In my previous post I mentioned that we recently had a couple of deaths in our congregation. Neither of them were COVID-related. That, of course, didn't make them easier and the pandemic did complicate things. The reason I mentioned them in a post here was because it wasn't clear what the families would decide about formally remembering their loved ones. In the end, one family decided not to have a service of any kind and sent us all a card with a picture of Jim and a moving eulogy folded up inside. We posted a shorter notice online as did a number of organizations he was connected to. I still have the letter next to me as I write this. It was an effective way to remember a remarkable man.
The other family decided to have a slightly-larger-than-usual graveside (outdoor) service. Not everyone could come, but many people could. I was asked to officiate and so at the appointed time we went over to Glenwood Cemetery. Clergy people do a lot of work in cemeteries. This is just a fact of the job. Yet, It isn't always what lay people expect. After all, most folks see a clergy person just a few times a year at funerals, weddings, and--if they celebrate it--Christmas Eve (or some other holy day if they don't do Christmas).
Cemeteries, though, see a lot of action from people like me. There is usually a small committal attached to a larger funeral. Often it is just the family either before or after the main event. That said, a religious professional is usually there.
Back before the current unpleasantness, these services were simple things. We would say a few traditional prayers. Maybe one more person would share a story that couldn't be told at the church. We lingered by the grave. Then...we moved on. Honestly the service last week wasn't all that different. There were more stories and a few more prayers. Augie was a veteran so the color guard was there. There were chairs set up among the other graves. Once again, after a while, we moved on. It did the job, though, just like the letter and the email posting did for Jim. They were both rituals of memory and of saying goodbye while recognizing what of them will remain with us.
But...back to the cemetery for a moment...
A walk through this cemetery is full of memories for me. Many of the gravestones we were sitting among marked the resting places of people I know and buried. I leaned my cane against one such stone for the duration of the service, reassuring the people around it that the owner of the stone and I were old friends. There are a lot of stories there. One of the first activities my new interns have to endure is the "death tour" when I take them around and tell them about the folks who are buried from the church. We are holders of memories, after all, and sometimes I walk through there by myself to refresh my own memory.
One time, in fact--and this came up at Augie's service--I was walking through the graveyard while cutting an apple with a knife, stopping at the various graves of people I know. This freaked out the neighbors and I spent the next hour at the gate of Glenwood with three police officers and their dog--I was deemed a "flight risk"--who really wanted to arrest me for something but couldn't figure out what. I preached a sermon about it, actually, so it is a bit of a congregational legend now.
This Sunday I am preaching about the sacredness of place. Though I don't specifically mention them in the sermon, places like Glenwood hold a great deal of significance to people. They honor the dead, of course. They make you think of your own mortality, which makes some uncomfortable. However, when I am there I cannot help but think of the lives that led up to those mortal remains resting under the granite monuments. I am grateful that the cemetery exists to honor those lives. How better for me to remember them?
Remembering the dead is a bit of a mission for me. It is why I like history so much. When I was a kid growing up in Maine, it wasn't that unusual to stumble on the ruins of a graveyard rising up in the woods. Each time most of the stones were turned over and the names hard to read. Still, against all odds (or thanks to some anonymous hiker) some stones still stood to mark whatever was worth marking when they were originally placed there. I always wondered who the people buried there were. I also wondered when the memories stopped and no one knew them enough to come visit.
Turns out the reason--at least where I grew up--could be traced to economic disaster, the American Civil War, epidemics, and pandemics.
You hear about cemeteries falling into disrepair today. Often they hold the remains of an oppressed minority with a history that has always been put down. I honor the people who struggle to keep them open in the face of the inexorable march of time. It is a form of heroism that frequently remains unsung.
Eventually, I think, our contributions no longer need a name or face attached to them. We live on and on from the instance of our lives into eternity. Still, we can hold that off for a while...can't we? Until that time when I, too, am forgotten, you can find me at Glenwood witnessing for now and maybe some day being witnessed as I rest among the souls in a sacred and familiar place.
I had the surreal experience of getting ready for church almost like I used to. It was yesterday--a Sunday morning--and we had planned a outdoor communion service for folks in order to slowly ease our way back to in-person worship. As any church person will tell you, regular Sunday morning church is still a long way off. Here in the United States we persist in the idea that we can will the virus away, or negotiate with it and then--when it sees our resolve and our good intent--it will ultimately leave us alone. Of course, that isn't how it works. So for now even a masked, socially distanced, outdoor event is concerning.
Anyway, what we decided to do was have this small service at 9 AM, just an hour before our pre-recorded YouTube service. That meant that I had to get up and go through the Sunday morning rituals of 2019 to prepare. By "rituals" I don't mean anything religious. I mean getting showered, shaved, and dressed. I mean gathering my service materials in one place and then, around 7-ish, heading to the church to start getting things ready there. I did this every Sunday for years, not really waking up until I was well on my way. Yesterday, though, I found it hard to get my act together.
It turns out that getting ready for church is not at all like riding a bike. I felt clumsy. I had to find my dress shirts. I had to match my pants to the rest of my outfit. I know that pants jokes are pretty tired right now...but it was true! When we are in worship out in the "real world" the participants bring their whole bodies to the occasion. Suddenly had to think again about how that body should be presented.
Anyway, I managed to get out the door and over to church. We (thanks deacons!) managed to get our communion table out on to the lawn, set up the elements (arranged the night before to limit human contact on the day), and place a station near the "entrance" for spare masks and hand sanitizer. We decided against amplification expecting--rightly--a small turnout and only slight car noise on an early Sunday morning. Then we had our service.
