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Pastoral Ministries And COVID-19

One of the aspects of pastoral ministries I take very seriously is the hospital visit. I know a lot of pastors do not do those any more, but I still think it is important. For most of my twenty five years of ministry, this has two phases. One phase is someone in a room, and in that room and it is just as you would expect, like a regular hospital visit. The biggest challenges in these situation are 1) getting them to turn the television down 2) finding a place to sit 3) not interfering with the medical folks coming and going. It is always important to remember, pastorally, you are on their turf when in the hospital and you must accommodate whatever they have going on.

The second phase of this, is what I think is the most important, and that is pre-op. I have never had any problem walking to the front desk, saying I am so-and so’s pastor, then calling down to get clearance from the patient, and then they walk me down — usually to the last stop before the patient goes in. It is in this setting that I read a little scripture, talk about eternal things, anoint them with oil, and then pray with them for a successful surgery, wisdom for the doctor, a speedy recovery, and no long term problems. The greatest challenges to this was 1) arriving at just the right time, 2) not staying too long, and 3) finding your way back out when finished because those places are a maze.

COVID-19 changed all of that.

I remember the visit I was trying to make the very day they changed the policies at one of our local hospitals and was denied access. I did leave behind a little “prayer bear” from one of our ministries that I take to patients in the hospital.

One of our little prayer bears

For over a year now, hospital visits have been prohibited across the board. In this in between time I have prayed on the phone with a lot of people and visited them in their yard the night before, all masked up and often wearing gloves. Sometimes people prefer to come by my study at church — it feels a little more official, I think for some folks.

Now, though, some hospitals are opening up, our local hospital is, for the Phase One kind of visit. I’ve been able to see people in their rooms the last three or four weeks and that is very nice. It feels almost normal.

The Phrase Two type, though, still seems out-of-reach. I was reminded of this yesterday when we called a hospital to find out if I would be able to do that and was told “You can pray in the lobby before the patient checks in.”

What I am wondering is, as a spiritual guide, if the hospitals will ever open this back up to us as a possibility. I feel like there is a good chance they will not, which is unfortunate. It deprives people of faith of a holistic approach to their well-being.

What I am working through is how this change will combine and steamroll with the rapidly increasing trend toward sending people home the same day of their procedure. More and more surgeries are ‘day surgeries’ or perhaps ‘overnight’ surgeries. The window of opportunity for seeing someone in the hospital has been shrinking steadily. When I first started pastoring in the mid-90s, if a woman had a hysterectomy she was often in the hospital fo a week. Now she is home that afternoon. Back surgeries were usually long stays, but now they schedule them at 6AM and have the patients out the for by four.

I am not complaining about this from a medical perspective — although we all know these rushed times are the result of insurance and not healthcare — but instead my concern is how do you do meaningful hospital ministry in these accelerated programs when COVID-19 protocols are in play? The answer will probably involve some kind of hybrid approach that involves the night before the surgery prayer in home, Sunday at church prayer, video-calling people in the hospital, and the incredibly rare opportunities to hold someones hadn’t, touch their forehead, and pray with them.

What I refuse to do is surrender the playing field, so to speak, and walk away from the sick, the hurting, and the afflicted. As things change, we who give pastoral care will have to work hard to stick our nosey little face in and ask the questions like, “If your surgery doesn’t work out the way we are hopeful it will, are you ready for eternity? Have you told the people you love all the things you need to tell them? What is your biggest fear going into this? How is your relationship with Jesus?” What is more, those we minister too will have to help us, because we’re navigating waters that are fresh and new to us and are contrary to both our training and our temperament.

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Baptism: Three Possible Futures

Not that baptism only has three futures, but I see three possibilities.

I’ve been thinking of this important Christian practice a lot lately as I’ve recently finished up a six weeks small group class that has covered the biblical material, origins, history, practice, and theology of baptism. In the last session I talked about contemporary issues, and among those was a speculation of where baptism may be heading in modern American culture. What I see is not all that great.

