If a Church Falls in a Small City, Does Anyone Care?

Hallowell, Maine is a very small city in the middle of the state, just south of the capital, Augusta.  The mighty Kennebec River serves as the boundary on the eastern edge of the city that is home to about 2500 people, although it often seems bigger than that.  There’s a largeness of spirit that exists in Hallowell.  Residents call it the “little Easy” or the “New Orleans on the Kennebec.”

A recent local newspaper article carried the very sad news that the Episcopal church in Hallowell is closing.  The church’s stately building sits just a block away from Old South.  Since Hallowell’s clergy are mostly part-timers, sometimes with more than one church to cover, there is little clergy connection these days.  So, the news of the closing of St. Matthew’s came as a surprise to me, and a big one at that.

Central Maine is home to many church closures.  The Episcopal church in Augusta closed several years ago.  The small congregation that was left at the end merged with the Lutherans.  The Congregational church in Gardiner, just a couple of towns south of Hallowell, closed years ago.  The remaining congregants did not merge with another church, although a small group came to Old South.  And, the Roman Catholic churches in the area have been in the process of consolidating, with some buildings mothballed, others sold, and still others demolished.

The church closures mostly appear to involve what can be described as Protestant “mainline” churches, the old churches that grace many a New England town common—plus Roman Catholics churches.  Most of the closures take place without much of a fuss, except for the small group that’s left to make the decision, that the expenses and demands of staffing and maintenance have finally proven too much to bear.

In the case of this most recent closure, of St. Matthew’s Episcopal (along with its yoked companion, St. Barnabas in Augusta), appeared to elicit little response.  The article in the paper inspired only two online comments, and one of those was from a parishioner who wanted to clarify a couple of issues that the reporter had got wrong.

It’s no surprise that churches are closing.  There are plenty of studies and reports that have documented the decline of church attendance and connection, especially in the Mainline.  Still, it’s heartbreaking to get the news that yet another church has closed or is on the brink of closure.  And, it’s even more heartbreaking that so few seem to care.

St. Matthew’s will close, with some sort of small ceremony, presumably when the pandemic is at least mostly over and people can gather once again in person.  I suspect that only a small number of people in Hallowell will take any notice at all.  Some may have believed that the church had already closed.  We’ve heard comments along those lines regarding Old South, especially when we ask people not to park in our parking lot without asking.  “Oh, you’re still open?” they ask, clearly surprised to learn that we are still an active faith community, though we are mostly online these days.

What happens as church after church falls, and hardly anybody seems to notice, or care?  What happens as people turn their back on yet another church building looking to be repurposed, and a small congregation feeling lost and abandoned?

I realize that it’s too much to ask that people consider giving church a try, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask that more attention be paid to those churches that close.  Many of these churches have been integral elements of the community, offering a spiritual foundation, a place to observe milestone moments in our lives, and help in times of trouble.

Don’t they deserve something better than the cold shoulder?

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What Does the Future Hold?

Before the pandemic hit, the governing board of Old South Church had begun the slow, unwelcome business of exploring Old South’s future.  With two buildings, and a shrinking congregation, we had important questions and issues to discuss.  The questions and issues we faced (and continue to face) were ones that not one of us ever envisioned when we first became active in church life many years ago.  Thankfully, we were not in a state of crisis, unable to pay bills and so forth, and that offered an opportunity to be thoughtful and deliberate, and free from a sense of panic.

Our pre-pandemic explorations were, of course, in-person gatherings, either at church or in someone’s home.  As in-person gatherings, they offered certain things that we completely  took for granted—an opportunity to eat together; to share space; to observe non-verbal cues (consciously and unconsciously); and to enjoy that sense of familiarity and trust that accompanies gatherings of people who have known each other for a long time.

When the pandemic invaded our lives, we put the work of considering our future on hold.  But, with the lingering reality of the pandemic, we are taking up the work once again.  And now that we have transferred these conversations to Zoom, it’s clear enough that we’ve lost something significant. 

In our first big meeting to take up this work once again, I noticed several aspects of our meeting that I found unsettling:  a couple of people forgot that we were meeting at all, despite the effort to organize a meeting when everyone could attend (I seriously doubt this would have happened with an in-person gathering, especially one involving food); with no shared meal, the meeting lacked a sense of companionship; on Zoom, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to pick up on non-verbal cues; and, that sense of familiarity and trust was diminished.

