Let's talk about mental health for a minute. After all...it is pretty important...
Yesterday was a bit of a mess for me. I had decided to film worship at home for a number or reasons. My intern is recording at home so it looks more consistent when I also do. The theme for this Sunday is more "homey" than many. It is a communion Sunday which has been most effective when filmed sitting at a table. That said, the process is a bit more complicated than the already complicated process of filming at church...and everything went sideways like it always does. .
I couldn't get anything right. It took over an hour to get the lights, cameras and mics up. It took another hour to get thing positioned properly for shooting. There was the added stress of using my cell phone camera (for the best picture) and a different recording device for sound. My iPad--and therefore my sermon--froze twice. Then uploading was a nightmare.
So I took some time out of my day to have a meltdown. I was frustrated about everything. I felt bad because my film editor--a beloved former youth grouper who does this sort of thing for work--will now have to do extra editing. I was annoyed with myself for looking at my notes so much during recording (still am). Everything required waiting and I hate waiting. It was a day with other work plans that just didn't get done. Furthermore, everyone around me was frustrated, too. My wife was conducting her therapy sessions over zoom. My sons were in Virtual High School and Virtual University for most of the day. Here was Dad...stomping around.
Now...we made it. I was able to lean on my family and they were able to lean on each other and on me. However, it reminded me of the stress we can and do feel. After all, mental health is something we talked about in the before times. Add in the stressors of "the Holidays" and of the pandemic and we can expect plenty of strain. There will be abundant opportunities for yelling, tears, complete overwhelmed inaction, and more besides in the weeks and months to come. Lucky us.
To be clear, I am generally a moody person even in the best of times. Holiday anxiety and depression, therefore, have often gotten the best of me. I expect it to be worse this year. I also expect that some folks who are of a cheerier disposition and usually make it through this time relatively unscathed will find themselves in darker territory than what they are used to. This is a major concern not just for me, but for the church and for society in general. Already among the pandemics we are dealing with right now is a mental health one. I don't foresee this getting better for some time.
Yeah, the vaccine is just a few months away...sometime in the spring and summer for most of us...but that doesn't change our right now. It also doesn't alter the internal disconnect of our time. The "Dark Winter" is here and we are expected to be...festive? We need to be mindful of our feelings.
Anyway, as I write this I realize--as I have many times before--my own inadequacy in addressing the many dimensions of the challenge of maintaining mental health. That said...I can try...right? With that in mind, here are the things that I try to do in order to maintain my own mental health. These are practices for non-holiday/non-pandemic times, too. However, I also attempt to be more intentional about them during the holidays. I am not an expert and I mess up constantly so if they help, great. If not, ignore me.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that physical and mental health are connected. I don't really know the "how's" and "why's" of it, but I know it works for me. In fact, one of the biggest mental health challenges I have right now is that I am still recovering from back surgery and cannot engage in nearly the number of activities that I used to. I have written about this elsewhere but suffice it to say that the struggle is still real. Last year I ran a 5k on Thanksgiving. This year I managed a walk. In fact, I seem to have injured myself yesterday doing what I think of as the base activity in my exercise regimen--literally the least I can do. I used to be capable of so much more.
OK...whine time over. While I have had to scale down a bit, this doesn't mean that you should. A healthy body sends positive signals to our ol' brains. The exercise, itself, takes up time and gives us something to focus on. These are good things! If you are a competitive person and the possibility of comparison stresses you out, start exercising by yourself. Go walking or running and stop when you want to without regard for distance or speed. If you already exercise, I suggest re-committing now rather than waiting for the new year. Do something physical as regularly as you can...unless you strain something. Then you need to take a break and see what else you can do to fight the blues...
2) Food and Drink:
Obviously this is a companion piece to the one above and we all know what we are supposed to do...don't gorge ourselves. In the past this is where we would warn about overeating and overdrinking at parties. Now, we warn people about even attending parties! The fact is, though, many of us eat more and less healthily when we are stressed. We--most of us and certainly me--are gaining weight right now. That is not what I am talking about! I am concerned, instead, with behaviors and addictions that could derail us mentally and socially. Therefore, the most important thing is not some internal food lecture, but instead kindness.
