Under the Cover of Covid

Old South, like many churches, has been on something of a Covid-induced roller coaster ride. First, we learned Zoom and how to make it work for the church as a whole. Then, we learned hybrid, which has been more complicated than we expected. For most of this new year so far, we’ve slid back to a (mostly) Zoom-only existence, as Omicron cases have ravaged the local health care system and we’d like to do all we can to keep our people out of the hospital.

There’s been much to learn and new tricks to consider in our common church practice and imagination. Where next on this journey? How can we make the most of being the church in this new technologically driven age? Can we be the church we have been called to be, if we are split between an in-person group and a Zoom group? What do we do about our buildings, in which we now rarely gather?

The beginning of our pandemic journey was full of surprises, as many people who probably never thought they could learn how to deal with Zoom have done so and have done well. When we were considering a temporary return to Zoom for this January, as Covid numbers started to make their alarming climb, it was not a hard decision, even though it meant that we would have another Zoom-only annual meeting. It was simply another section of the ride we have been on for almost two years.

But, now that we have been on this unexpected journey of ups and downs, twists and turns, for such a long time, I’ve found myself looking back and thinking ahead: what does the future hold for our small church?

Among the troubling items on my reflection list is worship attendance. While we have maintained a consistent attendance, whether we are Zoom-only or hybrid, numbers have been low and have remained lower than before the start of the pandemic. While we can point to a few obvious sources of lower attendance— like death and relocation— there is another source that feels like one that no one wants to acknowledge or discuss. And, that is that we have a few people who have simply slipped away from the active worship life of our faith community, if not almost entirely from all aspects of our life together as a church.

We have people who are increasingly involved in taking care of family members, or are being taken care of by family, that somehow requires that worship be skipped on Sunday mornings. We have other people who have slipped away, I suspect, because they feel the pressure of living in a part of the world where Christianity is clearly losing ground— and they don’t want to be in any way associated with the dominant expressions of the faith in this area that tend to be more evangelically inclined. Over the years, I’ve had a few conversations on this topic.

It may be that we have a few people who have found, in the midst of pandemic and disruption, an opportunity to surreptitiously withdraw from regular worship attendance as well as active participation in the Old South community. We have others who still participate in the life of the church, but rarely attend worship.

This is a problem, and a potentially serious one. It’s a problem that requires a careful and thoughtful approach. We shouldn’t put people on the defensive, but it would be helpful to know more about what’s happening with those people we do not regularly see at worship— and to know from them directly. Is it Zoom fatigue or the demands of life? Or, are people experiencing a more problematic church fatigue, finding that worship is no longer something that they want or need in their life?

Worship is not simply a part of Christian faith practice; it is an essential component. That we are experiencing noticeable absences from worship is something that ought not be ignored, or explained away with assumptions. I’m not sure how I feel about what answers we may find, but the shadows left by those who no longer regularly attend worship are looming. And into those dark and difficult corners, we need to cast some light.

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WWJD? Covid Vaccine Edition

French President Emmanuel Macron recently made headlines for suggesting— using a vulgar French term— a new strategy for “encouraging” the unvaccinated to get the jab. Essentially, he called for making the lives of the unvaccinated so miserable that they would change their minds about the vaccine, stating that he could no longer put up with the unvaccinated infringing on the freedoms of others. When he experienced pushback in response to the use of vulgar language, he defended his choice: “When some make from their freedom … a motto, not only do they put others’ lives at risk, but they are also curtailing others’ freedom. That I cannot accept. When you are a citizen you must agree to do your civic duty.” [Associated Press, January 7, 2022]

I completely agree. With all of it.

In a recent conversation with one of my parishioners, the topic of one of his adult children came up— not for the first time. She is unvaccinated, despite the advice and counsel of her parents, the CDC, etc. Her spouse is also not vaccinated. And, all of their friends are not vaccinated and, I was told, most of the large church community of which they are part. Covid has run rampant in this group, but they are all young adults and no one has become seriously ill. But, they continue to refuse vaccination and use the contracting of the illness as a sort of vaccine equivalent— instead of understanding that they are now part of a very big problem, as they actively contribute to mutations of the virus, providing willing hosts, allowing the virus to run rampant.

Freedom over responsibility to community. What would Jesus do? What would Jesus say?

