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.