First, be gentle with yourself. There is a pandemic going on. We are talking about awareness more than anything else. People are very judgey about food and we judge ourselves pretty darn harshly much of the time. Let's just not do that this year OK? Second, we still need to be aware of what we are putting in our stomachs. Balancing out that food might just help both body and brain.
Also, let's talk about alcohol. This is the big challenge for many of us. I don't need to tell you why. Regulating our emotions in this way is rarely a good idea. Right now it is pretty darn risky. For this, I have a recommendation. During my back crisis I couldn't drink alcohol and I got into non-alcoholic (NA) beers in a big way. It is an industry that has come a long way from O'Douls and if you--like me--enjoy the tradition, taste, and atmosphere around "having a beer", I recommend you take a look at Athletic Brewing Company and Bravus Brewing Company.
I have a standing monthly subscription with Athletic Brewing which I augment with Bravus (whose stouts I like better). NA beers have less than half a percentage point of alcohol and (bonus) substantially fewer calories. Athletic is particularly low-cal...hence the name. I still drink regular beer but the vast bulk of the beer I drink now is NA and I don't really miss my old habits. Also this has become one of my "Nerd Things" so reading and researching the topic is one of the ways I stay happy. If you need any advice or guidance, let me know!
3) Nerd Things
Yeah...you knew it was coming. Really this is the linch-pin for my holiday survival and my general survival of life itself. I just wanted to get #1 and #2 out of the way because they are obvious.
There are things I am into and I make sure that I get into one or more of them every day. That's right...every day. One of the ways to keep ourselves in balance is to make sure that there are positive-to-us activities and interests that we engage with daily. In times of stress we can stop doing those things because we think they are frivolous and less important precisely because they make us happy. What is that about?! We need to make sure we see the importance of these things in our lives and pursue them.
Now some of my nerd things I actually have to do regularly. I am into religion, which is a big part of my job. I also have commitments with people to play role-playing games. I play the mandolin and ukulele and sing both in private and in church. If any of these nerd things interest you, I encourage you to check out this very web page. I write about them--complete with their own headings--because the web page is also a nerd thing for me.
Most likely, though, you will want your own weird obsession. That is the point. Don't delve into my stuff. Just ask yourself what would make you happy. The key thing to get going, though, is making some sort of commitment. If you are the sort of person who does well making a commitment just to yourself, more power to you. I am not. I need accountability. I need a "band" (which is harder to do right now) and I need a gaming group (which is easier to do thanks to technology). You might need responsibility to others to make time for yourself, too. One way might be to leverage the season a bit. Are you crafty? Make presents. Spoiler alert: My wife is making a bunch of scarves for immediate family.
Otherwise I suggest trying to recruit people who are interested in the same things to egg you on. You can also join a group. It doesn't need to be an intense one. My NA beer FB group falls into that category. I only know a few people on it personally, but I would I have never gotten into it in the way I have otherwise.
4) Not Doing Stuff:
Ok...this one is important and often overlooked. We can remind ourselves to take walks, watch our diet, stop drinking so much, and do things we like. The rubber meets the road when we try to NOT do things. It is important--unless the thing is truly pressing--to take a pause and wait for the spirit to move you.
For example, this year--as a culture--we are all about the decorating. We believe it will make us happier and for many people it will! However, it could also become just another task. On my porch are two Christmas wreaths that we bought days ago. They aren't up yet. They just sit there. We also haven't gotten our tree yet in "the year of getting our tree early". Maybe the wreaths and the tree will go up today...or maybe not. It is not important. They definitely fall into the category of "small stuff" we shouldn't sweat.
This principle, frankly, can be applied to many things...even bigger stuff. "For everything there is a season," right? We need to wait for the "season" (in the theological/biblical sense) and not force things. I urge you to take the time over the next few months to think about the seasons of your activity. Give your self a break! When the "Great Unpleasantness" is all over, we still need to be functional. In fact, we need to thrive. Think of the stuff you don't have to do right now and...don't do that stuff.
5) Ignore the Negative Voices
I promise this is the last one for today. In our society there are all kinds of expectations. some of these are public and out loud. Some of them are quietly thought or whispered. Sometimes other people judge us. Often we judge ourselves. Let's find a way to turn that crap off. No, you don't have to do more than you are able. No, you don't have to be cheerful. You can do less. In fact...you should! I do not know anyone who isn't busting their butts to get through the day right now. You are not lazy. You are worthy. Shut those negative voices down. Their values don't have to be yours.