When “What Would Jesus Do,” or WWJD, was a “thing”— when was that?— I didn’t get caught up in asking that question at every juncture of life. Yet, somehow, it’s a question that I now find often in my mind when I think of the unvaccinated, especially those unvaccinated who are connected to Christian churches. What would Jesus do? What would Jesus say to them?

There’s a big part of me that thinks (hopes?) Jesus would say something along the lines of the French President. Perhaps he wouldn’t used a vulgar French term, but the Jesus I know would not be sympathetic to those who continue to refuse to participate in something that will so clearly benefit the community at large, including their own church subset of the larger community. I can’t help but hear Jesus offering chastising words, declaring the science of vaccination as a wonderful gift to humanity. In the face of so much human devastation, why would anyone reject it?

Jesus is generally understood as a nice guy— compassionate, gentle, loving. But, Jesus had his angry moments:

John 9:39: Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”

Matthew 18:2-6: He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.

Luke 13:15, after he was criticized for healing a woman on the Sabbath: But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?”

That we are experiencing a lurching back into earlier days of the pandemic, hunkering down, limiting contact, wearing masks everywhere, I just want to scream at those who have chosen not to vaccinate, those who have chosen to practice “freedom” over responsibility to community. And, I find myself especially angry at those who, like the daughter of my parishioner, are part of Christian communities that refuse to recognize the damage they are causing to the wider community.

How in the world have we come to this place where large groups of people who claim to worship Christ, are actually worshiping something that is not Christ-like at all? What sort of mental gymnastics are required to think that Christ, in the midst of pandemic, would teach individual freedom over the health and well-being of the community— the church community and the community in which that church exists?

Old South is a largely vaccinated community (we have a couple of people who have not been vaccinated because of age or health complications). In our conversations about how we should worship and gather, there is a strong commitment to each other, to the community of which we are part, and the community beyond. Many of our conversations include discussions concerning our sense of responsibility to loved ones as well as a call to do whatever we can to lessen the demands on our local healthcare system. There is an acute awareness of relationship, connectedness and responsibility. And, in that awareness is the kernel of truth found in the Greatest Commandment and its companion:

 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-40)

Whether my anger at the unvaccinated is righteous or not, I think it’s clear enough that many Christians are not actually practicing the teachings of the religion to which they cling. I would like to think that Jesus would not only encourage vaccination, but pointing out the misery that the unvaccinated have so recklessly and foolishly brought to so many, He would teach that it is mandated by the Greatest Commandment,

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What’s There to See

At Old South’s 2021 Christmas Eve service, the featured speaking part was “The Shepherd” from Frederick Buechner’s The Magnificent Defeat. As the Shepherd reflects on his life, realizing that he’s the kind of guy who will eat muddy bread when hungry, he also discovers that he’s able to open his perceptions just enough to engage with the remarkable event of the birth of the Savior:

That’s how it was this night, anyway. Like finally coming to—not things coming out of nowhere that had never been there before, but things just coming into focus that had been there always. And such things! The air wasn’t just emptiness anymore. It was alive. Brightness everywhere, dipping and wheeling like a Hock of birds. And what you always thought was silence stopped being silent and turned into the beating of wings, thousands and thousands of them. Only not just wings, as you came to more, but voices—high, wild, like trumpets.

Opening my own ears a bit, listening to this story that I’ve heard so many times over the years (because it is a favorite), I wondered about I’ve been perceiving in these days. As the pandemic rages on and the congregation of Old South gets smaller, I find myself thinking quite a lot about what I’m seeing and experiencing. And, I wonder about making sense of what’s right in front of me. How are we being called as church? How am I being called as pastor?

Those questions lingered and were present again on Christmas morning, when I considered them, in a new way, near the end of my morning “news round up.” My early Christmas morning routine resembled most every other morning, now that my children are adults and aren’t itching to the get to the tree at some ridiculously early hour. After waking up enough to feel that I was ready to head downstairs, if not exactly take on the day, I made an espresso, picked up my laptop, and began the usual rounds of checking news and playing games. My last stop was the Washington Post.