It would be nice if we could just put the whole thing back on hold and wait out Covid.  But, I don’t think that’s an option.  Plus, I’d like to take advantage of the new lessons we are learning while we are still in the midst of them.  While Zoom has serious limitations, I’m still amazed at how many people have found their way to our online existence and have embraced this new format when it comes to worship.  Surely, we are capable of significant “out of the box” thinking.  We are capable of more than we think.

The road ahead is daunting. While worship has moved rather neatly to an online platform, Zoom group conversations over weighty matters is entirely another thing. And, to further complicate the situation, we are moving steadily into the darkest time of the year, as the virus numbers surge in our state.

Will we be able to overcome the challenges we face, it order to reflect on and consider how we are being called to be church, now and into the future? Will be able to find new ways to speak honestly and openly, trusting each other and forging new pathways of relationship? Will we be able to embrace new thinking, as we have embraced new ways to worship?

What does the future hold for our little church? It’s a serious question, and a profoundly unsettling one. Yet, we must acknowledge that we are not alone. Over the course of Christian history, countless faithful people have faced seemingly overwhelming challenges and obstacles. We are a few among so many over such a long period of time. And, we must also embrace, in new ways, the declaration that Jesus makes in Matthew’s gospel: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20)

Challenges. Obstacles. Zoom. Jesus. So long as we stay focused on that last one, we’ll be just fine. No matter what happens.

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The Season of Woe

Four years ago, as we approached the 2016 election, I started to worry about what was happening around me, in the church I was serving, the community in which I lived, and in the wider community.  On the one hand, I was increasingly excited at the prospect of the nation’s first female president.  I had never been a big fan of Hillary Clinton, or her husband, but still I had this small river of excitement that ran through me in the weeks before that election.  How could she possibly lose?  How could large swaths of people vote for the sexist buffoon who was her opponent?

On the other hand, I was worried.  Living in a part of the world where there were a lot of people who were drawn to the aggressive campaigning of Trump, it was clear enough that he had a lot of support in our area. 

Still, as election day got closer and closer, I felt hopeful and looked forward to the exhilaration of a female President—finally.  And, as that small river of excitement started to gain a little momentum, I couldn’t help but worry about those who would not only be disappointed at the prospect of the nation’s first female president (and a second Clinton in office), but would feel more than that, perhaps devastated, lost, frustrated, and more than a little angry.

The election of 2016 didn’t feel like previous elections.  In the past, it had felt that no matter who won or lost a presidential election, the country would go on without much turmoil—even in 2000.  In 2016, everything felt much more precarious.  A lot of issues that had been living under the surface of our public lives were brought nakedly and assertively out into the open—sexism, racism, etc.  And Trump’s in-your-face campaigning style appeared to bring out a new sort of aggression toward not only Hillary Clinton, but Democrats in general.  No longer were we about different approaches to difficult public policy problems, but an increasing sense of the “other” as being corrupt and evil. 

I remember that back in the 2016 election season that I had planned a prayer circle for election day.  At the time, I’ll admit that I was mostly focused on those who would be disappointed by Trump’s loss.  Could we come together to pray for the healing of our country, for a renewed sense of common purpose?  Could I gather with others in such a way that would mask my increasing internal glee?

Of course, it didn’t turn out as I had thought it would.  Instead, I was the one who was disappointed, and angry—and more.  Sure, I could understand, to some extent, the suspicions regarding Hillary Clinton, but how in the world could those suspicions loom larger than the clearly inappropriate behaviors and remarks that Trump had displayed? 

And, now here we are:  four years later.   And, another fraught election season.  A season in which it’s not simply about differing analyses of issues, and how to solve them, but a tone of aggression that’s quite disconcerting.  In the area in which I live, signs for Trump are not the familiar political signs that pop up during election seasons.  Instead, there are large banners and flags for the Trump/Pence ticket (and, a lot of them).  There are no Biden banners or flags, although I’m charmed by the number of handmade Biden signs that dot the landscape.

