Last night we had one of my favorite events. Every year on the night before Halloween the congregation and our neighbors surround our church with jack-o-lanterns and light them up during rush hour. We almost didn't do it this year--there was a snowstorm--and the general down-beat nature of the time was pushing against us. However, this is the holiday tradition that requires the fewest pandemic modifications. It is outdoors, after all, and we need to wear masks...on Halloween.
Anyway, for the most part the event was great, but after a couple hours I was happy to get back home. I was frustrated--not by the jack-o-lanterns, or seeing my friends, or the excited cluster of kids--but from having to field complaints about why we are not having in-person, indoor, worship on Sunday mornings. As the pastor, I am part of the team that makes decisions around how to handle COVID and I am also the one who gets to hear from people who disagree. I get that but, man, it's not easy.
Honestly, I do understand. I would rather be in church, too. I have built my whole life around what happens inside that building. The rest of the week when other people go about the rest of their lives...I am still there. The rituals of the church are a part of my identity. The church I serve and have served for over 17 years is part of my identity. I cannot stress this enough. I find it damned depressing to not be able to go in there and stand before the entire congregation to do what I do. But there is a problem. The plague doesn't care about any of that.
When people complain about the church being closed I sometimes wonder if they know there is a pandemic on. Do they know how much the church leaders would like to be having church in person? In my heart I know they do. It isn't fair to them, but there yah go. We have also heard about the church that was open and everything worked out (so far) just peachy. Yet we also--because it is our job to research these things--know that that situation is unusual.
The fact is, this disease can kill you. If it doesn't kill you, it can ruin your life. I think at this point we know enough folks who have had it. All those people who catch it but don't die? Many of them will be struggling with the results of this disease forever. It seems like quite a risk to take just to be in church. My theology doesn't sustain belief in a God that would demand that of human beings. God does not live in our sanctuaries.
Another thing we forget is the fact that we are not as young and healthy as we think we are. I am a few months shy of 50 years old, myself and that does NOT make me immune. It is quite the opposite situation...and I am still considered young for my congregation.
I see a few things at play here. First off, I am not sure most people respect nature nearly as much as they should. Here in the 'burbs we can go for a walk on the local rail trail and think we are in the wilderness. We are not. We think we can control nature and, therefore, the virus. We cannot do that either. I am tired of my northern relatives sending me articles of the increasing numbers of people being airlifted off the Presidents and Mount Katahdin. I am tired of the articles about the massive amount of litter left by my fellow suburbanites shedding weight when they realize that the mountain they are on is not like "hiking" at the local Audubon sanctuary.
Given our inability to remember our masks when we leave the house (along with our unwillingness to turn around and go get them). I think I will be getting more of those articles.
Second, we have learned so much about managing this virus. This is a good thing...but it is a double-edged sword. It feels to all of us like--given what we know--we should be able to do what we want. We have waited for a long, long time. It should be over by now. Problem is...it isn't over. In fact it is getting worse again. I know that I and others keep asking ourselves where the line is between a safe event and a spreader event. We, too, feel the "group-think" inclination to declare victory merely because we deserve victory. It is challenging to push back against that in our own lives. It is even harder to do so in community with people we love, who want to return, and who we want to keep safe.
Just now I was talking to my wife, trying to figure out what we do for tomorrow's communion service. I am meeting with the Head Deacon later. There is snow on the ground. It will be cold. Is this the time that we head indoors? If so...how and why? As the weather gets worse I know that at some point we will need to format worship differently in order to be indoors (smaller groups, assigned seating, MASKS, et cetera). The problem is, each thing we know is true also opens up more questions. It is so tempting to ignore those questions and move straight to a certainty that oddly fits our convenience.
I also think there has been a massive failure of leadership at the national and state level.. Everybody wants to be the cheerleader. We all want to say that we are "rounding the curve" or that--at the state level--the resurgence of numbers is just because of those darn kids and their parties. We are not rounding the curve and--sorry Governor--there doesn't seem to be enough evidence to blame the new numbers on the kids.