I hadn’t scrolled down far at all when a headline grabbed my attention: “The first Christmas as a layperson: Burned out by the pandemic, many clergy quit in the past year.” The article explored the “exodus of clergy who have left ministry in the past couple years because of a powerful combination of pandemic demands and political stress. Amid fights about masks and vaccine mandates, to how far religious leaders can go in expressing political views that might alienate some of their followers, to whether Zoom creates or stifles spiritual community, pastoral burnout has been high.” [full article is here]

Reading the experiences of the clergy highlighted in the article, I felt fortunate that the stress I’ve experienced is not nearly as bad as it could be. One poor guy was at the start of his ministry when the pandemic hit. He found himself dealing with a whole group of people who refused to wear masks and a whole lot of pushback when he voiced concerns about President Trump before the 2020 election. He’s no longer serving in parish ministry.

I have not experienced, thank goodness, major mask issues or a whole lot of pushback because of my political views. But, this time has not been lacking in stressors. There are plenty of them. It’s stressful to provide consistent and adequate leadership in a time that feels both challenging and alien. It’s stressful to be the cheerleader for church as we struggle with new demands and requirements brought about by Covid and the continued unwelcome decline in membership and active participation. It’s stressful to feel like I need to be in possession of just the right sort of advice and counsel, for all occasions. It’s stressful to stay on top of how to work new technology and to encourage the flock to follow me on this new path of discovery. It’s stressful to be both a learner and an enthusiastic proponent of the new hybrid world that we are in the midst of creating. And, it’s particularly stressful in the congregational environment that I serve, where I have little actual authority. Leadership requires a more collective approach, as if I am trying to push a herd of elephants by coaxing and cajoling.

A lot of the stress is in the myriad small details of ministry in this new age. With masks covering most of our faces when we gather for worship in person, communication mishaps are more common and, on occasion, leave trails of anger that are difficult to resolve. And, while technology offers new and wondrous paths of connection, it also provides lots of sources of frustration— like when the internet connection vanishes or the monitor in the sanctuary sports an unfamiliar screen, with unfamiliar options, after months and months of use.

Given that ministry involves a lot of interaction with imperfect human beings, ministry is a stressful occupation. But, the seemingly constant barrage of new things and new challenges leads to an overall sense that pastoral ministry has become an even more complicated minefield than it already was.

The language of our faith tells us to “not be afraid” and one of the major messages of Christmas is that God comes to us in very unexpected ways. Yet, there’s not much in the way of the joy or wonder of the Shepherd in Buechner’s story, in perceiving and encountering something new and awe-inspiring. What exactly is coming into focus in this time?

In the midst of the frustrations, the worry, and the stress, it can be hard to find a moment to consider what I’m seeing and perceiving. But, when I do, I can’t help but feel like there’s both a lot and not much right in front of me. Is the air around me alive, or full of meaningless annoyances? Are we, as a church, just feeling the growing pains that are leading us to a new awareness of God’s presence with us? Or, are we allowing ourselves to get so caught up in the moment, busying ourselves enough not to notice that there’s not much there?

After the Christmas Eve service, I was the last one to leave the church. I took a moment to look around the sanctuary, in the quiet and in the dimness of the evening. There was comfort, to be sure, in the familiar, lovely sanctuary with all of its beautiful space. There was a moment when I could simply be in the sanctuary and know that I could be there without something stressful happening. But, as I stood there, I likely heaved a heavy sigh as I gazed upon the reminders of the changes we have experienced, in the cluster of new equipment at the front of the sanctuary. I couldn’t escape at least one of the truths coming into focus: a lot of effort was put into a service that was attended by the lowest Christmas Eve “crowd” ever.

On my drive home, I stopped the car at the top of the hill of our long, dark private road. I got out and looked up at the blanket of dark indigo with its twinkling stars, feeling the cold, sharp air all around me. And, I listened to the music on the radio. I’m not sure what wisdom it had to offer, but I was grateful for the stillness and lovely words of hope and promise: “Hail, the heaven-born Prince of peace! Hail the Sun of righteousness! Light and life to all he brings, Risen with healing in his wings. Mild he lays his glory by, Born that man no more may die, Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth. Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”

In the midst of this holy season, in the midst of the stress and the questions, my hope is that there will be a bit more light and life. And more focus on what’s right there, in front of us.