How best to deal with it all?  Ignore it, as much as possible, for as long as possible.  That approach, though, no longer works.  Doing something is expected, in these final days before election day.  We’ll have a prayer circle on Sunday and another on election day and, who knows, maybe still more as election day may turn into election season.

The worries and anxieties of the election have taken hold of Old South folk, and for many, there’s still more to worry about, especially as we encounter, amid the political revelry, people who claim the same association of “Christian,” yet hold perspectives and opinions that don’t line up at all with how the faith speaks to us.  How will this time unfold, and how will we find a way to be a “do not be afraid” sort of people?  How will we seek to love our neighbors when some of our neighbors seem so hostile?

And, when we have resolution on the election, what happens then?  Will we find a way to deal with those issues that have been exposed, or will those issues simply become more and more a defining, and dividing, force?  Will we be able to be the sort of people we need to be, sharing God’s love and hope, and seeking to love even our most difficult neighbors?  Or, will it all prove too much, and we will find ourselves pulled into the negativity?

It seems clear enough that even a clear winner on November 3, will not bring resolution.  In this season of woe, we have a lot that weighs us down. Yet, this is exactly when we need to be the bold and grace-filled people we are called to be. May the Spirit move among us, inspiring and guiding. This isn’t going to be easy.

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Is This What Happened When Churches Moved from Houses to Buildings?

At Old South, we are continuing our online existence.  Worship, meetings, gatherings, even pastoral care are all now remote, and mostly on Zoom.  Despite no community transmission of Covid in these parts, we’ve been reluctant to move to in-person gatherings.  Old South is made up primarily of people over 70 (and many well over 70), and our old building has horrible air circulation.  Old South is also a strongly musically inclined congregation.  With no choir, and hymns sung only behind face masks, the prospect of in-person worship feels just too sad and difficult. 

Our online church existence has gone reasonably well.  We even have a few people who would not normally be able to join us (people who have moved away, or are connected to members, but live out of state) who attend regularly.  Still, we have a small group of people who are not joining us.  Some have never owned a computer and won’t do so now, and they are not interested in joining us by phone, which they could.  For a few others, even if they have a computer at home, they are just not interested in joining us.  They might manage email just fine, but they are not interested in trying anything more than that.  And let me add here, this isn’t just about the elderly.  Some of our most recalcitrant are under 65.

I’ve been wondering a lot about those who have been “left behind” or have chosen to stay behind, as we have moved more and more of our communal lives online.  Is there any connection to what happened in the early church, when the faithful started to move away from house churches and into churches as separate buildings?

Until very recently, I had never thought about this change in Christian life and practice, that happened so very long ago.  But now I wonder, and wonder especially about those who were left out, or stayed out, in the shift from gathering in a house to gathering in a building.  Were there members of house churches who refused to go along with this new-fangled concept of meeting in a dedicated building used only for church gatherings?  Did that period of the early church have within its membership those who disapproved of the “new technology” of the day, who looked upon a separate building as perhaps extravagant and unnecessary, or too impersonal and too given to excessive expressions of hierarchal authority?  And, what about the wealthy women who sometimes were the benefactors of house churches?  Did they perceive that a move to buildings would undermine their significance in and to the church?

I wonder.

And, I wonder about what lengths people went to to try to convince those “left behind” to try this new thing:  Hey, I’ll be walking right by your place on the way to worship on Sunday, maybe I’ll knock on your door and we can go to worship together?  Or maybe there were visits from folks who tried to describe all the greatness of this new thing, all the benefits of meeting in a church “building” as opposed to someone’s house.  There’s so much space! It’s so much easier to bring friends!  Or to tell people where we worship!

If such a thing happened, were the church building proselytizers successful?  Did they change anyone’s mind?  If they did, I’d love to know how.

If those people were anything like my people, I bet they weren’t very successful.  It can be impossible to get some church people to change—no matter the reason or the situation.  In the great shift that is now taking place, we may like to believe that our move to virtual church is just a temporary consequence of the global crisis we are living through.  But, it’s hard to imagine that such a long stretch of this new thing hasn’t changed us, in serious and substantial ways.  And, what about those who are “left behind”?  Will they simply be left behind, or will their incessant clinging to what we once were harm the community’s ability to follow the path that is now laid out before us?  I wonder.