Also, don't compare! You may feel like you don't have it together like everyone else. My bet is that you are doing about as fine as anyone. If you were hanging out with me yesterday you would certainly think you were in better shape than the parsonage folks. It takes intention to do this. Make it your Advent exercise. Then fill the silence formerly occupied by negative voices with positive ones. Heck, throw a few positive words out into the universe for others to hear. That way we will ALL get through this.
8) Oh Yeah...Find Support
This one is implied in the other headings. However, maybe it should be said explicitly. Reach out when and where you can. For me, my family and my church are big helps. So are the people I game with, play music with, hang out (mostly online these days) with and so on. It can be a challenge, though, can't it? Please let me know if I can be of assistance. This is a tough time. We all need to reach out to each other in whatever way we can.
7) Watch this Video from the Before Times...or not...Whatever Works for You
I didn't make it, but one of my nerd things is YouTube hiking vids and one of the people I watch made this a couple years ago so...
OK so...I have always been a religious person. Spirituality, theology, ethics, and philosophy were interests of mine since before I could remember. Honestly I think that as kids we are all intrigued by the question or our existence and purpose. Over time--and as we develop more accessible passions--those questions retreat to the backs of our minds and wake us up in the middle of the night occasionally.
Am I living a just life? What is love? How do I act out of love? What will I do with this time before I die? These are hard questions to think about when we are trying to tag all the mundane bases of modern life.
After all, asking these questions doesn't get us any more cash. If we take them seriously we sometimes get less! They also don't get the grocery list done or the house cleaned or the report filed. This means that most of us have little time to truly consider these questions and so being "spiritual" becomes associated with a vague warm feeling we experience on Christmas Eve or on top of a mountain. In those moments we are forced--in the face of awesome beauty--to at least acknowledge our connection to something greater. Then, holiday or vacation over, we return to the grind of the "real" world.
Look, I love to hike. I love Christmas Eve! However, there is so much more to these questions and how we answer them. To think of our faith as something that exists in a discrete box--literal box in the case of a church building and metaphorical box in other cases--in our lives is to miss the point of the religious life. To live a life of faith is to consider these questions all the time. Then, through these questions, we touch the Transcendent. We experience the Divine and let it influence our next steps.
Now clergy--like all people--go through rough spots in their faith and discipline. Our beliefs change and grow. We reject some ideas in favor of others and then sometimes return to the original belief. We also go on autopilot sometimes. The fact is, most of the work of a clergy person isn't terribly religious on the face of it. There are a lot of meetings and lots of planning for things. There are parties, classes, discussions and whatnot. Setting these events up isn't terribly theological. I have been through quite a few periods where I start to lose track of my faith and become basically like any other non-profit administrator. Then--usually--something will happen that reminds me that I am, in fact, a pastor. In those moments I recall that even the boring, mundane work of my day requires me to act out of big questions and their answers.
I bring this up because when the pandemic started--along with some personal physical problems noted elsewhere in my blog--I was pretty sure that I would go into "survival mode" and that the journey of faith would take a back seat to everything that had to be done. There have been times where this was true. It is particularly difficult to stay faithful when there are thorny problems in need of resolution and a number of voices and differing opinions "speaking" at the same time. Occasionally I have struggled a bit while trying to seek consensus that hasn't really been there and trying to be rational for too long. However, in the end, I have found myself letting go and falling back into the answers those questions force upon me. I am learning to fall back on faith.
It is weird to think of this as being something less-than-obvious in a congregation, but we all live in the practical "real" world. My faith community is filled with problem solvers who enjoy marshaling facts and applying them to sticky situations. Listening to hearts is harder. We are not rewarded for this behavior in our non-church lives. Our basic approach is to fight to get our way. We are surprised and frustrated when we don't.
Right now though...things have changed. These days the path to survival and growth lies in thinking about others. It lies, in fact, in spirituality, ethics, theology, and philosophy. It is embedded in what we do in our religious lives. Social distancing--like social justice--is a practice of putting someone else's needs above our own both actually and symbolically. It means asking questions with no easy answer and putting our own egos aside for the sake of the group. This is a time where our faith needs to be strengthened. Which means it must be flexible. It must bend and not break. It means we must be intentional and conscious of all that is around us and move how the spirit directs.