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Advent Lessons: Companionship

This coming Sunday’s Revised Common Lectionary selections include Luke 1:39-45[46-56], where Mary offers her song of praise, aka The Magnificat. The relatively short passage (even with the additional verses) provides a treasure trove of preaching options. It’s a passage focused on the experience of a woman, and involves s a deeply theological statement, with a strong prophetic angle. This is hardly the demure Mary depicted in so many artist renderings. Instead, her voice is sure and strong, declaring the power of the “Mighty One”: “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53)

These, and related topics, would serve as a fine basis for a sermon, and I may try to touch on at least one on Sunday. What will very likely serve as the foundation for my sermon on Sunday, though, is the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth, something that is often overlooked in the dynamic quality of Mary’s song. Both women are pregnant, each one with a very significant person growing inside. The very last verse in the passage suggests that the women not only visited with each other, but lived in the same household for three months. It’s a fascinating concept to consider.

When I was pregnant with my second child, my best friend at the time was also pregnant with her second child. Each of us gave birth in the spring, just a couple of weeks apart. During our time of pregnancy, we spent a considerable amount of time together, although we did not share the same household. Experiencing the joys and challenges of pregnancy so closely with another person was a gift and an opportunity that I think about often, especially at this time of year.

Carol and I marveled at our changing bodies and fretted about whether or not we would ever get back to our pre-pregnancy body (no, for me). We shared complaints about the intrusive questions complete strangers would ask, the exhaustion that invaded each day, and the indignities that are part of every pregnant woman’s journey. We spent time pondering what meaning we might glean from the kicks, proddings and pokings as each infant began to make themselves known. We wondered about the relationship the new child would have with the older one, and vice versa. Through those many months, we supported and encouraged each other.

I’d like to think that what I experienced was a little glimpse into what Mary and Elizabeth might have experienced, as they shared that expectant time together. I’d also like to think that Mary and Elizabeth serve as a model for companionship on the journey of faith. At this time of year, we are in a particularly “expectant” place. It may feel like we’ve lived through countless Advent and Christmas seasons. Yet, each one offers a fresh opportunity to wonder at our own expectation of who and what this Jesus, this Christ, is in our lives.

While there are important aspects of faith that are concerned with our individual devotion, Mary and Elizabeth lead us to consider deeply how we can be more present with and to each other as we wait and watch, as we anticipate, and as we experience the small proddings of new life, a new awareness of how Christ enters our lives, leading us and sometimes pushing us in ways that are uncomfortable and unsettling.

In this expectant time, how might we turn to our companions in the faith to offer encouragement and support? How can we create a place, a space, where we might share our experiences of wonder and awe, of challenge and discomfort? How can we appreciate more fully this season as expectant time, and to do so with our companions in the faith?

It’s too bad that this holy season, so full of meaningful elements, is bogged down in busyness of various kinds. I would hope, that as we head into the last week of Advent, that we will take a moment to share a moment with our companions in the faith, to support and encourage, and to be about the significant work of being expectant— together.

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When Patience Isn’t Enough

I’ve started to notice, here and there, in little remarks or responses, the revealing of the idea that patience is the key to how we, as a church, will get through the pandemic. And, in that idea, the exposure of a little kernel that we will, at some point, get back to “normal.” All we need to do now is to be patient.

It’s not an agenda item at meetings, nor is it articulated in a clear way. It’s just there, lingering on the edge of conversations or observations. Although our patience has been sorely tested through the pandemic, we just need to hang in there for just a bit longer. And, back to “normal” we will be.

I usually notice an inkling of this concept when we are talking about technology, especially when I suggest that we need to work on improvements in how we use technology. While the congregation of Old South has been, for the most part, extremely thankful for Zoom (especially when we were not able to meet in person) and remarkably eager to embrace this new thing, we are not where we could be, or should be. It’s as if learning how to join a Zoom meeting seems like plenty in the “learning new things” department.

After attending an online workshop on hybrid worship, I introduced the concept of an online worship greeter, someone who would do the same job as the in person greeter, only on Zoom. The “job” of the online greeter is to sign in early and greet each person who joins the worship service via Zoom, verbally or through the “chat” function. I thought this was a great idea and added to the list of Sunday tasks. No one has signed up.