Ultimately there were nine of us. Given the size of the church that is not unexpected or unusual. Also, some of our members don't take communion for various reasons. One member arrived late and some of us took it again so he didn't have to go through the ritual alone. Then we hung out a bit and waited until 10. At that hour we rang the church bell.
One of our denominations (United Church of Christ) asked its churches to ring their bells 20 times at 10 am every day for 10 days. In the symbolic math we are using this is meant to represent and mourn the 200,000 COVID deaths in this country. We are almost done. The last day is Tuesday. The reason for ringing he bell has been a heavy subject, of course, but there is joy in pulling the rope and hearing the sound of the bells again.
After the bells the "live", even "normal" church was over. Everyone went home except for me. Instead, I turned on the church computer and watched/moderated the YouTube worship, taking communion again with essentially the same service lead--again--by me...but recorded on Wednesday. I have to say, the act of being both in front of the congregation and in it is something I can't quite get used used to. Like the bending of the church week, my sense of perspective and place has been challenged as well. YouTube lead to Zoom Coffee Hour, where a few of us stayed on and talked for a good long time.
Then...it was back to in-person for a small picnic (bring your own food) at a nearby park. Again, it was good to be with the gathered church. Even though we could not sit a close as we used to or share food, at least the conversation could be more organic than the one we had online. Once again, we brought our whole bodies and it was good.
So that was my church day. I was exhausted by the end, but happy. I had seen people, we had talked. I had taken communion three whole times! However, the experience underscored the liminal nature of this time. It made me think a bit about the challenges and blessing of travelling though our current uncertainty. So, narrative of my day over, I have some random thoughts to share as well...
These are numbered but NOT in any particular order...
1) Attendance is lower this year than in the spring. By "attendance" I mean in-person and virtual. I have a rough idea of how many church members watch and that seems to be steady. We can count folks at our in-person services and events (we have had a few now). What is happening is that online, folks who don't usually go to church are ceasing to watch the videos. Also, people looking for a church are frequently putting their plans on hold.
This isn't entirely a bad thing. In person...well...do we really want a large turnout or just a good one? We don't want people to get sick.
I also wonder if there are other concerns as well. We are stressed out, many of us. There seems to be--as we start our fall--quite a bit of free-floating anxiety looking for a place to land. I am worried that people are finding it hard to concentrate--I am--and I wonder how that impacts not just congregations, but the world at large. We are experiencing a number of depressions--not just economically--as a group. How do we survive? How do we help others? I don't know but I am thinking about it.
What I do know is that we will need to get used to this lower turnout. We will also need to get used to a net increase in small events. Tiny worship, picnics, "Yard Theology" these are important--even necessary--ministries but they require a lot of effort and intention at times. We need to remember how important and necessary they actually are. We must remind ourselves that the effort is worth it.
2) One important topic of conversation yesterday, at all three events, centered around the deaths of two beloved members of our church. I knew Augie and Jim very well. Most of us did, so we are in mourning. It was good to talk about them yesterday. That said, our conversations were informal.
When and how do we formally mark their passing? Normally I would be planning memorial services and we would go through the institution of public sharing and grief. That process has been interrupted. We have some thoughts about what to do but nothing that is deeply satisfying.
3) Perhaps obviously, I found it a challenge to shift gears from event to event. This is new. Back in the day I could stack up church stuff from 9 to 9 on a Sunday or a Saturday and move through the stages, often seeing the same people in different contexts throughout the day. I would be physically tired at the end but not mentally or spiritually tired. In fact it was quite the opposite
What was different about yesterday was going from in-person to virtual and back to in-person. It was strange having two services with one so "virtual" and one so not. Only one other person did all three events. I will ask her how she felt about it. I know she will tell me what she thinks. After all, we are married.
4) The logistics of this time are strange. I prepped two services this week and attended both on Sunday. We are planning more "tiny worship" services. Some of those will not be centered around communion. We need to do this for the mental health of many of us and, of course, for the future of the church. That said, it is a time-consuming process that brings the strangeness I mentioned earlier. Time and space are bent like a slow-moving (and somewhat less exciting) DR WHO episode. It is a challenge for our leaders.
5) As a religious professional all I can say is that the j0b is changing and as we come out of the chaos some parts feel deeply old-fashioned. I mean, when I went through seminary they were all about the pin-striped executive model of the 1980's combined with a professionalization of the "care" portion of the job. It was about being an organizer, an expert, and a boss. We were meant to be professionals in the mode of many other professions.
Now we are blasting back to the 19th Century where the cleric is responsible for multiple coherent worship services, expected to keep up on--and speak out about--social issues, and to study. Ministers find themselves being artists, intellectuals and--dare I say--religious leaders in a way that was out of fashion for a time (at least in the church circles I have moved through). We have always been these things--clergy are generalists--but now our spiritual and religious center is what people want or need, rather than the tasks and skills we are trained up in and use to get through our day.
6) I have no idea what the future of the church will look like. This is true of the "big C" church and also of the one I serve. So much is in flux. Each individual is making a series of micro-decisions that affects how they will interact with their faith in the future. Each person is making similar decisions about how they will interact with the institutions in their lives. When the faith and institutional questions intersect, the old 20th Century will feel it. Whatever the change is, it will start local. Every context is different.
That is all for now. Yesterday was an education, obviously, but this is a new day. Informed by the past we look toward the future. I wonder what it will hold...