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The Toll

On a Saturday early in September, I got the call that the church matriarch was gravely ill.  On Sunday, I went to the hospital to see her and to be with her family.  On Monday, I was on the phone with one of her daughters, who shared with me that her mother had died overnight.

The feelings flooded in—sadness; grief; shock; gratitude that I had known her for so long; frustration, that she had died during this difficult time.  

And, truth be told, resentment.

That weekend was supposed to be a weekend off for me, and my first Sunday off in almost a year.  The vacations that I had planned for this summer were cancelled.  I managed a few days away, with my husband and son, in August, but that was during the week.  It was nice to get away, but it was hardly a vacation.

Because of how we are organizing worship during this COVID time, it is difficult  to hand over worship to someone else especially a lay leader.  Getting so many on Zoom has been wonderful, and surprising.   Trying to move one or two beyond attending Zoom worship and into the management of a Zoom worship service, well that’s another story entirely.  Since opportunities to go somewhere ended up going nowhere, I’ve continued to work and lead worship.  After all,  at the start of all of this, it seemed that our online worship experience would last only a couple of months, a few at most.

Of course, the reality of the pandemic has been different.  It has gone on much longer than we thought.  And, although I live in an area with no community transmission, Old South is an older congregation and we have decided that we must be cautious.  Online worship has been going on since mid-March.

Now that I’ve recently observed the anniversary of my last “real” vacation (a full week out of the country last September), I’m starting to realize the toll the pandemic has taken.  Already lacking in the patience department, I feel that I’m even less patient, so much quicker to anger.  I feel edgy and restless. 

And, more than that, I’m starting to wonder about the toll on my worship leadership, and on our community as a whole.  Worship leadership has always been, for me, a communal experience.  There’s something about being in a room with “one’s people” and being able to interact with the congregation, to be able to look into people’s eyes during sacraments and during sermons, to ask questions, to invite responses, to enjoy the spontaneous moments of laughter or the collective silence of a group of people all feeling the wonder of the presence of the Spirit.

Now, worship leadership involves standing in my living room, behind a table I’ve made into an altar, with my husband on the couch managing the “show.”  I’m not in front of the monitor, so I can’t even see the faces of those who are in attendance.  Do they laugh at my jokes?  Do they look bored when I come to the big point?  Do they look confused when I try to describe a significant theological concept?  Do they appear to get what I’m trying to say?  Do they experience any sense of the holy?

The Toll.  The whole thing is taking a toll—on me, on the church, on our pastor/congregation relationship. 

I can appreciate that during this time that I (and we) have learned important things, that we are capable of more than we thought.  I can also appreciate that our struggles, and certainly my struggles, are small compared to what others are experiencing.

Still, there’s a toll.  There’s a downside.  The extent of the toll and the severity of the downside are, of course, not fully known.  But, I wonder.  A lot.  Will the good things outweigh the bad things?  Or will it be the other way around?  Will we find our way through this tumultuous experience, or will we discover that it’s just too much to bear?   And, for me, will I find a new way to experience Sabbath, so that I never again feel resentment when the phone rings and someone shares with me the sad news of a death?  Time to flex, yet again, those muscles of creativity.

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For Louise

Like many churches, Old South had a matriarch.  I use the past tense here, as our matriarch passed away a few days ago.  It’s a very sad time for Old South.  In the midst of the many challenges we face, the passing of our matriarch, Louise, is a huge loss.

When I was growing up, in a large suburban Congregational church outside of Boston, I knew  a lot of matriarchs.  The church had a sort of cluster of them.  In a church of so many, each area of church life had its own matriarch—the choir, the church office, Christian Education, etc.

I didn’t especially like the matriarchs, although I learned how to navigate their domains—at least for a few of them.  The matriarchs often wielded their power like a cudgel.  Step on their toes, and whack!  You might lose an appendage, or your self-respect.

The matriarchs were a fearsome group, and for the most part, they didn’t like each other, although most of them knew enough to stick to their own area and to be wary of straying into another woman’s domain.  The matriarchs of my childhood inspired me to think long and hard about that initial awareness of my call to ordained ministry, and to resist at first.  Who would want to deal with people like that on a regular basis?

