Pastoral letter No. 2: COVID 19

Dear Church Family and Friends,

Many of us are adjusting to the “new normal” that COVID-19 has brought into our lives.  “Social distancing” (I prefer the term “physical distancing instead because the last thing we need to do is to isolate ourselves!) is the order of the day.  Those of us who are still able to work are learning to work “virtually,” using GotoMeeting, Zoom, or some other conferencing service.  In one week, we took our worship services, officer’s meetings, and Bible studies to the virtual world.  And I was able to teach my Latin class of four students in the church on Google Hangouts.

It was really encouraging to hear of how many of you tuned into the worship services last week!  I’m told the Facebook page had over 300 hits!  Now, we don’t know who they were, but the feedback we are getting has been good.  We will correct some of the issues that we had with the lighting and the glare this week.

While there is much benefit to be had from such services, we earnestly look forward to regathering for live, in-person worship, and particularly, the celebration of the sacraments.

During this time, I am very grateful for the leadership, care and the hard work of our officers.  It’s such a blessing to see each man put his gifts into action, and for us to all work together to care for our congregation.  If you need anything, please contact one of the pastors, your shepherding elder, or deacon.  We want to pray with and for you, and help you with any spiritual or material needs that you have.  Especially, please let us know if you are sick, have a specific need, are out of work, or have a reduced income from COVID-19 circumstances.  This is the time for the Body of Christ to all work together and in dependence on him, to pull through this situation, and come out of it with greater unity and maturity in Christ.

Personally, I have greatly missed seeing each one of you, and the conversations that we’re able to have by just showing up.  And I really miss my Sunday School class and the children of the church, and look forward to seeing them back soon!

Live streamed worship will take place Sunday at 11 AM and 5 PM. You can find it  here.  There is a video recording posted soon after the service here.  And our church’s sermon audio page, which has all of our recorded sermons in recent member, is here.  And here’s a link to the  Facebook page for the Bible Study on James led by Scott Baker, which will be recorded Thursday at 7 PM.

Hints with Technology

If you have a slow internet connection, you may want to try the recorded version of the service, which is posted minutes after the service.  Even if the download is slow, you can take the time to let it load and then watch it.  If this proves to be “unwatchable,” you can also listen to the recorded sermon on Sermon Audio.

Family News

The COVID-19 has had a silver lining for the Clay family.  Stuart, our youngest son, and his family came to us from New York.  We are having tremendous fun with them and really enjoying the time with our grandson, Rory!  Our daughter, Hannah, will be coming down from Boston this weekend.  Our oldest son, Sterling, and his wife are holed up in Manhattan, presumably for the duration.  We would really appreciate your prayers for Sterling and Leah during this time.

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Follow-up from Pastor Lou’s devotional last week

Last week, Pastor Lou sent out a devotional.  One of the suggestions that he made was to read, study, or review the Westminster Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms.

If you are new to our church and unfamiliar with these documents, these are the standards that officers must subscribe to, and possibly, the best summary of Biblical teaching to be found anywhere.

Here are some helps to guide you through the Standards.

For the Confession of Faith, the church has copies of Joey Pipa’s Westminster Confession of Faith Study BookAnother helpful resource on the Confession of Faith is Chad Van Dixhoorn’s  Confessing the Faith.

The Larger Catechism is perhaps the most neglected portion of the Standards.  It is well worth your time.  J. G. Vos’s Westminster Larger Catechism is a great resource, and is very approachable.

My favorite resource on the Shorter Catechism is the Puritan Thomas Watson’s trilogy:  A Body of Divinity, The Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s PrayerThese are clear, readable, devotional, and encouraging.  If you want to start reading the Puritans, this is probably the best place to start.  You can find the ebooks for free at  monergism.com.

What I’m reading

 Those of you who know me well know that I am a big reader.  You could say that I’m a compulsive reader.  But I have a good excuse!  During most of my formal education, I was a rather indifferent student.  Then, I was called into the pastorate and after about two years, found out how little I knew, and realized I had a lot of catching up to do!  And I still feel like I’m catching up!  And when I went into teaching 13 years ago, this was compounded.

So, I actually resolved to read fewer books and spend more time with people this year!