The fact is, we don't know why we are still catching it other than that we aren't doing what we should in general be doing. Someone needs to make sure we don't backslide. However, big-time politicians like to be popular. We all do. Therefore the hard work of saying "no" has fallen to local leaders, local business people and, yes, local pastors. I have also, as a parent and citizen, had other people who are in a similar role say "no" to something I wanted to do. I know they don't want to say it. I also know that they have no choice. Sometimes, I have to remind myself that we are all in the same boat.
Anyway, my most comfortable role in these situations is to be the cheerleader, too. I want there to be a coherent argument from the government about what is and is not safe, instead of personal theories that reinforce other people's personal theories. I want it so I can tell people that they are doing great and we will get through this! I want everyone to understand that we are facing great risks but that we have the spirit to persevere. However, since as a society we have decided everyone gets to do the cheering, I have to be among those who tell people to wear a mask. I am the one who gets to tell folks when and how we will worship indoors. I don't like it. But that is how it is.
I am not a cheerleader today. There are a lot of smiley faces being slapped onto desperate situations. That optimism is generating a sense that we can negotiate with the plague and that if we want something very much we will get it. I am having to be honest with the church instead of super-perky. That is my job, too...as exhausting as it is. Pretending otherwise isn't going to help.
You know what though? In my best moments I realize that God is on our side in this moment. As I said earlier, God does not live in the church, but among the people; inside us and between us. God is Love and love is where we must begin our response to life every single day. This is just as true as we move through this winter.
In the end I am a pastor. All I can do is talk about faith and worship. Faith is something we possess that a loving church community can help us sustain. Worship is when we connect to the Divine, sometimes in transforming ways. Neither of these require a specific building or sanctuary. So what I do--what all my clergy colleagues do--is find ways for ourselves to worship and for others to worship as well.
We are wandering in the wilderness. This isn't the wilderness at Baxter State Park but instead the wilderness of our society and our souls in transition. God is in this wilderness with us and while we would like to find Her in the old familiar ways, right now we must journey on and discover new--hopefully mostly temporary--ways to gain that connection.
Here is a video that I sent to the church this morning. It is typical of the sorts of things I have to say in person, too. Be safe out there and be kind to each other.
I went out for a walk at Glenwood Cemetery this morning before work. It is important to get out these days. I would have gone anyway (I need the steps) but we are having our first snowstorm and It was worth taking a moment to greet it. Snow makes things quiet. It reminds us that in the end nature will prevail over we fragile mortals. It also, of course, alters the landscape and makes old visions new. Now that I am not moving around as much as before, these changes in the neighborhood are even more worth marking.
Also--and this is important as well--I knew that there wouldn't be that many people out. Even in the pandemic, snow and rain keep the numbers down so the suburban outdoors feels bigger than it usually does. On my way over to visit the Algers (former denizens of the parsonage), I did pass the time of day with one neighbor and her dog. That was good, too. I made a video of the Algers in their current situation. Sometimes cemeteries are just pretty, even around Halloween.
I greet the snow with ambiguous feelings every year. I don't like to drive in it. I don't like to shovel it (a task made harder with my new back). I also don't like how, when I need to be somewhere, I must begin earlier in order to "gear up." However, walking is good. I love walking and this adds a new dimension and a certain magic to the whole endeavor.
When it is my turn to run a roleplaying game I often start it in winter, because it is so much easier to see the mystical in the mundane. In the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, snow is a heavy-handed metaphor for the absence of the Divine but I have always seen it the other way. The simple lines of the familiar make us see the whole environment we move through in a different way.
Anyway, it was a nice distraction to get out and remember that--even as we prepare for a winter of rising infection rates along with social unrest--the snow gives us a gift as well. amazingly it is still coming down. It looks like shoveling is in my future at some point. still, I will enjoy it when I can.
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.