When I took the call as Pastor and Teacher at Old South, it was immediately clear that Old South had just one matriarch.  Yet she was like no matriarch I had known in my younger years.  Louise was a woman of immense dignity and faith.  She was a woman of grace, and courage, love and laughter.  And, she made the world’s best lemon squares.

Over the years, Louise and I spent a great deal of time together.  Perhaps the most powerful of my memories are those that involved discussions we had when Louise was unhappy about a decision that I and/or the church’s governing body had made.  When I explained the decision-making process, Louise always listened with an open mind, and an open heart.  She didn’t always change her mind, but she sometimes did—or at least, she would give the new thing a try.  Worship on Zoom was one of those things.  She didn’t like it, but she didn’t resist it or complain about it, at least not much. 

She may have balked at the title of “matriarch,” but I think she knew that, like or not, that’s who she was.  And, while the role had power, it also had a great deal of responsibility.  She understood that relationship between power and responsibility like no woman I had ever known before.

Over the course of my long relationship with Old South, we have lost many important people.  The loss of Louise is not more important than the other losses, but it is different.  The loss of the matriarch, the one to whom so many turned (whether they realized it or not) to get a sense of the mood and direction of the church community, is a loss that will not only be deeply felt, but will reverberate through so many aspects of our life and ministry together.  In these challenging days, it will likely feel as if we’ve lost our earthly, human anchor.

In all of her grace and wisdom through her long life, Louise offered many lessons: perseverance in the midst of challenge and loss; finding meaning and purpose in good days and not so good days; and, laughing heartily on a regular basis.  Louise gave freely of herself and her gifts.  She formed deep relationships in her commitment to community.  She was loved, and she offered love to others.

I feel blessed to have known Louise, and to have been a part of the church she loved so much.  For her grace and her strength, her love of church and church community, I am deeply grateful. Rest in peace, my dear friend. 

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The Looming Season

There always seems to be a certain moment, sometime in August, when the end of summer comes into focus.  I’m not sure what exactly happens, but it always feels like there’s a clear turn in the sense of the season.  Maybe it’s the moment when I go to set the table for dinner and realize that we won’t be eating outside for much longer:  7:00 is noticeably dimmer than it was just last week.  And, once the dimness sets in, it’s also a bit chillier.  Living on a lake, we notice the changes in the other creatures who live near us, especially among the loons.  Usually loons are seen in pairs around the lake.  Late in summer, though, they start to gather in larger groups, as if they are conferencing together about their winter plans.  We’ve started to see those larger groups gathering.  And, then there are the beginnings of color in some of the leaves on the trees, and the summer plants begin to look haggard and worn.

It’s time to start thinking about and planning for fall.  And, I’ll admit that this year, fall seems more daunting.  Adjusting to our new reality in the spring was not hugely difficult, and Old South has managed reasonably well through this protracted pandemic.  It’s quite another thing altogether, though, to start what amounts to a new year in the midst of a great number of questions and an awful lot of uncertainty.  And, to try to absorb all of the new information regarding the tenacious grasp the virus seems to have on our communal life, that the hoped for “fade” hasn’t happened at all, that we must continue to be always vigilant, distant and covered. It’s a heavy burden to bear, when usually there is anticipation of a fall of re-connecting, for worship and for singing.

In Maine, where we have experienced a rather remarkable low-grade impact of the virus with relatively low numbers and most of the state having escaped “community transmission,” and where mask-wearing seems to have caught on fairly well, we still find plenty of cautionary tales that send a shiver down the spine of any leader of a group of mostly older, and more vulnerable, people.  The local paper recently ran a story about a wedding reception in northern Maine earlier this month, where 32 of 65 attendees tested positive and fell ill of COVID (plus quite a few who had contact with the 32).  One woman who did not attend the wedding, but had contact with someone who did, died a couple of days ago.

Thinking about and planning for the fall, in terms of worship and programming, feels not only very different, but more intense and more challenging.  The realities of the pandemic have opened up opportunities for trying new things, but how long can we be church in the midst of the significant challenges we face?