Here is the part of yesterday I can share. We made the choice not to record in-person, but the internet worship is eternal. It was World Communion Sunday.
I woke up early this morning because my back was killing me. The final frontier of my recovery seems to be that every day I get about an hour less sleep than I need. It is quite the time for it. Every day is already surreal so a little sleep deprivation gives me an excuse for moments when I am at a loss for words or for when brief waves of anger, frustration or grief come over me. I am just a bit sleep deprived...yeah...that's it.
Now I am outside beginning the process of sermon writing. I am not writing tomorrow's sermon of course. That was recorded on Thursday. Nope. Time has bent so much now that the weeks overlap. Each part of life has its own sort of week and each one of them appears to be nine or five days long. It is hard to do good work in this situation. We all know this no matter what "work" might be whether it is paid or unpaid activity...or just getting up in the morning.
Next Sunday is our "Ingathering" service. We put it off a week to get ready as there are a number of moving parts, not the least of which is our "Water Gathering." That is when we bring water from a place that has been important to us over the past year and collect it in a bowl for the purpose of Baptisms, Child Dedications, and other blessings where water would be helpful. In some strictly Unitarian Universalist churches they call it "Water Communion". Since we are also a member congregation of the United Church of Christ we do not. We celebrate actual bread-and-wine communion the first Sunday of every month and water communion definitely isn't that. Anyway, it will be a bit crazy with "live" parts occurring beforehand to be taped for the actual Ingathering Sunday on the 27th.
More time bending...No worries.
But right now I am thinking about the theme for that Sunday. I am thinking about water, its powers, its flexibility, and its vastness. I am thinking about the rough currents of this time. "Fortune is a river," says Machiavelli, and many of us feel the uprooting force of fortune in flood. Frankly one would have to be pretty darn insulated to see and hear the news of the past few weeks and be able to deal with it on a purely intellectual level.
The problem for the preacher these days is how to address the many current crises of our time while also connecting to the Divine. The challenges of this world drag us into the muck where we fight. That fighting is good and necessary! This is no time to be polite in the face of state-sanctioned violence, government neglect, and environmental catastrophe. There is no excuse to hide for long in the face of the bending of time.
However, the power that we draw from to keep from getting consumed comes from our faith and we need a strong faith now.
You see, I firmly believe that the blessing of a faith that challenges us is that it prepares us for the challenges we face. I also believe--given the world we live in--that our faith will not be able to sustain itself on its own. The spiritual path needs tending. Those of us who tend it regularly--at least our own if not the faith of others--are struggling. What about the people who got busy and haven't checked in with The Ultimate lately? What about the ones who are discovering that relying on cute quotes from Facebook memes isn't the way to keep keep one's eyes on the prize when the sky is on fire?
Anyway, preachers, I see you this morning. Church leaders of all stripes, I see you too. I feel like I am not doing my best work in a time when my best work is necessary and I know that some of you feel that way as well, no matter why you couldn't sleep this morning. Here is the thing, though, we, at least, need to rely on that relationship we have cultivated in better times. Even now--especially now!--we must let go a bit of our own responsibility, our own reliance on competencies, and fall back into God. We need to pray (or meditate or study or whatever your particular discipline is) we need to pause. We need to understand that when we work at our best we are reaching into the hidden world to build a better world that is not concealed.
If you take care of your hearts and souls, I will take care of mine, but we need to do this together and with others. Then we can reach out to care for this hurting world. It will require humility. It will require that we look beyond ourselves, not just to God but to other human beings and to nature. Self-reliance is killing us. So is the cult of individualism.
Tomorrow's sermon (already recorded and in the can) is about our struggles with new rules; with trying to do the right thing in this world. I think on Ingathering Sunday I will lean into the vastness of Creation and the power of Divine Love once again. We need to remember its presence when there are forces in this world interested in stripping it from us. We need to manifest it, too, even though the reaction is...less than ideal. It takes faith. It takes courage. It takes hope for the world.
Yesterday, while we were all discovering that Justice Ginsberg had died, my son and I were testing out the new "portable fire pit" at the parsonage to prepare for the Yard Theology session that will occur on our driveway later today. It is cold--52 Fahrenheit where I am sitting right now--but we need to see people. We need to talk. We need to remember our shared humanity during this time. Wherever and however you are today, I hope you find it. Let me know if I can help. We can do this. I do believe it.
Today I pray
That the new week will be better than the next
That hope will come out of this darkness
That we see our connection to each other
To the Divine
And I pray
For the strength and wisdom
To travel through the rough land
To the better land beyond
We aren't the sort of church that comes up with elaborate plans, preferring the adjust on the fly in response to current developments. We don't have measures or criteria for a return to in-person worship. We just know we will know when it is time. And we know it isn't time yet.
Here--for interested parties--is my report from last night's Parish Committee meeting. The meeting was pretty much unprecedented. We rarely have a session in August. The report is brief and vague in parts because we are still adjusting and adapting. We want to make sure we do the right thing, which will come organically rather than formally.
Midsummer Report 2020
I am abandoning the usual format to provide a quick update on our still-developing plans for the fall rollout. All of this information is in development as we return from our usual midsummer break, so please feel free to chime in with questions and concerns. Obviously none of us have had a church start quite like this.
Basic Plan for Worship: We are currently planning to stay online through YouTube, at least for our "big" service on Sunday morning. Over the summer we have built in some efficiencies, including hiring a film editor to up our game a bit and take some of the tech pressure off staff and volunteers. This will enable us to focus on some other non-tech areas as well as improve our virtual offerings. A schedule is being worked out. The September dates and themes will be in this Thursday’s Newsletter.
