Category Archives: COVID-19

Pastoral letter No. 4: COVID-19

Pastoral letter No. 4:  COVID 19

Dear Church Family and Friends,

One of the common desires that people have shared with me during the COVID-19 shutdown is a desire to improve their prayer life.  Some of the reasons for this desire:  a growing realization of our dependence upon God, the uncertainty of life, begin physically isolated from other believers, and for many of us, time on our hands to redeem.  We are beginning to learn to “hold things lightly.”  We are realizing more than ever that “man makes his plans, but the Lord directs his steps.”  Our plans are dependent on “if the Lord wills.”

I’m preparing to preach another sermon from the prayers of Paul from 1 Thessalonians 3:6-13.  Two truths from this passages that really struck me are that love strengthens prayer, and that prayer strengthens love.

If we want to strengthen our prayer lives, we must grow in love for one another.  This truth is often overlooked.  Forty or so of Paul’s prayers are recorded in the Scripture.  Some are only a sentence or a phrase.  Some are much more comprehensive.  But in almost all of them, he is praying for other people.  If you read the lists of greetings at the end of each epistle, it’s striking how many personal relationships he has with each church to whom he writes.  His love for people motivated him to pray.

If we grow in love for one another, we will be more motivated to pray for each other.

My mother-in-law has been meeting with the same group of women to pray every Tuesday morning for over thirty years.  She, along with the other women that she prays with, have made long-term commitments to pray for specific people.  This is a concrete expression of my mother-in-law’s love for people.  To know her is to know that you are loved.

I also think of one of the fathers of our presbytery in Ohio describing the influences that led him to Christ.  His father was of the World War II generation, a generation of men who were not known for being demonstrative with their love.  But this pastor said, “I knew my father loved me, because I saw him on his knees praying for me every day, and I believe that his prayers brought me to Christ.”

Love of people strengthens our prayer life.  But prayer strengthens our love of people.

It’s hard to nurse a grudge against someone whom you pray for regularly.  You will either resolve your differences, or you will stop praying for that person.

Praying for one another makes us less self-centered and more interested in one another.  As we pray for one another, our conversations become more directed to the specific concerns of the people for whom we pray.  We learn to listen better.  We learn to ask better questions.  We learn to be more considerate of one another.  And we become more empathetic.

One of the truths that I have begun to recognize during the current distress is that I probably won’t be the best version of myself every day.  But I also need to allow that others will not either, and be more patient and forbearing than ever.

One of the best ways that I can serve you is to pray for you.  So, please send me your prayer requests, and know that I am bringing you regularly before the throne of grace, that you may receive grace and help in time of need.

Other resources

      This past Lord’s Day was the first Sunday I spent at home, rather than helping with our streaming services.  Here are some of my reflections about the experience of livestreamed worship vs. in-person worship.

I’ve also written a piece on getting the most out of a streamed worship service.

Finally, Pastor Lou is preaching a series on the Gospel of Matthew.  In this series, we’ve arrived at the Sermon on the Mount.  There are some outstanding resources available to enrich your understanding of this portion of Scripture.  Sinclair Ferguson, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and John Stott have all written excellent and accessible commentaries.  Perhaps my favorite on the Beatitudes is Thomas Watson.  The electronic version of this commentary is available for free.

Amy and I love you dearly, and miss you greatly, and are praying for you.

Love in Christ,

Pastor Clay

 

 

 

 

Getting the most out of a streamed worship service

With most of our churches going online instead of being able to gather as congregations, Christians must avail themselves of all the means possible to sustain their faith in Christ.  The means that the Lord has chiefly promised to bless is the preaching of his Word (See Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 155).  However, there is a difference between being present for and sitting under the preaching of God’s Word, and “tuning in.”  When one is worshipping physically at a church service, nonverbal cues are present which place the reading and preaching of the Scriptures in its proper place. One cannot turn the preacher off or push the mute button while worshipping in person.

So, the act of hearing a sermon changes when it takes place through media, rather than in person.  How can you get the most out of a sermon when all you can do is “tune in?”

First, pray.  Pray that God would give the minister grace to open the Scriptures, to explain them, and to apply them.  This is not something to take for granted.  While a minister can study the text and read some commentaries to confirm what a passage of Scripture means, the key is to apply the Word of God to the hearers in his particular congregation. Every congregation is different, and filled with all kinds of people.  There are people who have not received Christ yet. There are people on the fringes who may be in doubt about their faith, or overconfident in their faith.  There are sincere Christians who struggle with assurance of salvation.  There are backsliding Christians who need to be reclaimed.  There are children who are being raised in Godly homes, but are growing in capacity to understand the Word.  And there are Christians who are abiding in Christ who need to be comforted.

In preaching, the heart is the target.  The minister addresses the mind, but in this case, the mind is the gateway to the heart.  The goal is not information delivery, but transformation.  So, pray for the act of preaching itself, and for the hearers, that the Lord would open hearts and minds, and accomplish the work for which the Word of Christ is preached.