I was talking to one parishioner recently who lives alone, and feels keenly the loss of human contact.  Sure, it’s nice to see everyone on Sunday mornings for our worship on Zoom.  It’s good to watch the organ clips at the start and end of the service, that the organist records in advance.  But, there is no substitute for the loss of contact—the handshake, an arm around a shoulder, a caring touch offered casually when we gathered each Sunday before social distancing requirements. 

To begin the fall season knowing that a solution to the issues we face will not arrive until after Christmas, and perhaps well after Christmas, is overwhelming.  Trying to organize worship and programming so that we still feel as connected as possible, despite the distance, is a difficult task.  The novelty of Zoom has worn off, and we have settled into a new way of being.  Still, much of what feels most meaningful for a small church—the intimacy and familiarity of our friendships—is decidedly missing. 

It feels like my task is to provide as much normalcy as possible, that we gather to worship and praise, to be God’s church, while I also endeavor to distract everyone from those things that have been lost.  This isn’t how we want, or need, church to be.  But, we cannot wish away the reality of pandemic and we surely cannot ignore the risks, for the risks are real and serious.

A new season looms, and with it, a deepening sense of the yearning for what is not only not available to us, but forbidden.  Can we find ways of acknowledging that yearning without despairing?  Can we don an attitude of persistent patience while we wander around the wilderness of COVID-19?  Will we rise to the challenge of all of those words that we have so casually bandied about for so long—hope, joy, love, and light?  Will we clothe ourselves in what is needed to build up during this challenging time?

I certainly hope so.  And, pray that we will not only “hang in there” (a phrase I hear a lot), but that we will find ourselves actually closer to the One we seek, and will find in this time, blessing and grace.

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Me and My Misanthropy?

In preparation for a weeklong clergy writing conference last year, participants were asked to submit a short essay on something that was on their minds at the moment.  Don’t spend too much time on it, we were instructed.  Write and submit.  For reasons that I don’t remember, I wrote about the dread that I feel during every presidential election cycle, when politically like-minded friends sometimes treat me with a veiled scorn because I’m married to someone from the “other side.”

My essay included a very brief reflection on the common ground that my spouse and I discovered long ago, that boils down to something that we refer to as our “shared misanthropy.”  My suspicious nature concerning humanity has led me to believe that government is the best we can do to live together in, more or less, harmony.  My husband’s suspicions have led him to believe that the smallest possible government would be more ideal.   

When it was time to discuss my essay during the workshop, the first issue I was confronted with was the alarm my new colleagues felt in reading my reference to “misanthropy.”  How could a Christian pastor possibly think such a thing? In the discussion that followed, I told them that the word was really a joke that my husband and I had used for so long, I had forgotten the real meaning of it.  Of course, I reassured them, I didn’t loathe my fellow human beings. 

Now, though, I’m starting to reconsider:  maybe I do harbor a sort of loathing of my fellow human beings.

There’s a lot not to like:

  • From the Washington Post: “He held a BLM sign in what he called ‘America’s most racist town.’ The result? A viral video of abuse.” [link]
  • From the New York Times: “Fighting Over Masks in Public Is the New American Pastime” [link]
  • From “Voices of the Pandemic” in the Washington Post: a story of a store clerk who has experienced all sorts of terrible things.  She’s been yelled at, spat at, screamed at, mocked, ignored, and disregarded—from people who refuse to wear a face mask.[link]
  • Try a YouTube search of “face mask confrontation.” The results are alarming. And depressing.

It’s not that anything that’s going on is especially new.  The unpleasant aspects of human behavior and interaction have long been on display.

What seems a bit different now is that it feels like abuse and scorn have simply become a part of our everyday existence, rather than coming to the surface for special occasions.   Although I realize we are talking about a small number of people, there’s a level of meanness that is still disconcerting.  Or maybe I just haven’t noticed until now.

Has the cruelty always been there, but less known because such encounters were not so easily taped and shared?  Or, has the meanness actually become more of a problem? 

Whether or not malice is more of a problem now, the fact that many people in cruel and violent viral videos seem not to care that their actions are being taped argues that people are comfortable with a great deal of meanness in their responses to other human beings—maybe only in small numbers, but still . . . . More than a few of these videos is unsettling.

So, I find myself wondering about my own capacity for misanthropy, recognizing that while it may be a good idea to admit to such a thing, if that’s how I feel, more loathing is not a helpful, nor productive, way of interacting with the world. Not now. Not ever.

