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.