Mid-week Videos and Columns: I am looking for ways to update and deepen the mid-week videos that appear on Facebook and in the newsletter. These have fallen off a bit, in part because of the increased editing load for Sunday worship. In addition, I will be posting written material on my web-page weekly. The links will be in the newsletter.
Finally, Tara, Felicia, and I will be coming up with a plan around the newsletter(s). As all of these represent another opportunity for “contact” in this rather contact-free time, they are of greater importance than usual.
Small Gatherings: The various stake-holding committees are working on ways to gather in person, outdoors, and in small groups. The areas of need that have been brought up by a variety of people are many. Fortunately the distribution of interest is quite even so the groups will naturally be small! The target number of people will likely be 8 with a max of 10.
Roughly, though, they look like this:
Child RE: (RE Committee)
Adult RE/Pub Theology (Worship Committee)
Worship (Worship Committee)
Social (Membership Committee)
Office Hours: I am separating this one out because it falls to the staff to plan this. As of next week we (I) will begin outdoor office hours on the parsonage lawn. I might eventually move to the church once Tara returns, or have some in both locations so the two of us can manage any confidential conversations we might have.
If you want to meet with me in person this week, please drop me a line! The only reason I haven’t set a regular time yet is because my rehab schedule has not yet been set. Bring your own beverage. Frankly I could use the practice figuring out the logistics. As a dedicated festival-goer, however, I do have an awning for inclement weather.
We will be “piloting” some gatherings in all these areas soon and will work out a schedule of events for the fall before it gets too cold!
Note: If anyone has a fire pit, please let us know. We have ordered one for the parsonage lawn but they are back ordered. If you have one we may want to ask you to host a gathering or two. This is not a frivolous request. We will need them to stretch our outdoor offerings into late fall and early winter. Thank you for your help.
Tara Note: Tara will begin in late August. I am meeting with her next week. The plan--as long as she is allowed--will include time here in Natick.
Personal Thank You: I just want to say thanks for all your support over the past few months as I figured out my back problem and recovered from surgery. Allison and I both appreciate it a great deal and are so happy to be part of this caring church community!
It has been a month since I checked in. As I recover from surgery to "fix" my back, I have been able to do some study and some work. Worship planning is moving along in fits and starts. Just when I think I have it set there are changes, new ideas and new topics that need to be addressed. There are new approaches to old subjects as well.
But while all of this planning for church--we will be pretty much virtual in most respects this fall--has lifted up some exciting new possibilities, I am also now able to be aware of some of the things we lost at least for now. There is something to the "old way" we did church in these parts. We are a smallish congregation. We are a casual and familiar people, given to friendly chatter and informal gathering. Traditionally our approach to worship reflects that. So does the sacred time when we gather in person well before "official" worship begins.
Now things are different. Way back in January--and for over a decade-and-a-half before--my Sundays began in pretty much the same way. I arrived around 7 or 7:30, read through my sermon, and checked the Order of Service for rhythm and flow. Then I would sit behind the pulpit, experience the silence of the place, and silently pray for a holy and restorative sabbath. I believe that God lives in the world, not in the sanctuary of the church. However, the sanctuary is a gathering place for the community of God and I still value my time in it.
Then--around 8 or 8:30 people would start trickling in. Our Intern/Assistant/Associate (the title keeps changing with the individual) arrives and we go through old and new business, figure out who we need to talk to and about what, then we go over the service again. The choir, the deacons, the money-and-building people, the Music Director, coffee hour hosts and a few others who can't stay away until kickoff swing by as well. We catch up with each other and maybe do some light business (we have a "no business talk during coffee" rule that I occasionally forget). Then we are usually running late for the start and we rush to our places.
Then worship happens in all its human and Divine glory. During worship--even though most of us sit stock still as is our individual custom--we feel each other's presence. From my perch I can see everyone, but everyone knows who is there and often how they are feeling. We have looked around. We have checked in.
Sometimes--like on Pageant Sunday--it feels like we all are there to rehearse and plan the worship beforehand...then we just do it again. Those are the best times.
During the Postlude it is off to coffee. Some few rush out to various activities shouting their apologies as they hustle past me and through the door. Others stay...and stay...and stay. There is just so much we (or at least some of us) want to communicate to each other! Families bring two cars so the more verbose can talk until lunch. Then, when the last word is said I and the Intern/Assistant/Associate and the Music Director take a moment to collect ourselves, close the place up, and look forward to the next Sunday when we will be together with everyone again.
I guess what I miss the most isn't the structured part of worship, but all that used to happen around it. Structured worship we can still do. Thanks to judicious editing there are times when our recorded services are so much more organized and effective. Still, the people are not with us in the same way. "Virtual Coffee Hour" fills some of the requirements but there isn't the old flow and the constant distraction of other small, unplanned groups parallel chatting in the parlor and the sanctuary.
I miss the chaos and energy. I miss the snacks and the bored kids. I miss the party even a low Sunday can bring. I miss hanging out with my friends, people who have raised children together; who have gone through great victories and heartbreaking tragedies, marking their time with each other.
Anyway that is part of what I am thinking about these days as I get ready for a continuance of the strangest year ever. We are working on some in-person things, though. Maybe we can gather in people's back yards or by the river. Maybe we don't have to give up hikes and Pub Theology. Is it still "Pub Theology" if there is no Pub? BYOB(everage) and find out. Yeah these are small groups and the chaos is a different one, if still holy.
We will be fine but, man, I cannot wait to get back...whenever that may be.