Will the meanness on display push me further into despair, or will I take the opportunity to fight the cruelty with a more conscientious and determined approach to how I live my life?

I will do my best to take up the latter, and resolve to put in check my suspicions, and try more kindness. And watch fewer YouTube videos.

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Be the Church: Protect the Environment

A Meditative Slideshow on Psalm 8, using “Out of the Mouths of Babes” by Silvia Purdie [http://www.conversations.net.nz/] and photos by Susan, Joseph, Margaret and John Reisert

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The Church in These Days—Hungering and Heartbreak

On July 8, the New York Times published a story entitled, “Churches Were Eager to Reopen.  Now They Are a Major Source of Coronavirus Cases.”  The article offered a litany of churches that reopened in various ways, some trying to follow social distancing and face covering guidelines, like United Methodist churches in Louisiana.  Despite the efforts, people still tested positive for COVID-19.  Other churches have been more defiant in the face of rules and restrictions.  For one Baptist church in West Virginia that did not require face masks, people started falling ill shortly after in-person worship services resumed in late May.  At least fifty-one cases are linked to that church, along with three deaths.

Reading the stories of the defiant, it’s easy to shake one’s head and to offer a wag of the finger, at least in one’s mind.  How stupid.  How irresponsible.

Allow the stories to settle in for a bit, though, and it doesn’t take long to start feeling the heartbreak.  Sure, the decision to ignore the warnings and the information regarding the particularly problematic conditions of indoor church worship (stagnant air, along with people talking and singing loudly, sending off countless invisible respiratory droplets, carrying the virus) can easily be condemned and ridiculed.

But . . .

In the midst of these stories, in those that tried to maintain pandemic protocols as well as those who defied the “new normal,” a significant truth becomes clear:  that church is important and meaningful to people.  Church is not solely about a theological system of belief or a place to contemplate one’s relationship with God.  Church provides community and extended family.  Church offers a place—a place where one feels connection, with others, with God, and with oneself.  It’s understandable, then, to feel empathy for the poor pastor who feels the need for connection among a church’s parishioners and allows it to happen, whether or not they try to insist on distancing and mask-wearing.

The simple fact is that for many people, being a part of a church is a part of who they are, part of their identity, part of how they interact in the world.  The President has declared that churches should be allowed to open, that they are “essential.”  Churches are essential, but I have a strong sense that the President doesn’t actually know what he’s talking about here.  The President doesn’t seem to have a clue about the sort of connection that church folk find compelling.  Instead, he’d rather heap churches into the culture war camp, and let us all engage in morally repugnant combat. 

Church leaders ought to resist.  Yet, at the same time, we feel and know the deep longing that so many people are experiencing.  For those who regularly attend worship, it’s not easy living one’s life, especially in a time of such uncertainty, without that place that provides an anchor in the midst of the storm, a refuge in a time of trouble.  Most churches can fairly easily move their worship services online, allowing for distant, contactless gathering. It helps, but it’s not the same. 

As a pastor, I’ve watched the routines and habits of church life over a long career.  Among the most routine of our habits is the simple touch, or hug.  Wander around a sanctuary before or after a worship service, and one of the most pervasive qualities is that of touch.  Someone reaches out to hug another, or puts a hand on another hand, or rests a comforting palm upon a shoulder.  Before the pandemic, hardly anyone talked about this common characteristic of a congregation.  It was just there, completely taken for granted.

And, now it is gone, at least for a while. 

While Old South has been able to maintain an online existence through these months, and remains committed to keeping our people safe (the average age of the congregation is in the 70s), I know that the lack of physical presence is difficult and alienating.  If I had a bunch of people clamoring for a return to in-person services, I might buckle as other pastors have under the weight of longing. 

When we finally find ourselves on the other side of this pandemic, able to gather, to sing, to worship without physical distance and face masks, I suspect it will take a long time before we start taking for granted the element of touch. As much as we might miss certain elements of worship, or the opportunity to sing, we likely miss touch most of all, as a point of personal connection, but also because it’s something that we do as modeled by Jesus himself. For all sorts of reasons, Jesus reached out and touched people. That’s what we did, and, someday, we will again.

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