Future One–People Are Getting Baptize All The Time

Many Christian groups, particular those with an Arminian disposition, may have people who feel they’ve lost their way and come back to faith in Christ and want to celebrate this with getting baptized again. Other traditions, like my own Baptist heritage, has begun to view baptism as an almost expected double or triple experience. It is not uncommon for people to have been baptized as a child, then again as a teenager or in their 20s, and then finally when they join a new church that has a different practice. None of these things in itself might lead us to this new future of everyone getting baptized all the time, but combine it with the idea of using baptism to cleanse a conscience after a traumatic event or a startling life change, and it is not hard to see the idea of baptism as a symbol of renewal of Christian faith that might be repeated multiple times a year as Holy Communion is celebrated.

Future Two–No One Is Getting Baptized

Another variation is one in which the act of baptism has been ‘metaphored’ away into something that represents a decision to follow Jesus as Lord but the symbolic representation of the water has been removed as an artifact of a pre-enlightened world. This move would certainly be welcome to the large mega-church movement which are functionally non-denominational in their affinity appeal to ideology and style rather than theology or heritage. It is easier to move people without the trouble of water.

Before you object to this as an impossibility, consider this has already happened in most places with the concept of anointing with oil for prayer and healing. Whereas our foremothers and forefathers would have likely seen and participated in such moments of symbolic action, today’s Christ followers rarely if ever experience it.

Future Three–Everyone Is Getting Baptized

No, not because everyone is become a follower of Jesus, but because baptism has been secularized and no longer is rooted in faith in Jesus. In this concept, the world co-opts the baptismal font as a statement of cleansing or renewal in a psychological or emotional sense but no need to bother with faith or theology. The best example of this having already occurred is the cross. People adorn their bodies with a cross who have no faith in Jesus at all. Indeed, the government designates the cross as a secular symbol (click here for Greenbeans outstanding ‘The Cross Is Not A Secular Symbol’) that means death or cemetery. Can you see a future in which people are baptized after a bad day, a breakup with their boyfriend, or quit a job, or smoking? Sadly I can see backyard pool parties in which people promise to be loyal to themselves and to serve the better good as citizens of the world an some other bilge about the heart wants what the heart wants, then a good friend baptizes them and everyone sings a John Lennon song.

Each of these futures is horrific to me.

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Best Picture 2021 — A Great Batch of Movies

Movies have been weird this year. I haven’t seen a single nominee on the big screen because . . . COVID-19. Instead, I’ve watched them at home, which has been cheaper, easier, and more convenient. However, it doesn’t quite feel the same. Nevertheless, in typical Greenbean fashion, let me present to you my summation and prediction for best picture. Let’s take them in alphabetical order.

The Father — Tear jerker, great performance by Anthony Hopkins, but the only award this French rehash will win is editing (which may be the only sure bet this year). The editing is actually the key to understanding this film, and figuring out when Oliva Colman is wearing that blue shirt.

Judas And The Black Messiah — One of two films set in Chicago in the late 1960s. The story is amazing, and the acting is brilliant. This movie has a better than average chance of winning, particularly because of the subject material’s relevancy. I really liked this movie.

Mank — Well told story about old Hollywood using techniques and pacing that is reminiscent of the old stories themselves. Pro Tip: watch Citizen Kane BEFORE you watch Mank. Oldman will win best actor because Hollywood loves Hollywood more than anything except money and it will probably win cinematography, but Mank can’t win best picture. It is a great movie, but not up to snuff with some of these other films.

Minari — I am sentimental about this movie. It reminds me so much of my own childhood — right down to the barn burning and kids riding the van to church. This movie has a very good chance of winning. Brilliant acting, pacing, and it may well be the best overall storytelling we’ve seen in an Oscar nominee in a long time.

