Is “virtual ministry” an oxymoron?

We are living in a world of “virtual reality.” I never liked that term; it seems self-contradictory – if it is ‘virtual,’ it’s somehow not ‘real.’ It strikes me as an oxymoron like “jumbo shrimp,” “open secret” or “liquid gas.”

Google’s definitions of “virtual” are: almost or nearly as described, but not completely or according to strict definition; not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to do so; carried out, accessed, or stored by means of a computer, especially over a network. It is this third definition that applies to virtual worship, virtual classrooms, virtual meetings, etc.

Virtual worship has been a tonic for Believers during these days of isolation at home. But folk like me miss what cannot be replicated in our living rooms: congregational singing, gathering, sharing the receiving of music and the spoken word with fellow believers (only my wife hears my “Amens” now), etc.

So the question: is “virtual ministry” an oxymoron? First, let me say that there are forms of personal ministry regaining frequency of use during these days that are not “virtual.” Phone calls, cards and notes weren’t used much when we saw each other every week. Now they are being used by Corps Officers to minister to the faithful. This is real ministry; such personal contact should never be viewed as merely perfunctory.

Second, let me acknowledge that there are occasions for which there is no substitute for “the ministry of presence.” Hospital visitation and funeral vigils are the most notable examples. I mourn for the loved ones of those in nursing homes and hospitals who are not permitted to be present when the beloved one passes into eternity … and for the Corps Officers who are also denied that precious privilege!

But I applaud those on the front lines of ministry who use technology creatively to minister to their flock by live-streaming worship and Bible Study; by setting up virtual interactions among members of the flock; by utilizing video calls to visit those who cannot otherwise be contacted; etc.

Personal contact is, of course, preferable when circumstance permit. And there are Corps Officers like ours who have made a special effort to visit their soldiers while following all the precautions to ensure safety. (Of course, climate and housing have permitted, which is not true for all!) Even those, like ARC officers, who are blessed to have ongoing personal contact with their flock operate under the constraints of social distancing and mask-wearing. The tactile dimension of touch has been removed from the communication toolbox.

Effective ministry requires frequent, personal, intentional interaction. Can that be done adequately through the medium of technology? Not as a substitute for the intimacy of person-to-person contact. Unless, of course, person-to-person contact is not possible. And then, the compassionate minister uses the means available to minister. So we praise God for the technology that makes it possible, and for those who use it effectively.

No. Virtual ministry is NOT an oxymoron.

A Word to the Wise

A word to the wise is sufficient.

When I was the Assistant Training Principal of the USA East Training College, it was my task to make announcements during the weekly Assembly. Far too frequently for my taste it required words of warning or instruction regarding the requirements of community living (and often their violation). It was my custom to conclude such harsh words with the adage, “A word to the wise is sufficient.”

My use of this phrase was intended to convey my respect for these Christian brothers and sisters and their capacity to respond positively to my hard words.

I would like to believe that “a word to the wise” is STILL sufficient, that most of us value our health and the well-being of others enough to heed the cautions delivered in these trying times.

I said, “most of us. “ The truth is that not all are wise. In fact, the Biblical use of “wisdom” includes a moral/spiritual dimension. The word “wise” does not just mean perceptive in a worldly sense, but includes perception of spiritual values that are important to human interaction.

These times have taxed our wisdom. Our Corps are faced with unprecedented challenges that require more than intellect and experience to address. Wisdom is required.

Chapter 2 of Proverbs is an ode to wisdom. Verse 5 says, “For the Lord gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.” In I Corinthians 1:18-2:16, Paul presents a treatise on wisdom and foolishness, concluding with this powerful statement: “we have the mind of Christ.”

I suggest that the enforced immobility of the COVID crisis permits us to dive deeper into the mind of Christ through Scripture, prayer, and devotional literature.

Few of us have any practical counsel for the extraordinary challenges faced by Corps Officers today, other than this – seek the mind of Christ.

A word to the wise is sufficient.

Surprised by Joy!

Thursday morning I enjoyed a two hour plus conversation with an old friend that I had not spoken with for years. Ginnie and I became best friends when we were about 13 years old–give or take a year or two. She lived just down the street from me and next door to The Salvation Army van driver who invited us to attend the youth services at the Army; and the rest they say is history. But oh…the memories…the memories that have been popping up since our conversation this morning. How awesome it was to discover, and be reminded, how much we still had in common and how easy it was to engage in conversation. We had so much to say to each other as we tried to catch up a bit. Our lives have been so full and filled with love, pain, and above all else, blessing as we each recognized God’s providential care. We both feel especially blessed that we are still happily married to those amazing guys that swept us off our feet lo those many years ago!

In fact, one of the memories that came to mind today was how we used to talk about our wedding days and the plans for them. As I recall we used to fill reams of paper (steno pads?) with all those plans! I particularly remember when Ginnie met and fell in love with George. O my goodness! When I say, “fell in love” I mean that she fell head over heels and then some. From that moment on it was George this and George that! I also met and fell in love with my fella at about the same time. But unlike Ginnie’s beau who lived in town, my beau lived 150 miles away. As often happens, life circumstances began to separate us, sigh. Then in 1969, in the course of a few months, we both married the love of our lives and went very separate ways. George entered the military and she went with him to Germany and Don and I went off to the Bronx to enter SFOT. From that time we have only seen each other a very few times over the years so it was such a blessing this morning to hear about her life with George these days as I shared mine with Don.