One thing I wasn't really able to do during the past few months is read. I did not expect this. It turns out--and I realize that many of you already know this--when one is experiencing extreme and chronic pain it becomes very hard to concentrate! Reading, of course, requires concentration. I had none.
I did manage some. However, the problem was that--with my limited bandwidth--my approach leaned toward the merely efficient and pragmatic. There was no pleasure reading. There was no research-for-fun reading. On the surface I was getting things done. Still...there was little time to focus on the things that would help me gain a deeper and broader sense of the world, of life, and of the human condition.
Now of course there was a great deal to be pragmatic and efficient about. First there were the decisions and discussions around the opening and closing of church. Then we had to think about how the congregation and I would respond to increased interest and energy in the national conversation on race and discrimination. These problems gave way to many smaller ones. Each required me to pay attention to current events, to interpret the articles and explanations of the diseases--both biological and societal--then help apply them to the shared experience of our congregation.
Finally--or perhaps ultimately--there were those worship services. Even in this era of video technology, the progressive Protestant .tradition that I and the church are part of relies heavily on the written word. There is the Bible, of course, that is read every Sunday. There are all the other texts as well. Some are from other faith traditions that help illuminate the theme for the day. Others--at least on the face of things--are more "secular." All of them require study and interpretation so that we can apply them to the text of our lived experience.
Other than the book of Job--which suddenly made much more sense to me--I had to be strategic in my approach. Out of physical necessity, I encountered the readings in small doses and digested them over time. However--and strangely for those who know me--I was actually somewhat prepared. At least, that is, when it came to worship.
Some history: For most of my ministry I would have scoffed at trying to plan out worship for an entire "church year" from September to June. However, three years ago while trying to entertain myself while on a study retreat, I managed to get a reasonable outline of topics completed. It kept me busy enough during that week away. Then, when the fall came around and it was time to step back into the pulpit...it worked!
Or, at least, I got more out of it than I put in up front. Basically, having thought about what to talk about back in August helped me to deepen my perspective when I finally got to that particular scheduled theme in October...or December...or February...then--in 2018--the system broke down. So much for the first try.
Last summer, though, I was ready to give it more time and intention. I compiled a reading list that spring that was made up mostly of books I had always been interested in. There were a few re-reads in there as well. There were also specific books of the Bible that I knew I wanted to hit again. Then, in one long week sequestered at my dad's house, I came up with themes and readings for every service of the year.
It is funny how things work out. I had no idea how strange things would become between then and now. However--while the themes were often altered to address the rapidly changing spiritual landscape of 2019-2020--I rarely needed to move a reading from it's assigned date. Every Sunday afternoon from late February through June--most of the time after watching myself preach on YouTube and wrapping up the "Zoom Coffee Hour"--I would take a look at that list, grateful to my summer self for planning ahead.
Now I am back at it again. I mean, really. I don't think I could have made it through the past few months with out the me of the past guiding my sermon prep! I mean...I am so disorganized in normal times! After all that happened, I am committed to the process for year number 3. It saved my bacon in more ways than I can count.
However...I am behind already. Now that the back is somewhat less of an issue--at least for now--I am binge-reading; digging in to a tall stack of neglected books. In order to maintain accountability, I have revived my old "Goodreads" page (last updated in 2013). Feel free to check me out over there. I use my real name so I shouldn't be hard to find.
I am also writing short reviews there and may cross-post them here. They are partly just for my own use. I need notes and some place to start so I can remember what I wanted to talk about when that topic is a mere two weeks out. Finally there are notes written in a notebook titled "Sermons '20-'21" and in the margins of the books themselves. I am behind in my reading, but I hope--if infirmities don't slow me down--to catch up in time for a late summer brainstorm.
Oh yeah...and I am on retreat of sorts for just this week. Then I will return home. There is a lot to get done while I am away from the parish. A change of scenery brings with it a change of attitude that I, at least, desperately need.
That is all for now! May all your summer studies be fruitful. Keep in touch. I am thinking of you.
I think that it is safe to say that things have been strange lately. I don't need to tell you why...you already know. However, I have to say that I am feeling the strangeness more now than I did at the beginning. I have been a little distracted since then.
You see, late in February, right before my son's birthday and right before our planned trip to PAX East I managed to injure my back. Long story short, after weeks of trying to stretch it out, and then taking prednisone, it didn't get better. In fact, if anything it got worse. One MRI later it turned out that I had a herniated disk along with underlying congenital lower lumbar scoliosis and stenosis. After a few shots and some PT I am now hopefully on the mend. Things are still a bit of a mess...but they are SO much better.
I spent most of March, April, and May in a metric ton of pain. I slept on the floor in the living room. I stumbled around inside the house unable to manage a walk outdoors. I was able to do my job--ironically--because the pandemic had forced us into “virtual church” so I could preach from the living room as well as sleep there. Otherwise, I probably would have had to take a leave of absence for at least a couple of weeks.
In most ways it was pretty depressing, particularly with all the chaos going on around us. However, it did keep me focused. I am grateful for that. I had only so much time to concentrate, so I spent it on the things that mattered most, like preparing the church for it's new "virtual" status and figuring out my own response to the new rules of pandemic engagement.
By the time the murder of George Floyd came to light, along with the national reaction of anger and mourning, I was better able to move--a little--and to take some small part in that response. As tragic as that situation is, there is something in the protests and policy initiatives that has the potential (if we continue to soldier on) to usher in real and lasting change. I am glad to be able to witness what I hope--most of us hope--will be a massive culture shift.