Anyway, I have had to make some tough decisions lately. Some of them are no doubt unpopular in certain quarters. Like everyone I know, I don't really have much of a clue what the future will hold for us. Yet I find joy in what I have discovered about my faith in this dark time. I was never sure it would withstand something like this. Instead it has grown.
So a short celebration is in order, right? I hope that your faith is holding you up. If it is, congratulations! I congratulate you from my social distance. If it isn't then I am praying for you. All I can say is that I have been there and odds are I will be again. Keep up the good fight and let me know if you need anything.
OK, essay over. I need to get back to work. There are more hard decisions today as there are most days. I will be thinking of you all. We will make it. We truly shall.
So we had our outdoor communion service yesterday. It was our third attempt at such an event and you know...I think we are getting the hang of it. I made it up to the church early--like I used to--in time to run through the brief words I was planning to say, It was All Saint's Day. The church, of course, was quiet. It always is at that hour. the fact that we still use parts of the sanctuary for storage reinforced the feeling a bit.
Then the rest of the "crew" arrived. We set up with relative ease on the steps of the church. There was the communion table we always use, and the bread (for the first time individually wrapped communion wafers). Of course we also had the wine and the "wine". We always use the single-serving "little cups" for communion so--as long as we don't pass the plate and instead have folks step up to the table--they are naturally distanced. Everything was laid out on their respective trays the day before. They were maximally safe.
the whole thing made for an odd combination of high and low church. Partly we were doing what we usually do. Partly we were a bit "off". However I would say we were comfortably off. Nothing felt alien.
Finally, we decided on a "sound system". We had a microphone and a used practice amp that I bought a few years ago for $25. The goal was to reduce any yelling the officiants had to do. I yell when I am just chatting with someone. I yell even louder if I think people cannot hear me.
Then people began to arrive. We waited the start time a bit so that folks having trouble getting settled could do so. Most people stood. We grabbed a chair for one person who has trouble standing. We grabbed a mask for one person who forgot theirs. Then we got rolling. The service may have been a bit casual for All Saints and it was definitely shorter--slightly under 25 minutes. However, it was the reason and the ritual for gathering. Truthfully we hung around for well over an hour in the end. It was good to see folks in 3D.
This is the sort of thing I am willing to be a cheerleader for. As a church we are affiliated with the UUA and the UCC but really we are a community church and Congregationalist in its broadest definition. Worship isn't a discrete moment that happens in a specific place or at a specific time. It is what happens when we live our lives together as a community and a congregation. That is part of the tension, sometimes, when we think about how to respond to the pandemic. In another tradition--though I am actually having trouble thinking of any--perhaps there is a reason to elevate the "show" of worship over the communal needs of members. We are not a part of that tradition, though. We are part of one where we assess the needs of the people before putting folks at risk. the body and the spirit are connected after all.
Yes, there are reasons why we might want to step--as a group--through those doors and into the sanctuary. There are issues of mental health, which I take very seriously. There are issues of church growth which I am not sure rise to the same level right now. I believe--and I know I have said it before--that God is Love. Sometimes we show our love for each other and for God by being together. Sometimes we show it by being apart. Sometimes we show it by standing on the church steps to take communion on a cold, snowy, November day. Part of our job--not just my job but all of our jobs--is to lead with that. We are opening our hearts during this dark time to the Divine and to our fellow, fragile, human beings.
Back when I, my ministry, and Facebook were young, there used to be a big fight every year in the online "clergysphere" about whether it was ever appropriate to cancel worship during a snow storm. Many people--including many religious liberals who served churches that closed in July--insisted that church remain open saying, "God must be worshipped in God's sanctuary". What a tiny God that must be to live in our tiny buildings. I never found that argument to be terribly compelling.
God is not lonely. God doesn't need us to come visit. God is everywhere. Love is everywhere and we must adapt to what nature throws at us, knowing that the Divine presence is, in fact present wherever we may be in our storms and trials, Let us seek that Divine Love. We sure do need it now.
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.
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.