I’ve really gotten into J. C. Ryle this year.  He was an evangelical Anglican bishop in England in the 19th century.  I’ve used his Expository Thoughts on the Gospels in preparation for my sermons on the Upper Room Discourse, and I’ve started reading the section on Matthew prior to the morning worship service.  He quickly gets the major points out of each passage and his writing is clear, direct, challenging, and brief.  As part of my morning devotions, I’m reading Holiness, which is not as brief, but is clear, direct, and challenging.

And the other book I’m reading is Ron Chernow’s GrantI got it as a Christmas present from one of my sons back in 2018.  And I’ve finally plunged into this doorstop of a tome.  If you are an American History buff or a Civil War enthusiast, this book will grab you from page one.  General Grant had his faults.  Chernow is very up-front about Grant not being a good judge of character, and doesn’t hide his drinking problem, which to his credit, he battled mightily.  As a general, he was a strategic and tactical genius, a man of great humility, and loved by his men.  Peter Drucker, the 20th century leadership and management guru, said that leadership is borne from competence and character.  General Grant possessed both of these characteristics in abundance.

Love in Christ,

Pastor Clay

Pastoral letter during COVID-19 No. 1

Dear Church Family and Friends,

Last night, your officers met and reluctantly agreed to cancel in-person worship and ministry activities through the end of March.  Between this and the reports we are receiving on the current public health emergency, it’s likely that it may be some time before many of us will see each other in person.

There are some of us whose lives are being changed dramatically, while others of us are experience few changes except for the long lines and supply chain hiccups at HEB.  During these uncertain times, you can be comforted that the Lord is with you.  He promises that he will never leave you or forsake you.  And he invites you to cast your cares upon him, for he cares for you.

The church office will be sending out information on our live streamed worship which will take place on Sunday at 11 AM and 5 PM.

Knowing that many of you are going to spend significantly more time at home than normal, here are some resources and things that may be of interest to you.

Worship

Now is a great time to get into the routine of family worship.  If you need some helps, look here.  There are also copies of Terry Johnson’s book, The Family Worship Book  which can be picked up at the church.

If you are trying to help your children or teens learn to listen to sermons and take notes, here are some sermon note taking guides

Teaching

Ligonier Ministries has made their entire teaching library free to stream.

Ever wanted to start reading a Christian classic?  Monergism has over 500 free ebooks from the Church Fathers through the Puritans up through much of the 20th century for free!

Living through the Coronavirus

Here is an article on how some Christians in Italy are making the most of their time during a virtual lockdown.

Things to do at home

Brett McCracken of the Gospel Coalition gives a list of 30 Edifying Things To Watch When Stuck at Home.

Haven’t played a board game in a while?  Here are some game suggestions.

Your pastors and officers will step up their efforts to reach out to you during this public health emergency.  Please let any of us know if you have any specific needs, any prayer requests, are sick, or need any other kind of help.  We are praying earnestly for you.  We love you and want to serve you in any way we can.

Church Coronavirus Update

Dear Church Family and Friends,

Many of you have asked questions about the coronavirus and its potential impact on our church gatherings.  I am writing to encourage you that as we enter into this weekend and the upcoming Lord’s Day, your officers are working together to implement appropriate protocols so that we can continue to enjoy worship and fellowship together.  We will let you know as plans develop for this.

I want to encourage you that this is an opportunity for us to remember that as Christians, we are secure in the Lord Jesus Christ.  While there will be disruptions in the normal routines of our lives, the Lord has ordains our steps for good and not for harm.  This is an opportunity for us to remember that our faith and trust are in Him, rather than how well we can prepare for any eventualities that may occur.  While most of us have not experienced anything like the current conditions with the coronavirus, the Church has throughout her history.  And the testimony of the saints of ages past was not one of fear.  It was a testimony of faithful trust in Christ, out of which flowed peace and calm assurance.  The fruit of such faith was that  loving and encouraging one another, and loving and serving their neighbors, and even putting themselves at great risk at times to care for others in need.  So, this is an opportunity for us to grow in faith, in hope, in love, in maturity in Christ, and service to those in need.

Know that your pastors and officers love you, and are praying for you.