Trying to expand the number of volunteers who handle the “tech” side of worship has been stubbornly problematic. A few have expressed interest, but the follow up for training has been lacking. And, then there are a couple of people who express a deep conviction that they simply are not capable of handling the tech side of worship, as if their brains aren’t wired correctly, In the background, there’s a lingering sense of why. Why do we need to continue to learn new stuff, when we will, at some point, be back to how things were before the pandemic?

Life in a small congregation like Old South has completely and utterly changed. The hard and clear truth is that we will not be sliding back into what we once were. The world has changed. We have changed. Like it or not.

Who and what we are now, and who and what we’ll be in the future, isn’t just about waiting out the pandemic, ready to return to how we once lived out our church existence. We will never go back there. There is no “back to normal” awaiting us.

The sooner we can embrace not only the new normal, but the fact that we are still very much in the midst of change, the more fulfilling our lives of faith will be.

In this season of Advent, we ought not be waiting and watching for when and how we will get back to what we were in early 2020. We ought not don patience as if it will protect us from the unpleasant new things that call to us. Instead, we ought to be alert for the new ways that God comes to us and in the new ways we are called to be God’s faithful, worshiping people.

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In a Quiet Moment

I’ve always been fascinated by certain moments of quiet, like during a worship service in a sanctuary with a bunch of people in it and everything becomes so hushed, as if a veil of silence has descended. It’s not just that it’s quiet. It’s a noticeable, palpable moment of time that feels pregnant with mystery and possibility.

Such a moment happened last Sunday during worship at Old South. The sanctuary wasn’t anywhere near full, but we had more people in person for a Sunday morning service than we’ve had since March 2020, including a couple of children (a total of about twenty-one people). Even with a much smaller group, the sanctuary is rarely quiet during worship. There is always some sort of noise, whether it’s the noise of talking, singing, sniffling, coughing, shuffling through something like a purse, or the noise that comes in from the outside. The sanctuary is not, most of the time, a place that conveys silence, unless it is empty.

Last Sunday was a communion Sunday. It was also Remembering Sunday (when we remember those who passed away during the last year). And, it was Story Sunday, a practice that I started a couple of years ago, where I occasionally share a children’s story during the homily slot, a story that connects nicely with the scripture passage of the day.

Sunday’s focus scripture from the Narrative Lectionary (which we are following this fall) was 1 Kings 19:1-18. In the passage, Elijah heads to the wilderness and encounters, in verse 12, God’s—depending on the translation—”sound of sheer silence” (NRSV) or “still, small voice” (KJV). To accompany this passage, I read The Quiet Book by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Renata Liwska (thanks to https://storypath.upsem.edu for the suggestion). The book highlights the “many kinds of quiet” in a child’s life (and, by extension, the life of most adults), like “pretending you’re invisible quiet,” “swimming underwater quiet,” and “before the concert begins quiet.”

In the midst of sharing this book, and its illustrations, the sanctuary became more and more hushed, until it became completely and utterly silent between the sounds of my voice reading each page. The silence was so captivating that I began to slow down my reading, and the spaces between pages. I didn’t want to read the last page at all, as if I could keep the quiet and make it last.

Since I was facing the congregation and looking at them as I shared the illustrations, I knew full well that the quiet was not the result of sleeping parishioners. In fact, everyone looked fully engaged and connected.

And silent.

It was one of those moments that I wanted to capture in some way. I also wanted to pause and ask if everyone was perceiving what I was perceiving and what they thought about it. What was in that silence, for each of us and all of us together? Was this one of those “thin places” that is described in the 1 Kings passage as a “still small voice” or the “sound of sheer silence” in and through which God speaks? And, if so, what was God saying to us?

I don’t know what was said in the quiet that descended upon worship last Sunday. But I know to be grateful for it and to recognize it for what it was: holy.

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To Keep the Weariness at Bay

During the first years of my marriage and when my children were young, part of our annual family vacation involved a trip to the Outer Banks in North Carolina to spend time with extended family.  Over the course of our visit, we usually attended a Saturday mass, as my husband’s family is Roman Catholic.  At that time, the local church was not far from the beach, a bit of a ramshackle building, as it was really only used in the summer months when loads of Roman Catholics vacationed in the area.  Clergy were usually visiting, retired priests.  It was unclear how they got there, whether they were assigned or they were lured there with the promise of the proximity of the lovely, vast beach of the Outer Banks.