Second, prepare yourself physically.  While it’s tempting to sleep in and go through the exercises of worship while having your first cup of coffee in your pajamas, this is not conducive to receiving all the grace that the Lord has for us.  I have found it helpful, as much as possible, to go through the normal routine of any other Lord’s Day.  I’m not advocating for you to put on a suit and tie, or a dress and heels, but get dressed.

Third, if your congregation distributes the order of worship in advance, study the order of worship.  Read the readings.  Look up the hymns and psalms.  In a well-planned service, the readings and the music selection will provide cues as to what to listen for in the sermon.

Fourth, whether your whole service is broadcast, or your order of worship is distributed and your church has a recorded sermon, go through the exercises of worship.  Worship and preaching are a seamless garment.  Pray the prayers, sing the hymns, do the readings, and go through the postures of a normal service in your congregation.  This is important for engaging yourself.  Merely watching the service on TV is a good way not to get much out of it.

Fifth, prepare yourself mentally for the sermon.  Our congregation distributes sermon notes in advance of the service.  Go through the sermon notes.  Read a selection of a commentary on the sermon – not a technical commentary but one that will “prime the pump.”  I’m proposing something that will take 5-10 minutes, not studying the passage as if you are going to preach the sermon. For any passage in the Bible, I would recommend Matthew Henry For the gospels, I recommend J. C. Ryle’s Expository Thoughts on the Gospels.  Our pastor is preaching on the Beatitudes right now, so I would recommend Thomas Watson’s The Beatitudes.  This is not so that you can “correct the preacher” or “see what he leaves out.”  The depths of Scripture are infinite.  Not everything can be said in a single sermon.  Ministers must choose carefully what to preach in a sermon, and what ought to be said on another Lord’s Day.  Part of praying for the sermon is that the minister would have a sense of what the congregation needs most from the portion of Scripture he preaches, right here and right now.

Sixth, listen carefully to the sermon.  Turn your phone off.  Hide the remote control.  Make sure there are no distractions.  If it helps you, take notes.  If you have children with you, help them to understand.  But above all, engage yourself in the sermon.

 Seventh, meditate on and review the sermon after you have heard it.   Preaching is meant to edify you throughout the week.  The effectiveness of a sermon is not tied to the moment of preaching.  God can continue to use it throughout the week for comfort, encouragement, exhortation, and rebuke.  Meditating on and reviewing the sermon is one of the means that God uses to continue to benefit his people after the sermon is preached.

Eighth, pray for the fruit of the preached Word.  Since the benefit of preaching is not tied to the moment of the sermon, pray specifically that the Lord would use the sermon in the lives of his people, and namely, that the application of the message to the conscience would bear much fruit.

As far as my personal preference, if your congregation only records an audio sermon, or the best that you can do with limited bandwidth is to listen to your pastor on  Sermon audio, I don’t think anything is lost compared to video.  The worship experience is probably better on video, but as for the sermon itself, audio is just fine.

Even if  you adopt only a few of these suggestions, it will be time well spent and enable you to get more out of the preached Word.

COVID-19: Reflections on four worship services

I was able to take advantage of the broadcasts of four churches yesterday.  Our home church, Covenant Presbyterian Church, livestreams our services on Facebook Live.  So, I worshipped online with our church family, morning and evening.  Two of my children who live in the Northeast are home, so my family also took advantage of the opportunity to “visit” each others’ churches.  One broadcast through Zoom, and the other distributed their liturgy through their website and had an audio sermon recorded.  It was great to get a taste of my children’s home churches.

I also learned several things through this experience.

 First, public worship gatherings are far superior to “online worship.”  As far as I’m concerned, the Puritan David Clarkson nails this point.  We don’t really gather in “online worship.”  For the most part, we “tune in.”  Not being able to receive the Lord’s Supper really drives the absence of the “vertical” and “horizontal” aspects of worship home.  Some are predicting that the landscape of public worship will be dramatically altered through the exponential number of churches that are forced to go online because of COVID-19 restrictions.  However, an essential part of being a part of the Church of Jesus Christ is that our Lord summons us for worship on each Lord’s Day to appear before him as a body.  While media is the best that most of our churches can do because of the present emergency, we should not be content with this when things return to “normal.”  This is a time for us to cherish public worship, and long to appear before the Lord together as a local expression of the body of Christ.

 Second, even with the reservations above, there is much still much goodness to be enjoyed in our present circumstances.   We worshipped as a family through at least parts of four services.  I experienced great joy in seeing that my adult children are worshipping in sound, Gospel-preaching churches.  All of our churches are making efforts to connect with one another, even when we can’t be physically present.

Third, we are in a battle for our lives.  COVID-19 and its far-flung effects are engaging us in a battle.  For most of us, it’s a battle for our lives.  We may not be currently experiencing the devastation of New York City, or be sick ourselves.  However, many nuclear families are not used to being home together all of the time.  The feeling of “being on top of each other” is real, even in my situation where we are blessed to have more than sufficient space for our daughter and our son and his family to stay with us and for us all to work from home. Unemployment is becoming more widespread.  When families lose loved ones, they don’t have the opportunity to mourn together because of social restrictions.  So, we are all in this pressure cooker together.  Marriages that were fraying are coming apart.  Domestic abuse is on the rise, and will continue to escalate.