Love in Christ,

Pastor Clay

Know and Tell, Part Two

I previously posted about a book called Know and Tell:  The Art of Narration by Karen Glass.  If you are a teacher, homeschool parent, or are interested in helping your children develop oral fluency, I highly recommend this book.

I’ve written about the instructional benefits of narration, but I also see some great spiritual benefits of this practice, particularly applied to the Bible and rich Christian literature.

Narration is an excellent tool for family worship.  Reading a passage of Scripture and asking your children “what happened?” is an excellent way to help them hide God’s Word in their heart.  It enables them to participate not only in building listening skills, but in learning to explain and apply the Scripture.

Narration is an excellent way to move into private and family prayer.   Narrating the content of a Bible passage is a natural bridge to beginning to address God based on God’s revelation of himself and the promises that he makes in the passage.  If one does not know what to pray, or how to pray, or what to pray for in a particular instance, or just has one of those days when it seems that prayer is simply reading a prayer list, this may be a way to break through to “praying in the Spirit.”

Narration is an excellent way to prepare to teach.  This may be more like what Mrs. Glass calls “silent narration,” when one reads a portion of a text and rehearses the content, but not aloud.  I do alot of his in my sermon and teaching preparation.  Often, the notes that I take while I’m studying are not an outline of the content, but a retelling and a description of connections that I make from the text to other Scriptures and other writings.  To be able teach well, one must have something to say and be able to say it well.

Mrs. Glass cautions that it takes time to develop narration skills, and that we must be patient with those whom we teach.  She also tells us that unless one is a “natural narrator,” that this will not be a student’s favorite practice.  But the benefits are rich, and the time and effort devoted to narration will yield many benefits.

Know and Tell, Part One

I’ve started reading a book called Know and Tell:  The Art of Narration, by Karen Glass.  It’s a book primarily written for homeschool parents and classroom teachers.  I became interested in narration as a teaching tool as a result of developing a relationship with a school that uses narration as a primary technique in the instruction of elementary and middle-school children.  Having mostly narrated with younger children and dispensed with narration once our children were able to begin written composition, I was intrigued.

In my teaching, I’ve often used the Socratic method.  However, I’ve really wanted to gain the benefits of Socratic teaching apart from mining the depths of a student’s ignorance in front of her classmates.  Narration seems to fit the bill for this.

Briefly described, the technique of narration is this.  One reads a portion of a text, and asks the student to tell him what happened.  Endless possibilities follow from this.  One can ask other students for contributions.  One may define or emphasize key words or concepts.  But the idea is for the student to be able to express in his own words his understanding of the material and grasp of key elements apart from a formal assessment.

I’m going to do a few posts on this book because narration has a wide range of applications, both for students and adults.

If you decide to get the book, make sure that you get the paper edition rather than the e-book.  Unbeknownst to me, the e-book is not Kindle formatted, but is a PDF of the hard copy.  The e-book has the added disadvantage of not being able to easily flip through to find the charts, which are incredibly helpful.

Here are some benefits of having students narrate:

Narration is an excellent way to gauge reading comprehension.  Narration has much richer benefits than checking comprehension, but in many cases, narration is both quicker and superior to a formal written assessment.

Narration is an excellent way to develop oral fluency.  How often have you engaged in conversation with another adult who lacked oral fluency?  Conversational ability and expression is on the decline in Western culture.  Talk about a skill that is universally applicable and has lifelong benefits!  Narration develops oral fluency.

Narration is an excellent foundation for learning to write.  Once one knows how to capture something verbally, making the transition to writing is a natural change.

Narration is an excellent tool for integrating knowledge.  When students approach a text, they bring prior knowledge to that text.  While narration is generally used to bring out what is in the text before the student,  the process of verbalization enables the student to integrate prior knowledge with the text before him.

Narration is an excellent tool for seeing relationships of events and characters within a text.  Again, the process of verbally expressing what one finds in a text enables the student to see how characters and events relate in the text.

In my next post, I’ll talk about some of the spiritual benefits of narration.

Follow up on prayer and fasting

Our church had a voluntary day of prayer and fasting Wednesday.  Some of us opened and closed the day with a short prayer meeting, and went out for a meal afterwards.  Here are some concluding thoughts:

It was much easier with a group than it would have been to do this on my own.  The feeling that “we’re in this together” helped out immensely.  I don’t think I would have done it on my own.