There is a lot I could say about our situation right now as a country. There are plenty of memes and such out in the ether that complain about the horribleness of this year. There are, though, glimmers of hope in areas that haven’t seen much of that in a long time. This year could be the year that we re-think racism and law-enforcement. We might just even re-think our responsibility to each other. There is a chance--a chance--that historians will look back at the many trying moments of 2020 and say that this year we are in--instead of being cursed--is when everything turned around.
But back to the strangeness for a moment; as the pain slowly becomes manageable, I find that I have more time to think and to read. However, much of that time is taken up with...anxiety. A couple weeks ago, when I was still sleeping on the floor, there were tasks to do. There were too many tasks, in fact, for me to sometimes manage them all. I had to concentrate on the problem before me. I had no time to reflect.
Now...now I have time and that isn’t always a good thing. I have been humbled, physically, emotionally, culturally. The next couple months are wide open for many. I look into the future and it isn’t all that clear where to go or what to do.
I am anxious about how to socially distance this summer and beyond. We talk about it as a family pretty much every night. We also talk about race. I worry about how not to get sick or get others sick. I am worried about how to be a good ally in the days, weeks and years to come.
I also want to be a good pastor. That means figuring out the waves and tides that will push us one way or another. It is always pushing us away from a world that may never be the same again--I can live with that--and toward something...as of yet unknown.
Anyway, I don’t miss the darkest days of this back problem. However, as I move back into the world I must say that I am impressed by all of you. You, dear reader, have been doing the hard work facing right into the storm. I am amazed. You have my support and my love. After all, we are all anxious with cause.
Lately I have been strong enough to take short walks around the neighborhood. There is a slow-moving log that until recently hung over the dam near my parsonage on the Charles. We all watch it with great intensity. My neighbors wave at me or stop to talk. To them I have become the masked version of a 19th century parson stumping along on my cane, drawing humorous comparisons to Horatio Alger Sr., who passes for famous in these parts. He was pastor during the Civil War, so at least contextually it is fitting in this hot summer to come. Then I get back to work at my standing desk.
People, we will keep fighting on, won’t we? Even though we are afraid. We come through these times of pain together doing our best to manifest the love that we and the world need. Then, in the end, we are that much closer to the Commonwealth of Heaven.
I have work to do. I am glad you are working, too.
So I am posting this Sunday's communion service here on the blog as I have made a number of edits to our usual service. There are a number of new prayers which would be great to recite in unison. This is hard to do in virtual worship so in case folks want and advance run...here they are. The entire communion service is based on a much-adapted (first by my predecessor, M. Boardman, and then by me) service from the Iona Community in Scotland. Some of it still remains so it should be a least a little bit familiar...
Eliot Communion June 7, 2020
Minister: We gather today in spirit, mindful of the trials of the world, but also aware of the divine abundance that exists within and without us; that waits for us and draws us together even in the darkest times.
All: We gather together knowing that this abundance can and will sustain and strengthen us for the journey to come.
Minister: Thanks be to you, O God, for the rising of this day and for the rising of life, itself. May you be with us in our suffering, may you guide us in our struggles, may you celebrate with us when we find joy, may you love with us when we find love.
For we confess this day that :
All: We have not touched, but trampled you in creation. We have not met, but missed you in one another. We have not received, but rejected you in the poor. Forgive us we pray. God, strong and holy, God holy and deathless, bless us with mercy, we pray.
Minister: Dear God, we recognize the special urgency of this day, when we have found our society tested. As a people we stand on the edge of decision. We can decide to continue along the same path we have trod for so long--ignorant of the plight of the oppressed--or we can choose a new direction, persisting in the act of opening our hearts so as to make an equal space for everyone.
God we pray for the wisdom to make the right choices and we are sorry for the choices that have brought us to this point in time. Help us to act with the abundance of our hearts toward all people, no matter how different they may appear from us. Help us to encounter this world in humility, without the burdens of our bias.
Prayer Against Violence
All: We pray for an end to violence as a tool to dominate others. We oppose it’s domestication and normalization in our society as a means to silence the voices of the powerless. We recognize our own complicity in this cycle even if we have never struck out in anger or self-righteousness. Please give us the clarity of vision to find and end the ways in which we have passively and actively contributed to the domination of others. Strengthen us to resist the temptation to ignore the cries that come from society’s margins in this current moment so that all your people may be healed and whole.
Prayer for the Health of the People
All: Dear God we also pray for those who are suffering--physically and mentally, directly or indirectly--from the current pandemic. Please help us to think not only of ourselves but also of those who we come in contact with, understanding that our perceived freedoms do not make us free if they rely on the suffering of others. Help us to care for each other during this difficult time by strengthening us to put our own conveniences aside for the good of those who are most at risk whether that risk is related to health, geography, race, economic circumstance, or any other measure. Help us to see our place in the interconnected web that binds all of creation together so we might bring about a diverse community of mutual care.
Prayer for the Private Cares of Individuals
All: Finally, we pray for the private struggles of individuals that we may never fully know or understand. We recognize that in the midst of these large, attention-grabbing stories there are still issues of birth and death, of illness and pain, of relationships and of isolation that occur beyond the news. We honor those among us who battle these demons far from the light and heat of current events. Help us to respond with love and care to our fellow humans. Help us to understand that we do not know fully what burdens they carry. Help us to make our world a safe place to share our burdens and find mutual support in our journeys.