I don’t remember any of the priests I encountered when I attended mass, except one.  This particular priest led one mass during one of our vacations, sometime in the 1990s.  I don’t remember what he said exactly, but I what I remember with clarity is that he spoke and behaved in a way that exuded a clear weariness of the world, of humanity, and of his own journey as a clergyperson.  He was a man in the throes of despair.  At or near the end of a long career in ministry, he found himself with not a hint of joy or even contentment.  It was clear that he was bereft of any sense of having done well as a shepherd amid the flock.

I remember feeling, at first, pity for him.  Something had gone terribly awry with his relationship with his own ministry.  And, then I started to think about my own self, near the beginning of my ministry and hoping that I would not find myself in my later years full of misery, despair and weariness, similarly bereft of the sense of a job well, if imperfectly, done.

After about thirty years in ministry, the last sixteen at Old South, I wouldn’t say that I’m feeling fully in the throes of despair.  But, I can feel the weariness creeping in.

At Old South, we have been dealing with, on a variety of levels, the reality that faces many mainline Protestant churches in these days.  Attendance is lower.  The average age is higher.  With a smaller group, it’s much more challenging to sustain and maintain the buildings in which we gather.  These issues and problems are not new, nor are they unique to us.  In fact, several churches in our area have been forced to close.  Churches very much like our church.

The weariness begins to make its presence known whenever we have a focused conversation at governing board meetings on what we should do and how we should respond to the serious, unwelcome, issues we face.  Conversation after conversation includes largely the same conversation, despite the fact that we’ve been at this for years.  Several of those who are willing to speak at these meetings say the same thing, time after time.  And, there are a couple of people who say nothing at all, never contributing their thoughts, feelings, or concerns.  It’s as if we are a group of people who cannot listen to each other.  And have closed ourselves off from the movement of the Spirit in our midst.

It’s not that it’s completely terrible.  Having the conversation is certainly better than not, and there have been small glimmers of progress.   But, over time I’ve begun to feel that the group has developed an unspoken attitude that a willingness to discuss is enough, that they can avoid action if they can just keep the conversation going.  And, they keep the conversation going through a variety of methods.  There’s yet a crucial piece of information we should gather.  There’s an idea we haven’t adequately explored.  Etc. Etc.  There’s always a reason to push off any decision to move the conversation into action, or at least a plan toward action.

The issues we face are just as unwelcome for me, but it’s crystal clear to me that Old South must act, and move forward.  Otherwise, the church will find itself spending more and more of its resources to maintain its buildings, especially the very demanding building in which the sanctuary is located.  It is a lovely place in which to worship, but it is much too large for the current congregation.  The requirements of attention and funds of the sanctuary building will drain the church of resources that could be used more wisely and more faithfully elsewhere.

All of this leads me to feel sadness and frustration, not simply about the inability to listen, perceive, trust and act.  I also find myself wondering about my role as pastor.  Herding the flock can be an awful lot like herding cats, but I’ve waded through other perilous times with more of a sense of fulfillment, that the work, though hard, was good and meaningful.

Now, it feels much more precarious.  Or, maybe it’s just because I’m older and feeling a loss in the patience department.  Perhaps.  But, it also feels like there’s a fraying connection to what it means, deeply and powerfully, to be a community of faith, a people of God—now and into the future.  Is our common witness and identity focused more on what the church once was or how we wish it to be, rather than how we share God’s love, care and hope as we are, and how we are called to be?

That we appear to have such difficulty in maintaining a communal sense of who we are as the body of Christ is an enervating prospect. I may now have a better sense of what and how that weary visiting clergyperson on the Outer Banks was feeling and thinking. Though I didn’t express it at the time, I am grateful for that priest and for the memory I have of him. It keeps me from slipping off into the oblivion of despair, where one cannot minister effectively. The work is hard, yet I also know that I have a companion who offers to lighten the load and ease the burden.

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In Another Country

To prepare for a recent two-week trip to Italy, I tried to learn a little Italian.  Each day, I spent time with “the Owl” (aka Duolingo).  It didn’t help much.  When I got to Italy, I realized how little I had absorbed during those daily lessons over three months.  My lack of Italian didn’t matter much in Rome, as many people who work in and around tourism have at least some English.  During the walking tour of Umbria, though, language was much more of an issue.  There, I encountered people who knew no English at all.  I was in a different country, where I didn’t know the language and didn’t always understand customs, habits, or traditions.  On several occasions, I felt decidedly awkward and bewildered.

