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.