Minister: At the Last Supper, Jesus, in sharing bread and wine invited his disciples to share his journey. Today we renew that journey with him and with a world of fellow-followers. Come, enter into communion with the Earth, the sky, the sea and all of creation.
Minister: Among friends, gathered around a table, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke the bread and gave it to those who were with him, likening it to his body, His life, which he gave for us and yet remains present to us.
Eat this bread in memory of Jesus and of those who are near and dear to us.
Minister: In the same way he took wine, and, having given thanks for it, poured it out and gave it to his disciples saying, “This cup is the new relationship with God, sealed with my blood. Take and share it."
Drink this wine in memory of Jesus and of those who are near and dear to us.
Minister: Spirit of the Living God, present with us now, may this bread and wine be heaven’s food and drink for us, renewing and making us whole, that we may be your loving and caring body in this world. Amen
Unison Prayer of Thanksgiving
In the end as in the beginning, God is God: Loved by us, wanted by us, praised by us, served by us, filling us with the gifts of the spirit, Making us whole for the good of the earth. For bread and wine, this place and time, thanks be to God, Amen
Can I share something with you?
Over the course of the day--today--I have felt an overwhelming surge of love and hope for our beloved progressive and liberal church. I don't just mean my own, little tiny church in suburban Boston...but all of them. Those of you who know me know this state of being isn't in my nature for long, so bear with me...we are on untraveled ground...
I was talking to my intern, Tara Humphries this morning over Zoom. She--rightly--is not permitted by her seminary in Connecticut to travel to her internship site but she has been a wonder and support to us at the church nonetheless.
We were discussing how her time with us has changed...
...Oh how it has...
Like good church folks, we gave some thought to the division of the psalms into ones of Orientation, Disorientation, and Re-Oientation (a conversation made easier by having the same Hebrew Scripture professor...albeit 20 years apart) and about how the first part of the year was the first and now we are in the second. We also talked about the third phase, still unseen for the most part, when we reorient to the new world and sing songs of thanksgiving again, not for a return to the old ways, but the approach of the blessed and good new ways, informed by the old but honed through tragedy, fear, chaos and despair to suit the new just, peaceful, and healthy world we seek to build.
That image kept with me today as I picked my way around the eerie emptiness of my almost 200 year-old church building. It stuck with me as I stood before my computer for email after email and meeting after meeting with my back turned to the chaos of my living room that circumstance has morphed into a recording studio, virtual pulpit, and classroom for me as well as an office for an 8th grader and a college Freshman.
And as the day went on...
As I "talked" to my staff and congregants and colleagues planning whatever we think might work for Easter and for future church programming...
As we figured out how to be safe and together and how to do normal things in the "new normal"...
...I realized how lucky I am...
In spite of all the darkness around us...
I am fortunate at least in this one way...
I have realized that the church--the liberal and mainline church--will survive this time and emerge changed and reoriented. It will grow.
The new thing is happening now, you see, and we are finally off our asses.
We are doing it! We. Are. Ready. I can see it...and I never ever really thought I would...
Lets be clear. I never thought I would still be active in the professional ministry when the new thing appeared. I have done my best for mentees and anyone else who I thought might be the ones to see it. The old ways aren't working. We know that. I thought I knew, though, that it wasn't for me to see what came next...except maybe in a pew, supporting my pastor in retirement.
It was my lot--I thought--to pave the way, wading through dubious advice and programming promoted by men (almost all men, right?) too old for the skinny jeans and tight T-shirts they sported; people who wouldn't last a day as the leaders of my church. I knew my place temperamentally and generationally. I would hold the door open for others to walk through.
"John the Baptizer I am. Be ready.....all will be well in time..."
Will you look at us now? I see you my friends. When I get "home" from my virtual worship service and get a chance to breathe, I check in on you. Lots of shaky cams and bad lighting and sound that cuts in and out? Can't get the hang of visiting your people over the darkened tube of...well...what we used to call "the tube"? Yeah, me too. It is overwhelming.
Guess what, though? Seth Meyers and Jon Oliver? Their sound stinks too these days but they are still heard aren't they? When I see you on the screen I do not feel the need or urge to mock or laugh. I see you being strong and getting it done. I love, love, love what I see!
Don't be self-conscious. What I see are clergy and lay people putting it all out there for each other. DIY-ing with the best. Use that iPad or cell phone or whatever. Screw with your background or not. Duct tape that sheet or camera or poster to the wall. It is beautiful. You are inspiring. You--we--are getting it done with love, grace, and authenticity. I couldn't be more proud to be a church person today. I couldn't be more proud to be part of this great profession...
Do we have hard times ahead? Yeah we do. Are there reasons to be sad and lonely and frustrated? Yes...yes...yes. There is death and illness all around. We are struggling to be there when we cannot actually be physically there. It hurts, we are frustrated. Everyone is and with good reason.
Compounding this are failures of leadership that abound in government and elsewhere, including the church. Don't think I have forgotten the grand-standers jeopardizing their flocks by opening their buildings instead of learning something new! I live in the same disoriented and disorienting world you do.
Yeah, I see this hard time we are in. I am afraid, too. Still...I didn't think I would see the new church and now I see just a little bit and that makes me so so happy. I want to see more. Take the party where you can, right? That is Palm Sunday. That is Easter, too.
Tara took this picture of our coffee hour on Sunday and sent it to me. Each of those faces are of people I love. Some are recent faces, but many I have known for years. The other pictures are from among our congregation, figuring it out, taking chances on this new world even in the current chaos. Colleagues (and future colleagues) you are doing great. Church leaders, you are too.