I sometimes have the very same feeling in the new church landscape in which I find myself.  After over twenty-five years of ordained ministry, the new reality of church life in a mainline church—in serious decline and dealing with the new, and oft changing, requirements of Covid—causes a great deal of disorientation.  I am in a different country. 

The language barriers are mostly in the technical area.  With hybrid worship and a lot of online meetings, I am learning many new things.  But, there are plenty of moments when I am simply baffled by concepts and terms, like when I went to purchase a webcam.  One of the recommendations offered “full HD, 1080p/30fps.” I have no idea what those numbers mean.   Searching for help from “Mr. Google” usually leads to more confusion. 

Around church people, language can be still more confusing—and fraught.  The words that are spoken are ones that I understand.  Yet, it’s often clear enough that the words are only the tip of a large, problematic iceberg.  Trying to delve into those thoughts, feelings and issues that comprise the iceberg is a complex and tangled endeavor.

In the midst of a smaller congregation and our new ways of gathering, there is much that looks and feels like traveling in a different country.  With the changes we have experienced, we are still trying to figure out what works, for individuals and the group, and how to meet the needs of most of the people who call Old South their spiritual home.  Along the way, we regularly encounter new challenges where I must be sensitive, discerning, hopeful and encouraging.

It is not easy.  As the one in the “pastor and teacher” role, I yearn for my own pastor and teacher who would easily shepherd me through the twists and turns of church in a time of decline and pandemic.  Sadly, I don’t have a crystal ball that will help guide me through the thornier patches, with a clearer sense of where we are going.  As I listen to the longings and frustrations of the congregation, I wish that I could join them, fully and completely, in their lamenting.  But, I cannot.

I need to keep learning the new language, embracing it and welcoming it. That is part of the call to ministry.  The relative comfort of leading a small congregation in the fall of 2019 and early winter of 2020 is no more, nor is it ever going to come back.  We are in a new place, with a new language and new challenges—and new opportunities.  

Just as in so many generations of the Church, we are faced with realities we would prefer to ignore.  Yet the Spirit beckons, gathering us in, offering comfort, but then setting us on our way, even when the path ahead looks and feels unfamiliar to us. It’s a new country. And there’s lots to explore.

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Telling Our Stories

I just returned from a two-week trip to Italy. The travel blog starts here: https://smritaly21.travellerspoint.com/1/

It’s a very interesting time in which to travel. My travel companions and I hatched the plan to go to Italy in late spring, when Italy announced its reopening in light of declining Covid rates. As the delta variant began to wreak havoc with the world through the summer, we debated whether or not it was wise/advisable/responsible to travel at all. In the end, we went, abiding as well as we could with restrictions, advisories and recommendations. Along the way, we were very grateful that we had our vaccination cards to flash whenever asked (and we were asked a lot), but wishing the US had got its act together for a meaningful digital option, which would have been much more convenient.

This trip to Italy began with several days in Rome for all three of us and then a walking tour through parts of Umbria and Assisi for two of us, while the third attended an in-residence workshop for artists.

I’ve been to Italy several times, but the Umbria and Assisi part of our trip was all new to me. And, with these new places (Orvieto, Morre, Spoleto, Assisi, and the little towns nearby) there were new churches to explore. Well, not “new” of course, but new to me.

All of the churches I visited were, no surprise, Roman Catholic. Some of the churches were so overwhelmingly stuffed full of stuff (paintings, sculptures, candles, devotional pieces, etc), I found myself glad that I wasn’t a part of a tradition that would take such an approach to the faith. It all seemed so busy, distracting and sometimes just plain bizarre. Other churches, though, were lovely and quiet refuges, with artistically offered pathways to the pondering of faith and story. How does each person and each community reflect on and find themselves part of God’s holy work? How does the faith, and its stories, find expression in the buildings in which we gather and how do those expressions inform, influence, convey, and carry forth the various elements of spiritual connection, whether mundane or profound?