Nomadland — This is the weakest of the movies nominated. It is still a fine film, and I particularly loved the homage to the West as my family has been to so many of the places visited. Specifically thrilling for us was Wall Drug. I just found it a little simplistic. Felt much more like a documentary.

Promising Young Woman — This movie has a better than average chance of winning. Brilliant, thrilling, riveting, and heart breaking. Again, the subject matter is very contemporary, but Carey Mulligan is a powerhouse in this movie making the most of every word she says and every glare she gives. I think Mulligan wins (Mrs. Greenbean thinks Andra Day wins) best actress, and this movie may be an upset winner.

Sound of Metal — Mrs. Greenbean loved this movie. It is a well told tale with riveting characters you care about. The story of a person losing his hearing and how he copes and the folks who help him is the stuff of real life. This movie, along with Promising Young Woman, is one of those that stays with you long after you’ve watched it.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 — I loved this movie. The Aaron Sorkin script will win best original screenplay and Sacha Baron Cohen may steal a best supporting actor Oscar, because Oscar has set up Judas And The Black Messiah actors to fail by nominating Kaluuya and Stanfield in this category, thus splitting that vote. If you love political drama, this your movie. Such a wonderful ensemble cast, especially the always riveting Mark Rylance who, in a different less crowded year, would have been nominated for best supporting actor.


I really did like all of these movies and could make a case for each one winning the Oscar, so I will not be mad at all this year (I’m looking at you, Birdman and The Shape of Water). But if I were picking, I would pick Minari, and I think Minari will win. After Parasite, Koreans are on a streak.

A couple of auxiliary notes. First, with the exception of Frances McDormand’s naked skinny dipping, there was no nudity or sexually explicit scenes in any of these movies. The language in all of them was harsh, Minari being tamer than the rest, but the absence of nudity was a very pleasant surprise. I hope it is a harbinger of things to come. Even McDormand’s scene was more of a hippy dippy moment and not designed to be sensual.

Second, I always like to find themes in the movies to see where Oscar’s head is, or where Hollywood’s is. A surprising one emerged: community. Each movie emphasizes the strength of a community that holds us together. It is very prominent in Metal as the real heroes are the deaf community who also are Christ followers. But Promising has the subset of med school students, Chicago 7 is protesters, Nomadland is the community of nomads, Minari is the immigrant community, Mank is that small Hollywood cloister of olden times, Judas is the Black Panthers, and The Father is literally a family. it doesn’t take a rocket scientists to point out that in the world of COVID-19, those tight communities and being together tends to tug at our heartstrings a little more.

If things allow, I’ll be back later with more Oscar predictions. It is a very good batch of movies this year. Very good.

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A Year of STUPID COVID

That is what we call it in the office here at church. Stupid COVID.

Today (March 11) seems to be the day we as a nation are marking the one year awareness of C-19. As a caveat, I would like to say I distinctly remember being aware of it by late January and all through February. I think what we are remembering is when people recognized how serious it was with the cancellation of NBA games and the public announcement that Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson tested positive for COVID-19.

I know when I took it seriously — it was March 4 when Sony MGM announced they were postponing the release of No Time To Die, the newest James Bond film and probably Daniel Craig’s last turn as 007. I remember my thought process very clearly — studios are designed to make money, and if they see the risk of releasing it in April then this must be quite the problem. The second real stand-up moment for me was March 13 when the NCAA announced it was cancelling the annual basketball tournament. March Madness is a huge money maker for these colleges. Cancelling it was serious. The best way to judge what people really think and feel is to follow the money. These two cancellations were demonstrable that people were afraid enough to throw money away.

At present, a year down the line, I am very optimistic about the future. It seems like the vaccines are working. Case numbers are down. People are rolling up their sleeves. I am very hopeful that by May or June we can be back to something like normal.

Since everyone else is dong it, let me make some observations about the past year.

  1. I am very impressed with the vast majority of Americans in general, people in my community in specific, and our church in the extreme. Most of us have gone above and beyond to help others, to take precautions, and to support the decisions that needed to be made.
  2. At the same time, the number of people who flippantly put other people’s health in jeopardy and show no concern for their neighbor disgusts me. COVID-19 has showed us who people really are and what they value.
  3. The pandemic has already changed us and how we interact. I’m pretty sure for the rest of my life when I fly or am in a crowded space, I will put on a mask. I know it has changed government and our expectations of it. It has also changed church. I don’t know if we will ever be completely comfortable in a potluck or really crowded classrooms ever again.
  4. Let me speak about that government business for a second. For a variety of reasons, the pandemic demonstrated we were not ready for it. It was humbling for our nation, which is okay. Pride is a sin, and recognizing weaknesses is an important part of growth. My fear is there will be an overreaction in the other direction which will be too much reliance upon government to solve every personal issue. Wisdom will find that sweet spot of competency and preparedness.
  5. Still on the government bit — I fully support the COVID relief bill which just passed through Congress. However, we need to start thinking right now of how we are going to pay for it. My recommendation is we tax hard and fast the tech industry, particularly digital communications. These were the platforms that made a killing during COVID-19 because we all had to use their products. While restaurants and airlines and cruise ships and cinemas and concerts were closed Amazon was making mad bank. We should tax them specifically for recovery. After that, something like a 1% added income tax for everyone until the national debt is paid. That’s my big idea.
  6. The most valuable workers in our nation are medical workers, grocery store workers, truck drivers, childcare/education workers, and of course police officers. When the pandemic hit, these were the people we needed the most to keep us fed, supplied, and safe. How many parents now realize the work their school does for their children? All of us, I bet. I would like for our pay structures to reflect this. I’m not against athletes, entertainers, and CEO’s making as much money as they can negotiate for, but I am against the pathetic salary structure of people we so desperately need. We will have the money to do this, because pent up demand is going to set the worldwide economy on soaring heights. Soaring.
  7. Our church faired very well through this and I adamantly believe our church is the greatest church in the world. We took a super-cautious approach from the beginning. Nevertheless, I will freely admit it has been the hardest year of ministry I have ever experienced. It has taken a toll on my soul. Some of it is the amount of work we had to do to reinvent almost everything we did in order to maintain ministry, but most of it is the very negative, hateful, and personal attacks people have made. The number of people who have hurt me is very small, but the cuts are deep because they are relational.
  8. As to church in general, I think the church in American, at least, coming out of this will be smaller, poorer, but stronger. Some people who got out of the habit or who have filled the gap with other things, will never come back. Some folks who are angry at cautious protocols will stop giving. That’s okay, but the Lord is always using the ebb and flow of life to separate the wheat and the chaff.
  9. I am thankful for Zoom and Facebook Live because it has helped us stay in touch and connected. However, we have learned in the pandemic that remote learning and digital classrooms are a poor substitute for in-person instruction. This is true of schools and churches where learning is key. My perception is these technologies will be helpful in the business world because transformation and learning is not the goal, but information exchanges.
  10. Many people who learned to work from home will never return full-time to an office environment. Many people who used to travel for work will see their travel diminished as they’ve learned to do it from home via conference call. This will change the workplace and our culture, particularly parenting. What we have to do is remember that until the modern world, this was normal. Everyone worked from home before the Industrial Revolution.
  11. We are not out of this yet. In Texas, 202 people died yesterday from COVID-19 and 1,477 in the United States. We need to keep vigilance until we have the necessary 70-80% of the population vaccinated. That means masks, distance, hand sanitizer, and caution until at least mid-April. The weather here is getting better, so we are moving our worship services outside again in two weeks. Why? Because it is safer. Ignore the politicians and instead remember the words of Jesus and love your neighbor. Don’t be selfish and don’t give into the fatigue. Now is the time to stay vigilant. Don’t be afraid, but exercise love and self-control.