Let's stick together and see this new day. As hard as the journey may be right now...deliverance will come.
Then Palms of Victory, I declare.
A couple weeks ago, when this all started, I wrote a FB post about unschooling. Really, that is what many parents are finding themselves having to do. "Homeschooling" is the term that I hear and see on FB, which evokes images of projects and curricula and parents having to work way outside their comfort zones. However, "unschooling" is what many of us are really doing. On a very basic level it just means letting go and letting the kids explore their interests.
Does it mean more screen time? Yeah, probably. Does it mean fewer minutes taken in the pursuit of targeted learning goals? Yep. However, it also means stepping back and letting your child find their own way to learning what they are actually interested in. It also means maintaining your own sanity, which your kids need more than learning shapes and colors or long division.
Here is the basic fact of why I am writing you this. Recently there have been a number of articles about how stressed parents are right now and I get it. I am a parent, too. Still, I feel like my experience might help you let go a bit...
So...my middle child unschooled. He is in college now and on the Dean's List. I am not bringing that up to say "look at my smart kid". Instead I bring it up to let you know that he didn't go to to a structured school for four (4) whole years during what would have been his high school years and he is just fine. He also took 4th grade off...yes 4th grade! He also found his friends during that time. So if that is what you are worried about, please don't be, at least not right away.
We are not talking about 5 years of social isolation. Your child--who is also gifted (as all children are)--will be OK during this period as well. I also taught in an unschooling "learning cooperative" while my son was on his adventure. I have spent quite a bit of time with the "feral children". I have kept in touch with many of them. They have all grown to be responsible curious, brilliant young adults.
So I have some advice for you. You can take it or leave it, but, please...give yourself a break, practice forgiveness, and understand that this freedom--even if it turns out to be lots of boredom and TV--is a gift for you and your child. Even if it seems super weird right now...
FROM YOUR FRIENDLY FORMER (AND CURRENT AGAIN) UNSCHOOL PARENT.
So I was getting my youngest ready for his "Coronavirus School" today and remember that yesterday during virtual coffee hour, there were some questions about how to keep our children learning during this time. For me, I am having to dust off my pedagogical skills of a few years ago when my middle son "unschooled" for high school and part of elementary school. For others, this is new territory so I thought I would just mention a few things that have helped me...
MAKE BOREDOM YOUR FRIEND: Every kid I know was ever so slightly delighted by the extra free time of the past couple weeks. However, over that time...they got bored. Our brains do this to us to make sure we don't stagnate and rot. As they get bored, they will seek out something to fill their time that is more nourishing than video games. They truly will.
LET THEM CHOOSE WHAT TO STUDY: Once they are thoroughly bored they will start looking around for things to do. The temptation as a parent is to be like "Hey! The learning targets for the school say you need to understand linear equations. Go do that!" Instead...ask them what they want to do. What they choose may not sound academic. Who cares? It will be if they delve deeply enough. An interest in crafting can become a dive into the history and use (or science or practical math) of that craft. An interest in baseball covers biology, history, sociology, math, fitness, English (some of the most beautiful prose in our language is devoted to the game), religion, race, class, and so much more. Let them pick and help them get excited.
My unschooled son learned about history by going for walks. After a while he became interested in the Civil War veterans in the local graveyard. He taught himself (yes with my help) how to research a topic. He took out regimental histories from the libraries here and in Boston. In the process he learned how to be a historian and became a expert in the regiments of what we now call Metrowest. When he got tired of that he got into YouTube and wrote and directed two movies and numerous comic sketches. You get the idea.
HELP THEM WHEN THEY ASK: They will come to you with problems. Wait for them or--if you see they are struggling-- check in on them, but it is their project. Often they just need a gentle push toward resources.
SET A TIME FRAME: This is the "structure" part of our unstructured "school". They need to know--particularly at first--that they are expected to work on whatever their project is for a set amount of time per day. This still doesn't need to be a fight. They are bored and you are helping them not be bored. Let them know you are just helping by giving them the space and accountability for what it is THEY (not you) want to do.
Also...it doesn't have to be that much time.
This is important, keep your agenda somewhere else. I know you may be worried about your child's future success. We are often told--in large and small ways--that this sort of free time will doom them to mediocrity. Oh the anxiety of parenting in normal times! Believe me, though, it won't. We are told that so we and they can jump through certain hoops at certain moments to fill a certain slot in the economic engine. Guess what? That engine is being rebuilt. We don't don't know what it will look like. So even if we perceive the goal of education being economic "success" (which is a pretty poor definition of educational goals in my opinion) there are no targets to shoot for. There are no slots to put the kid in for now.
Look, we are not talking about forever here. We are talking about giving their minds a workout so they are still awake and ready when they get back to school--whenever that will be. They will be better for it. If anything, my unschooled son was better prepared for his freshman year because he knew how to take ownership of his education and didn't need to be enculturated to the greater personal autonomy of college. A couple weeks or months of this same approach will help your child feel more confident, too.
Remember: this time is not a compromise. It is an opportunity and an asset. We need to think that way. We need to step back, take care of what we can, and allow our children to grow and learn in their own way as much as we can. Their homeschool is not your job. It is theirs. You are not their supervisor, you are their parent, and their mentor. Give yourself and them a break.
Here is a sermon I preached a couple of years ago about the foundations of this approach. My son's "school" was a community of liberated learners called "Bay State Learning Center". In the sermon I mention their couch, where children sit before they get up and get going to learn and study in the way they determine for themselves. You might want to check out their Facebook page if you want to learn more.