Going without food was not nearly as hard as I thought it would be.  I expected to have hunger pangs throughout the day and that every minute would be a battle of the will.  The only time I felt slightly bad was right before lunch, but there was no question of breaking the fast then.

It did give me a greater awareness of the need to pray and the desire to pray.  Since the day was to be focused on prayer, I thought more often of the need to pray and ways to pray.  I wasn’t able to spend that much time in prayer because I had a full day’s worth of work to accomplish, but I was able to “fill in the corners” of my schedule.

Thoughts for next time:

I would prepare more in advance through planning times and material for meditation and prayer.  This would have made a great difference.

I would attempt to get work done in advance so that I could devote more time to prayer.  I didn’t realize that to be as effective as possible, planning should go into this for how to make the time to devote the day to prayer and preparation in how to invest the time.

Voluntary Prayer and Fasting

Our church is having a voluntary day of prayer and fasting.  We began with a prayer meeting that was available in person and remote (I chose to attend remotely so that I could be in front of the fire in my living room with my pajamas on) and will close with a prayer meeting at 6:30 pm.

I have not done this for a long time, and I felt intimidated at the prospect of fasting for a day.  Of course, I had to fast prior to my surgery in September.  But that was different.  I was laying in a hospital bed with every conceivable need cared for, except for food.  Today, I’m trying to live more or less a normal day, but with times of prayer instead of meals.

This morning was surprisingly easy.  We had our corporate prayer time, and then I engaged in my normal prayer routine.  Afterward, I went to the gym to do my rehab (I’m still rehabbing the knee I had surgery on in September).  Other than feeling a little light-headed on some of the exercises, it was fine.

Now that’s it’s after lunch, it’s a little harder.  It’s tempting to say, “it’s only five-and-a-half hours until I can eat.”  It’s not like I’m going to break down and have a snack or anything.  But I am experiencing a feeling of deprivation.  What do I do with this?

Well, first of all, many people all over the world, perhaps the majority of the world’s population, is not able to have adequate nutrition.  So, this is a normal feeling for most of the people in the world.  Many of these people are my brothers and sisters in Christ.  So, it’s good for the soul to be able to participate, even for a short while, in their deprivation for them, and to pray that the Lord would give them this day their daily bread.  This is something that I can meditate on and be more intentional in my prayers.  I often pray for the spiritual concerns of the church around the world, and for the persecuted church, but how often do I pray for my brothers and sisters the simple request that they will have enough to eat?

Another benefit is that this slight momentary deprivation reminds me of the poverty of my spirit, and is hopefully developing a hunger for God.  I long to treasure his words more than my necessary food, as Job did.  My hope is that I can devote time to prayer, or a least some more time today, rather than just devoting it to work.  Lord, help me to do so.

A final benefit is that this is another opportunity to pray in solidarity with others.  In most churches, the Wednesday night prayer meeting is a thing of the past.  For our church, I don’t think it’s a lack of desire, but it’s because we are a “destination church” rather than a parish church.  People in Houston typically have long commutes, and often, this includes church.  It may be worthwhile to consider having get-togethers for prayer in neighborhood homes, even occasionally or “one-time” events.   We do have Bible studies, which I enjoy.  But it may be worth exploring inviting people to pray together, and making it easier to do so.

So, this invitation from our elders to participate in this day of prayer and fasting is opening my eyes to some things I haven’t thought too much about, and is stretching me, and I hope it will do so for others.

Habit No. 6: Fast from something for 24 hours

We constantly seek to fill our needs with tangible items.  We were made for abundance.  But the Fall turned abundance into scarcity, and it turned us, as John Calvin puts in into “idol factories.”  We continually replace the fullness of God with things that become as gods to us.

Even in the days when my wife and I were young and poor, we were far better off materially than almost any of our forebears, or most people living in the world today.  Jesus said that it is more difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than a camel to go through the eye of a needle.  So, even though we were poor by American standards, we were rich by the world’s standards, and have always been in a position to trust in the abundance of possessions rather than in the promises of God in Christ.