As memories of my youth have been tumbling through my mind I have been reminded again and again just how blessed I was and still am because of the dear friends that I have made, particularly when I was young. Remember that I mentioned The Salvation Army van driver that invited us to attend the Army youth programs? Well, we took him up on the invitation. It was in the Army that I met the love of my life as well as two very dear friends who have remained close, well, relatively close as one can do as Salvation Army officers, over the years. (Sorry about that last sentence!) Anyway, Debbi came to be friends with Ginnie and me. It is interesting how our paths came together and then began to separate as circumstances shifted a bit. Debbi and I became very close friends I think when my mother had to be away for a couple of weeks and I stayed with Debbi so that I could attend Star Lake Music Camp. We grew so close that we were almost reading each others minds. It was also Debbi who helped me learn to read and sing the alto part in choral music. We used to sing and play duets at every opportunity. I won’t even mentioned how she used to school me in my grammar….well not my grammar per se but my bad pronunciations caused by my southern accent.

My second dear friend, Karen, I knew as one of the youth of our division but never really met until Don and I went to our first appointment out of Training. Karen and I became fast friends. Karen and John were also in their first appointment but had been officers about two years longer so Don and I looked to them for answers to questions that would come up as we were learning about Corps Officership. We discovered a mutual love of camping and would try to take some vacation time together. In fact our kids consider their kids cousins.

Friendship. What would life be without friends? Not just friends but those individuals that become so close that, as someone has said, “true friendship is when two friends can walk in opposite directions, yet remain side by side.” I can testify to the truth of that statement for over the years when my friends and I have not seen or spoken to each other for awhile we just pick up where we left off and move forward together for a piece.

Now how blessed am I that in retirement I am once again living close to two of my dear friends. Hey, Ginnie, how would you and George feel about moving to Myrtle Beach?

Lenten Musings

This has been the most unusual Lenten season that I have ever experienced because of everything that is happening all around me. Yet it somehow seems appropriate. Lent is often described as a time of preparation and an opportunity to go deeper with God. Indeed this season many of us are driven to the feet of the Master. And we are not disappointed as this year with the pandemic that moving throughout the country Lent has become the bright spot of hope and assurance that is shining out into a very dark world of fear and loneliness. I cannot help but think how miserable life would be at this time without this bright hope and anticipation of Good Friday and Easter.

With Covid-19 surrounding us with death and fear of death I am reminded of Bonhoeffer’s words:

“The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:26). Dealing with dying doesn’t mean dealing with death. The overcoming of dying is within the realm of human possibilities; the overcoming of death means resurrection. Based not on the art of dying, but on the resurrection of Christ, a new, cleansing wind can blow into the present world. . . . If a few people really believed this and let it affect the way they move in their earthly activity, a lot of things would change. To live on the basis of resurrection—that is what Easter means.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. God is on the Cross: Reflections on Lent and Easter (p. 74).

A new, cleansing wind….just what we need. Just what will come at just the right time. Just the right time according to the calendar but also for those who wait in expectation and anticipation. Eyes fixed on our Light of hope and salvation and living life on the basis of resurrection.

Since we have been confined and separated, unable to gather together as a congregation for worship, I have been reading and worshipping privately and share with you a couple of items from the archives of past Lenten observances that have touched me especially today.

John (a dialogue)

I am John, a fisherman, the son of a fisher­man, the brother of a fisherman. Years ago I saw before me the life of my father and brother, stretching as wide and clear as the Sea of Galilee. There were nets to mend and boats to repair, fish to be sorted and sold. Life had a texture as comforting and reliable as the passing of seasons. 

Then he came. He called, “Follow me” and we could hear no other voices–not the sea, not our friends, not even our father and mother. And so my brother James and I left the nets and followed him, unsure of our motivation, knowing only that we could not resist his call. We would become fishers of men, he said. We didn’t know what he meant, but we followed just the same. 

He called others, too, until there were twelve of us. Not all were fishermen.  Some were learned, some were not–we were philoso­phers, businessmen, trades­men, rebels. But we were all seekers and we followed him, looking for answers even before we had fully formed the questions. 

For three years we walked and talked and lived with him as he taught us things unfamiliar to our Galilean minds. It was not always easy to understand him; but he was patient like a father working with an eager, but less-than-brilliant child. And we tried to learn and understand because we loved him more than our own lives. 

Then he left us. It happened almost before we knew it, although we should have known. The signs were there all along. Always under the surface lurked the hatred, the anger, the scent of murder waiting for its hour. But love never wants to believe in evil, and we refused to see the signs. We talked of faithfulness and greatness in a kingdom yet to come; and he spoke of suffering and crucifixion; and we ignored him. But he knew. He always knew. 

When they came, led by the traitor, Judas, to take him away, we scattered like frightened children. Long forgotten were our vows of loyalty. We left our promises in the dark of Gethsemane. 

Kenedy, Pam (2003).  Beneath the Cross.  The Stories of Those Who Stood at the Cross of Jesus. Nashville, TN:  Ideals Publications

Must Jesus bear the cross alone,
And all the world go free?
No, there’s a cross for everyone,
And there’s a cross for me.

How happy are the saints above,
Who once went sorrowing here!
But now they taste unmingled love,
And joy without a tear.

The consecrated cross I’ll bear
Till death shall set me free;
And then go home my crown to wear,
For there’s a crown for me.

Upon the crystal pavement down
At Jesus’ piercèd feet,
Joyful I’ll cast my golden crown
And His dear Name repeat.

O precious cross! O glorious crown!
O resurrection day!
When Christ the Lord from Heav’n comes down
And bears my soul away.

Thomas Shepherd,
George N. Allen