative (monastic) or the active (the church)?

Illustrative of the dilemma Gregory faced, scholars debate which age Gregory belongs to. Is he the evening star of the church Fathers, or is he the morning star of the great medieval theologians?[4] I like it that there is uncertainty about that. It adds a layer of meaning to the transition of ministry that we see Gregory needed to make in response to all that was happening in his world. And with reference to the painting, the posture of being half-turned away from the viewer (or is it half-turned towards) represents that Gregory’s life was marked by transition.

Yet the look on his face is enigmatic. Initially his expression, especially marked by his mouth, appears grim. Yet the longer you look at it seems the grim look becomes a gentle smile. It is as if the longer you gaze at his face, you begin see Gregory slowly surrendering to the call of God and a soft joy and peace invades his spirit.

Gregory was confronted with either/or: either monastic life or church leadership. He decided it was both/and: both monastic life and church leadership. Both contemplation and active ministry.[5] Perhaps his example laid the foundation for the spirituality that future generations termed as “contemplatives in action.”

questions for reflection

What changes in your ministry are being called for in response to COVID–19?

What inner conflict does this cause for you?

Jusepe de Ribera painted Gregory using symbols, colours and items to represent his struggles and ministry. As you preach, imagine God watching you – with paint brush in hand – painting your portrait. What symbols, colours and items would God paint to best depict this season of ministry for you?

“And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14)

Around the year of Gregory’s birth (540), an outbreak of the plague killed one third of Europe’s population. For the rest of that century – and throughout Gregory’s lifetime – there were frequent outbreaks of the plague. But this was not the only pressure confronting life in the sixth century. “During his lifetime there were also famine, disease, floods of the Tiber [the river running through Rome], inflation, panic, and at times even riots.”[6] Gregory obviously had no control over the forces of life and death during the time in history he lived.

Life was tumultuous.

Death was up close and personal – constantly so.

When considering the life and ministry of Gregory the Great, two biblical examples come to mind: Esther and Jeremiah.

Like the young Jewish queen Esther – Gregory found himself in a position of great influence at time of great national difficulty.

Like the young prophet Jeremiah – Gregory was initially very reluctant about where the call of God was leading him.

Like Esther and Jeremiah – Gregory ministered at a time when the risk to human life was especially heightened. Anxiety was great.

Like Esther and Jeremiah – Gregory ministered in the midst of times when the presence of God was both opaque and obvious.

Like Esther and Jeremiah – Gregory needed to navigate events with a spirit of submission and surrender with trust in the God of all the earth.[7] A God whose “ways are just, right, wise, but neither transparent nor immune to misunderstanding. There is an unfolding and a shrouding, a concealing within a disclosing, consoling as well as confusing.”[8]

Gregory’s humanity is evident when we see him through the lens of Esther and Jeremiah: he discerns what God is asking of him and he struggles with it. Yet, he says “yes” to God and Gregory’s legacy can be summed up in the words of Acts 13:36; “After he served the purpose of God in his own generation he died.”

Gregory was a person of action who thought deeply.[9] He had a deep grounding in God and ministered profoundly from that basis. Gregory’s life is evidence he surrendered to the Potter crafting his life (Isa 64:8).

While I have taken the liberty of utilising Esther and Jeremiah as two biblical figures to describe Gregory – he chose someone else. The book from the bible which aided Gregory the most in making the transition into his new sphere of leadership was the Book of Job. The book of Job became his tutor and influenced his understanding of pastoral work and preaching.[10]

Consider events over the past year that have affected local, national, and international life (e.g. Christchurch mosque shootings, Whakaari/White Island eruption, Australian bushfires, COVID–19). Include those events which are local and personal to your immediate ministry context.

This is the context you preach out of and into.

“And who knows but that you have come to your position for such a time as this?”

question for reflection

Which biblical character or book of the bible serves as a helpful companion for you at this time?

(This reflection first appeared on the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership website)

[1] O.C. Edwards Jr, A History of Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon, 2004), 138.

[2] My reflection is informed and guided by Father Justin Huber, “Art Reflection: Pope St Gregory the Great”, Priest, 8-9. [Publication year unknown]

[3] His most significant work was entitled Pastoral Care in which he developed so much of his thinking about preaching, leadership and the pastoral responsibilities of leaders.

[4] Edwards, History, 426.

[5] Edwards, History, 139.

[6] Edwards, Preaching,136.

[7] F. Lionel Young III, “Caring for your Inner Life while Caring for the Church: the Counsel of Gregory the Great”, The Clergy Journal, 10.

[8] Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper & Row, 1962/2001), 224.

[9] Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church: Volume 2, The Patristic Age (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 426.

[10] Edwards, Preaching, 138 & 142.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *