Reflections on Christmas in a Strange, Strange Year

In the midst of pandemic, a divided country, and the prospect of a Patriots-less NFL playoff season, it’s hard to know how to think about Christmas.  On the one hand, keeping things as close to normal is appealing.  Church gatherings and services will continue to be held online, but they will have the trappings of gatherings of the past.  On the other hand, it seems like we should keep going with the paradigm breaking.  What else can we do to push the boundaries of how we gather and how we observe this important holy season?

Old South’s Worship Team meetings through the fall have included considerable discussion regarding the significance of the familiar aspects of the Christmas Eve service, our most well-attended service of the year.  At this dark and cold time of year, in the midst of a global pandemic and our continuing online existence, shouldn’t we endeavor to make the service as close to “normal” as we can?  Shouldn’t we offer something cozy and comfortable, that in the midst of so much disruption, those attending might find solace in the tone, rhythm and content of the accustomed Christmas Eve service?

Those arguing for the usual service (or, as close as we can get on Zoom) have been persuasive and a feeling has grown among the small team, that familiarity is the way to go for this holiday season.  And, that’s what we will have.

But, as we inch closer to Christmas Eve, I’ve been wondering if we are making a mistake.  While something that feels like the typical service—despite everyone being at home rather than in the sanctuary—is understandable, my concerns are growing that we are doing something that will get in the way of an opportunity to experience Christmas in a whole new way, a way that could be substantial and significant.

At the heart of the Christmas story is a profound notion:  that God came to share our common human lot, from the very beginnings of human existence in the womb through birth and childhood and on to adulthood.  How remarkable it is that we worship a God who did such a strange thing—such a mysterious, wondrous and hard to understand thing.

I’ll admit that it’s a fairly common experience for me, that as we get closer to Christmas Eve, I begin to feel a bit of angst.  This angst is related to the feeling that many of those who attend the annual service do so out of routine and habit, looking for something of a Hallmark moment, as if the Christmas Eve service provides something akin to a large, warm, fuzzy blanket.  Those assembled have the glow, in the midst of the candlelight, of the comfortable and soothed.

I’m not sure what I’m looking for, except that I think I would welcome a face or two that demonstrates shock or bewilderment, at the story we so casually lay out every December 24th.   The story, after all, is an astonishing tale.  Regardless of whether or not the birth of Jesus really happened as it is laid out in Matthew and Luke (whose accounts don’t really line up with each other, with Mark and John silent on the matter), it’s an amazing thing that these stories became the stories of how Jesus came to be with us.  It ought to mystify, and disconcert.  It ought to feel at least a little unsettling.

This year, I can completely understand the pull to the familiar and comfortable.  We are experiencing so much disruption, why should be purposefully create more?

Still, I can’t help but wonder:  is this the best way of approaching Christmas Eve in this strange year?  It’s not that I want to completely upset the usual routine, but I wish that I had done more to persuade the Worship Team to try something different, to use the opportunity to consider the holy-day differently, to perhaps provide an experience that could be both comforting and unsettling.

While comfort is a good thing, and certainly part of our experience of God, new awareness so often comes in experiences that unnerve and surprise us.  Shouldn’t we seek to do more with surprise, in the midst of so much that is unsettling about this year’s Christmas?  The comfort of the familiar is not actually the comfort most of us need.  Instead, we could use the comfort that comes after we’ve been startled—by the unexpected nature of how God usually comes to us.

Our Christmas Eve service will tend to the familiar and comfortable, but my prayer is that those who gather in the Zoom Brady Bunch boxes will experience something much more than comfort. My hope is that in the astonishing story of birth in the midst of a remarkable year, a new awareness will take root: our faith calls us to seek God not in the familiar, but in places we have, until now, dared not go.  The challenges of 2020 could lay the groundwork for helping us to consider anew the old, old story, and to wonder afresh about who we are, to whom we belong, and how we are called to be.

May Christmas be not only merry, but meaningful, wonderfully new and joyously unsettling.

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Days of Our Nine Lives

At Old South, Advent season is also budget season.  Budget season coincides with preparation for our annual meeting that is held every year at the end of January.  On many occasions over the course of my long tenure at Old South, the initial budget draft that begins budget season has offered a bleak prospect for the coming year—anticipated income not nearly covering expected costs.  The governing board then moves into fraught discussions regarding the various ways through which we might force the income and expenses to line up.  In good congregational fashion, there is, at the start, little agreement.

Prior to the 2020 budget season, I’ve reacted to the looming crisis outlined by the first draft of the budget by grasping at something I was once fairly good at when I was a child:  math.  I look at the figures and start playing with them, often focusing on the lines of the budget that concern myself as pastor (salary and benefits are a large chunk of the budget) and how a reduction in those lines that would force a reduction in my time at the church, and how that might be managed.

One of the most difficult of the budget seasons—about ten years ago—resulted in my time and salary being reduced from full-time to three-quarter time.  During that particular budget season, I spent a lot of time in difficult conversation with the Board of Trustees.  A couple of the Trustees, it turned out, were very willing to reduce my salary, but couldn’t understand why I insisted on a reduction in time as well.  I remember one gentleman finally raising his brewing accusation at a meeting of the Trustees:  “I know what you’re up to! You want to work less.”  I took a deep breath.  And, then tried to respond nicely and clearly:  “Yes.  If you are going to cut my pay, we’re going to cut my hours.”  He still didn’t seem to get it.

Except for that one year when my salary and time were cut, I’ve discovered that every other looming crisis has turned into no crisis at all.  Every time, the crisis has been averted—without even the slightest need to delve into my carefully crafted plan, with its elegant math.  Something has happened—a mistake in the assumptions that the treasurer made when compiling the budget; an unanticipated gift or pledge; a decision to take on a fundraising project; a commitment from church leaders to take on things like leading worship when I’m on vacation so that the “supply” line can be significantly reduced; or, a reworking of several lines that result in lower expenses.

My elegantly crafted math-scapes all coming to nothing.  I remember one of those years, that I put together a multi-page report in preparation for the December meeting of the governing board.  We had averted several crises several years in a row, and I felt that our run of luck had come to an end.

Only it hadn’t.  I don’t remember what exactly happened, but yet again, the crisis fizzled.

This year, the initial budget was emailed out to the governing body in November and it didn’t look good.  But, instead of pulling out my calculator, I spent my time in better ways.  Somehow I knew what was going to happen.  Somehow, I knew that the crisis would be averted.  Yet again.

And, it was.

How many lives does a church get?

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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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