This is where fasting comes into play.  For a set period of time, we abstain from something.  Ideally, we will use the time that we would have spend — on eating, on watching TV, on using electronic or social media — to pray.  Fasting is a voluntary period of deprivation for the purpose of entering into deeper communion with God, the One who truly satisfies.  It’s “leaning into” the scarcity  that is a product of the Fall, in order to gain the fullness of the One who gives us the true bread from heaven to eat and living water to drink.  Prayer with fasting is a living demonstration that along with Job, we prize God’s Word “more than our necessary food” (Job 23:12), and that we value communion with God more highly than the habits that we take for granted.

Honestly, I have to give myself an F minus on this habit.  A number of years ago, I practiced semi-regular days of prayer and fasting.  But I haven’t put one on the calendar in years.

The elders in our church have initiated one voluntary day of prayer and fasting each month, which I plan on participating in.  It’s much easier to pray and fast if a community of people commit to doing it.  I hope to be able to keep this up in the coming months and to grow in my desire and ability to engage in this habit.

Nothing to show for it?

I haven’t written in a while because I thought I had “nothing to write home about.”  It’s been a week of mostly administrative duties.  Making phone calls, answering emails, writing up session minutes, planning worship services, filling out Excel spreadsheets, and making other reports.  It’s tempting to wonder, “what is the value in all of this?  For the better part of a work week, I’ve done all this work and I have nothing to show for it.”

This is really the essence of most of our service.  Our service mostly consists in routine, mundane, repeatable tasks that are more noticed if they are omitted than if they are completed.  There really isn’t much excitement in this.  It’s tempting to say that such duties don’t matter.  They tend to be urgent, but not significant in the long term.

However, they are important to the people whom we serve.  In my case, our church would continue to operate.  Cemeteries are full of people who thought that they were indispensable!  But life would be a little harder for others who serve in the church who perform low-visibility, high anonymity tasks.

So, what do we have to show for such work?  Hopefully, the enrichment of the lives of those whom we serve.  In the best case, such service enriches relationships.  It removes obstacles for getting “the important things” done.

At home, cooking, cleaning, and laundry are such tasks.  I do know a few people who seem to “live to cook,” but nobody lives to do laundry, wash dishes or clean the house.  While these tasks may not be significant in themselves, having them done greatly enhances the other portions of our lives.

So, no matter what tasks are committed to you, you can set  yourself free to do all the good that you can, knowing that even if you aren’t thanked for them, you enrich the lives of others through your dedicated service, even if you have “nothing to show for it.”

Habit No. 5: Curate Media to 4 hours per week

The next habit I’m blogging through is “limiting media to four hours per week.”  To gauge how I’m doing, I really need to give this some definition.  The basic idea is to be much more intentional in how we engage media.  For the sake of argument, I’m going to define media as “electronic media,” including TV, YouTube, web browsing, movies, podcasts, and music.

In some ways, I’m doing okay on this one.  The only “active” TV watching that I generally do is Tottenham Hotspur Soccer.  Several years ago, my youngest son and I began following Spurs.  When I made this decision, I pretty much cut out actively following all other teams and sport.  Soccer is great!  A game is 90 minutes long, with maybe five minutes of stoppage time at the end.  The clock doesn’t stop, so it doesn’t “lie.”  It’s not the NBA, where it seems like it takes 30 minutes to play the last minute on the game clock.

But I have snuck other sports in through the back door.  I tend to check ESPN more than once a day, and read the stories on the NFL, College Football, and Soccer, even though I know that this is a tremendous waste of time.  The only other sites I check daily are Cartilage Free Captain, a Tottenham Hotspur supporter website, and Arts and Letters Daily.  I do have a weakness for Lit Hub, but I don’t check it every day.

I listen to lots of podcasts.  I’m a big fan of audio, but not visual.  There’s nothing more pleasurable than well-curated audio, other than a good book.

Recent time traps have included browsing the Libby app for electronic library books, and the news app on my IPad.  I removed it from my phone and I probably need to do the same on the IPad.

Passive TV watching is the other time trap.  I usually read at night when my wife is watching TV.  Lately though, I’ve found myself less engaged in reading and starting to engage in the TV shows.

Probably, the first step here is to track my media engagement.  The next action after that would be to look at what I want to replace the media with, e.g., dinners and conversations with friends, board games, etc.

 

 

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