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Rural Ministry in a Time of Plague by Richard Lischer

Reflections on Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery

In the Gospels many of the episodes in Jesus’s ministry have their origin in a crisis: someone is dying, somewhat has died, someone is possessed, someone is desperate. Among the short stories Jesus told, many begin in a crisis: “Turn in your accounts; you’re finished”; “I want my inheritance NOW”; “This very night your soul will be required of you.” As we absorb these stories, we can’t help but recognize the crises of our own ministries.

In the New Testament such crises constitute a metaphor for the sudden appearance of the kingdom of God. Jesus unexpectedly makes himself known as the Crisis of God. I came knocking, he once said, “but you did not know the time of your visitation.”

A crisis is a moment of accountability (=Gk. krisis, “judgment”) in which a person or a community is called to an urgent decision. What sort of person will I be? Who will we follow? Given the urgency of the situation, how shall we live? A medical crisis is the hour at which the patient will either begin to recover or begin to die. The (reputed) Chinese proverb calls it “a dangerous opportunity.”

This time of pandemic, which is overlaid by a national reckoning on racial justice, is our dangerous opportunity. Re-reading my memoir Open Secrets, I can’t help but notice what placid times we lived through in the early 1970s. The decade of the sizzling 60s was over; the Vietnam War was winding down; Nixon was on his way out, and Gerald Ford on his way in; Roe v. Wade was being argued. But these front-page events did not touch every life. They were escapable in a way that a global pandemic is inescapable. Inescapable even in those isolated areas where cases are few and resistance to mandated precautions is widespread. It was possible to absorb the signature events of the 1970s without being harmed or harming one another.

We have seen how quickly COVID-19 hotspots can move from New York to Arizona to California to North Dakota. I live in the American South, where one-third of the world’s deaths have occurred. As I write, the average daily death rate in Florida is roughly the same as that of the entire European Union.

We have also seen how smoothly the virus of hate—let’s call it what it is, rather than a “difference of opinion”—can jump from politics to race to public health and back again. Theology has a name for the dis-unifying power of this virus.

So, rather than initially focusing on the promise of God’s protection, which is my go-to instinct as a Lutheran pastor, I would encourage leaders in rural areas to help their congregations recognize the crisis in our midst. It is a health crisis; an economic crisis, a crisis of accountability to one another; a crisis of truth-telling; a crisis of ministry. No amount of denial will make it anything less.

We, though many, are subject to one virus. Will we live or will we die?

When the plague came to Wittenberg in 1527 Luther was obliged to address the problem as he did all problems, by virtue of his office as a minister of the gospel. He made it his responsibility to encourage the establishment of hospitals and to move the cemeteries outside the city walls. “Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance to infect and pollute others.” Luther also concluded that a pastor belongs with his or her people.

In Open Secrets I noted that one could see from the air the paths, worn over generations, that connected each farm to its neighbor. Today, the physical paths are no longer accessible. We may sharpen our Zoom skills in order to promote communication (always important in the communion of saints). But, with Luther, we will also practice “being with” one another theologically, by focusing on the many ways God’s rule is breaking into our lives and ministry. We will form networks of care-giving that will seek out the discouraged, the lonely, the angry among us in hopes of mediating the grace of God in the direst of circumstances. In some rural coalitions it has meant feeding those who are missing paychecks, the way Jesus fed thousands in a “lonely place.”

In a culture of lies, half-truths and misinformation, we Christians will find a voice to tell the truth about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Jesus was not a Democrat or a Republican, but he did have a platform, and it’s been published! This is the truth we tell: not about our “rights,” but about the compassion, love, and sacrifice of Christ. The Crisis of God is calling us to foster communities of “health” (the early Latin root of “salvation”). We do not practice “health” in an essay or a classroom, but among fellow believers of different persuasions, who have been mis-educated in a language that is not ours, not the native language of Christianity.

In Open Secrets I experienced rural ministry as an isolating experience. Today we are all isolated from one another. We are all doing ministry in what was once the “rural” mode, in which we presumed the best intentions of others, counted on the hospitality of neighbors, and helped one another in need. In those days rural ministry was socially distanced—or so it felt—from mainstream America. As America has changed, the practice of ministry is emerging from its cultural enclaves. We are discovering new ways of collaborating in ministry. We pray that, as we grow in mutual support and the sharing of ideas, the whole people of God will be blessed.

Richard Lischer is emeritus professor at Duke Divinity School. His collection of sermons, Just Tell the Truth: A Call to Faith, Hope, and Courage, will be published by Eerdmans in early 2021.

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