So, what can we do?  I would suggest that families have regular conversations to check in and see what arrangements need to be altered for the peace and unity of the family.  Also, family prayer and worship are more vital than ever.  Remember, too, that your pastors and church officers are praying for you, and willing to meet with you, whether it’s on the porch or by phone or video chat.  Out of sight doesn’t mean out of mind.  Take full advantage of the resources that your church family offers.

We can get through this, but only through dependence on the Lord and on each other.  So, encourage one another, even by text, email, or phone.  Pray with and for one another.  If you are in a position to, give with an open hand and an open heart.  If you need help, be willing to receive.  This is what the Body of Christ is for.  The Church has shined in moments such as these throughout her history, and the Lord has given us this opportunity for us as a body to “let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good deeds, and glorify your father who is in heaven.”

 

 

Pastoral Letter No. 3: COVID-19

Dear Church Family and Friends,

I hope this letter finds you well. Just a few weeks ago, this was a social pleasantry that people wrote as an email introductory sentence to someone when asking for a favor. In this present emergency, this is no longer a social pleasantry, but an expression of true concern.

The officers of the church conferred on Tuesday and determined that on this Lord’s Day, we will again offer only streaming worship. This was before Judge Hildalgo extended the Harris County Stay-At-Home order through April 30.

Here, I must issue the disclaimer that in this matter that in what follows. I don’t speak for any of the officers other than myself. But it seems to me that the Lord is calling upon Christians worldwide to make the great sacrifice of not being able to worship corporately. That for a time, we are to give up what is most near and dear to us other than Christ himself for a time. It will not be forever. Right now, this is the overwhelming position of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Christians throughout the world.

It’s true that “because everyone else is doing it” doesn’t prove the point. But there does seem to be a worldwide consensus emerging that the people of God are being called to sacrifice something very dear to us for the greater good.

So, what are we to make of this?

First, Christ is still on the throne.

This morning, I came to Hebrews 1 in the course of my regular Bible reading, and I came across Hebrews 1:8:

But of the Son he says,
“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,
the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom.”

COVID-19 has not and cannot change this. There is no force in heaven or on earth that can dethrone our Lord Jesus Christ.

Second, Jesus has ordained all things for the good of his people.

He has ordained all things for the good of his people, even public health emergencies. We must trust that in these uncharted waters, Jesus is doing to us as he did to Peter. Peter attempted to walk on water to meet Jesus, but as he began to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus responded by taking Peter by the hand, and saying to him, O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matt. 14:30-31).

Third, this situation is not “without precedent.”

One of the consequences of the Babylonian Captivity of the Old Testament Church was that they were not able to engage in temple worship. The Babylonians physically removed the Jews from Israel, and destroyed the temple, so that the people of God could not engage in the sacrificial worship that God has appointed. So, for seventy years, the people of God were not able to worship him as he had appointed in his Word.

This is when the Jews instituted the worship of the synagogues, local gathering of the people of God centered around prayer and the reading and preaching of God’s Word. While the Jews said, “how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (Ps. 137:4), they used the means of grace that were available to them. And the Lord blessed this.

In this situation, “the Lord was doing a new thing.” In the New Covenant, the synagogue, not the temple, would be the model for corporate worship. Prayer and praise, the reading and preaching of God’s Word, and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the centerpieces of worship today.

While the descendants of some of the exiled Jews returned to the land, the majority stayed in Babylon. The book of Esther shows us that God continued to care for his dispersed people and his people who returned to the land. I think we can infer from this that neither group was disobedient – the ones who returned to the land, or the ones who stayed. The Lord continued to love, care for, and preserve both groups through centuries of extreme hardship and persecution.

Over the centuries, the Lord blessed the Jews of the dispersion, with far-reaching consequences. First, Greek became the majority language, rather than Hebrew. So, the scholars of this period translated the Old Testament into Greek in a version that we know as the Septuagint. Many of the Old Testament quotations in the New Testament are not from the Hebrew Bible, but from the Septuagint.

The other far-reaching consequence was that the Lord purified his Church. In the New Testament, the Greek-speaking Jews were far more responsive to the preaching of the gospel than the Hebrew-speaking Jews. The Jews of the Dispersion became the seed of the Church.

One could not foretell this at the time of the Exile, but the Lord was on the move to build his kingdom. Through the dispersion, a “portable” form of worship developed that would be the model for New Testament worship. God scattered his people in order to reclaim them with the gospel and launch the missionary enterprise of reconciling peoples of every tribe and tongue and nation to himself and the Church through the preaching of the gospel, an enterprise that still continues today.

So, with the present distress, we don’t know exactly what God is doing. But we can be sure that he is on the move. And we can be sure that he will use this to advance his kingdom.

The Lord calls upon us to trust in him in ways that we have not before. The upheaval that we are experiencing to ordinary life is not easy. It is not pleasant. But we can trust the Lord that if we remain faithful, he will use this experience to purify his Church, to separate us from our idols, and to enable us not to take the gathering of public worship for granted, but for us to see the great goodness in it, and that once corporate worship is restored, for us not to neglect the grace of assembling ourselves together for worship.

Love in Christ,

Pastor Clay

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.

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