The artwork of some churches seemed driven simply to scare people, using demons and the torments of hell to inspire, I suppose, faithfulness and good behavior. Here are a couple of photos from the Duomo in Orvieto:

Other churches offered fascinating windows into theology, story and the significance of the Trinity, especially Jesus Christ. While there was generally a consistency in the messaging from church to church, occasionally we would find something unexpected. One example is the Basilica di Santa Maria Trastevere, a minor basilica in the enchanting Trastevere neighborhood in Rome. This church is one of the oldest in Rome and includes some amazing mosaics from the 13th century. One of those mosaics, at the front of the church, above the altar, offers a picture of Jesus and his mother, as if both of them are working in concert as intermediaries between earth and heaven:

And, then there were the other places where we encountered interesting, and sometimes disturbing, elements of Christian-related storytelling. Take the Vatican Museums. In the Gallery of Tapestries—a long, narrow room with large tapestries on both long sides (on one side, tapestries depicting the life of Pope Urban VIII, and on the other, the life of Christ)—of the nine tapestries focused on Christ, THREE of them visualize the slaughter of the innocents from the second chapter of Matthew. I asked our tour guide if she had any thoughts or insights into the remarkable display of the murder of young children in the wake of the birth of Jesus. She did not.

Of all of the stories about Jesus in the Gospels, why does this single story, connected to only one of the Gospel writers (and not corroborated by any historical account) find its way to so many tapestries? And why is the Vatican so eager to display them?

I’ve been wondering quite a lot about story and the stories of our faith. Which stories mean the most to us, as individuals and as churches, and do those stories remain consistent over the course of our lives of faith, or do our attachments to stories alter as we age? How do we, and how should we, convey those stories to others? How do those stories find expression in how we live our lives, as people of faith?

Our stories are important. How our stories connect to those holy stories contained in scripture is also important, and worthy of serious contemplation. We may not be so inclined to paint a large mural, assemble an intricate mosaic or construct an enormous tapestry, but we should be about the work of wondering how we bring to life the sacred stories that feed our faith, as well as how we engage with those biblical stories that cause distress and pain. How do we tell our stories and how might we do so in ways that are yet more life-giving and life-affirming?

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Sound Complications

The transition to hybrid worship has been something of a trial.  While I’m comfortable holding worship on Zoom, and in person, it’s quite another thing to try to do both things at the same time.  I feel like all of the things that I’m least good at are being paraded in front of me on a regular basis.  Like so many others, this isn’t what I had in mind when I followed the call into ordained parish ministry—more than twenty-five years ago.

Yet, this is clearly the path.  Old South may be a small congregation, but we have some people for whom in person is the only way to really feel at worship and others who can only join us online.  So, hybrid it is.

After watching a lot of YouTube videos about hybrid worship, one of the things that I found especially mind-boggling was the fact that many of those videos that involved local church people featured people who are not the pastor of their local church.  Churches appear to have parishioners who are not only very comfortable with organizing and executing hybrid worship, but in some cases, there are people who do such work for a living, who also just happen to be active church goers.

Where can I get one of those?

At Old South, the “tech crew” is me and my husband.  While we’ve been learning a great deal about cameras, camera angles, internet access, etc, there’s one thing that has emerged as the most troublesome aspect of this whole enterprise:  sound.  I have a whole new appreciation for people who are called “sound engineers.”

Sound is a problem.  Sound is a challenge.  Sound is especially complicated now that we’ve moved worship into the sanctuary.  For those who join us in person, the sound quality is great.  Old South’s sanctuary is a good space, acoustically speaking.  For those who join us on Zoom, though, the sound quality is decidedly wanting.  Inexpensive microphones don’t pick up sound just as you think they should or wish they would.  They tend to have minds of their own, and they don’t communicate with the human crew very effectively.

For the online side of our new hybrid experience, the sound of worship is less than ideal, and it varies depending on the kind of sound.  When someone is speaking, the sound carries a hollow quality.  In the music department, the range has its own sense of drama.  Loud music or singing is rewarded with a decent sound quality online.  Softer music, from the piano or organ, is sent off to some other sphere of reality—sometimes barely heard, or wavering, as if it’s unsure about whether or not it should be listened to by human beings.

What’s the nature of a “joyful noise” in the midst of this new context? And, is it part of my role of pastor and teacher to wade through the various complications of sound to find our way to a more consistent sound experience, whether it be in person or virtual?

Or, better yet: where can I get one of those sound people?

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