O Say Can You See

The national anthem of the United States begins with a call for sight. Strictly speaking, the anthem paints the picture of a torn and battered flag of stars and stripes, waving majestically through a fierce battle. I think the call for sight, though, ought to extend much wider than the flag itself, since the flag doesn’t mean much without a people unified by it, aspiring to fulfill the notion of “land of the free and home of the brave.”

Today, there is much that calls to us, in the United States, to be noticed, to be seen, to be considered. Some of those things are not so challenging for us to lift up: the brave medical and public health personnel who persevere in the face of a terrible virus; the courageous women and men who volunteer to serve in the military; and school teachers who creatively maintain a commitment to learning in these extraordinary times. And, there are plenty of other examples too.

But, there are other, much more challenging, issues that call to us as well. O say, can we see?

Can we see the ugly persistence of racism? Can we appreciate the damage that’s being done, the injustice, the inhumanity? Can we see that we have a serious problem that demands attention?

In the midst of the horrifying issues surrounding the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia, and the rage and fury now unleashed in so many cities across the U.S., I find myself playing over and over again another confrontation, the one in Central Park, between a black man and a white woman. Perhaps because it feels a little more accessible, in that no one was killed, and that it was such a simple encounter that escalated so alarmingly quickly, I find myself hearing over and over again the hateful words of the white woman, and the quiet, calm words of the black man.

It was early in the day, and in a heavily wooded part of Central Park. The man was out looking at birds, and the woman was walking her dog. Despite posted rules, the dog was not leashed. The man asked her to leash the dog. And, that’s when it all got really ugly, really fast. It was especially disconcerting to hear the woman declare her intention of not only calling the police, but to tell the police that an African American man was threatening her. In a simple matter of seconds.

We are being called to see, to listen, to acknowledge, to reflect: we have a serious problem. And, the serious problem is not just located in small pockets that are so easily dismissed, for their location or for those who, stereotypically, live there. The problem is widespread, and runs deeply in our national culture and psyche.

For people of faith, this ought to be a matter of profound concern, and considerable response. As people who believe that we are called to share the love of God, and to see in every human being the image of God, we must open our eyes and our ears to what is happening, and to seek a path of response. This is especially important for those of us who are white.

But, what is the appropriate response? Protest? Demonstration? I’ll admit that I’m not sure, especially given the complications of public gatherings in these days of pandemic. What seems important, though, is that we open our eyes and perhaps even more so, that we open our ears and our minds. We must listen, and learn. We must consider and reflect, and challenge ourselves to step into another’s shoes, and another’s experience.

I’ve been thinking quite a lot, in recent days, of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In that letter, Dr. King wrote about his great disappointment in the white moderate, those committed more to “‘order’ than to justice.”  Dr. King expressed his fervent hope that white moderates “would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”

Dr. King’s letter was written in April 1963, well over fifty years ago. It’s heartbreaking to see that we are still in the quagmire of injustice, where black people are treated with such violent inhumanity and white people are so quick to make false and dangerous accusations.

It’s time for good people of faith to seek the path of justice, and that begins with listening. In this season of Pentecost, of celebrating the gift and presence of the Holy Spirit, we ought to allow the Spirit to bestow upon us the courage and grace we need to learn the lessons we must learn, that positive change may become reality. We are not a land of freedom and a home of brave, and loving, people. But, with hard, holy work, we can be.

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On Essentialness

“The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important, essential places of faith to open right now for this weekend.” –– President Trump, May 22, 2020 (as quoted in the New York Times)

Now that we are well into the COVID-19 pandemic, and “shelter in place” orders are morphing into “safer at home” declarations, and debates continue to rage regarding what is “essential” and what should be open to the public, and how, etc., churches all over the country are engaging in their own processes of discussion, reflection and evaluation.  Except, of course, that many churches never really closed.  Churches, like Old South, may not have in-person worship or meetings, but we have been well and truly open all this time, moving ourselves to online platforms.

We know we are important, and essential, even if for a relatively small group.  We also know what it means to have common sense, and what it means to look out for ourselves as well as others, to love God with all our heart, as well as our neighbors as ourselves—most of us, anyway.  We also know the significance of kindness, thoughtfulness and the oft offered refrain from Jesus:  “Do not be afraid.”

For this past Sunday’s worship, Old South once again held an online Zoom service, with probably the best attendance we’ve had in a long time for the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend.  The “first weekend of summer” (when there are also lots of graduations, social gatherings, and moving “upta camp”) does not usually include robust worship attendance.  This year, however, we had better than usual attendance numbers.  Not as many people went away this year, and even some of those who had gone away (within the state) were still able to join us—since we worshipped online.

We know we are important, and essential.  But, that doesn’t mean that we are eager to do anything reckless or stupid about the health and well-being of the congregation, or the community in which we live.

The average age of the Old South community is somewhere in the 70s.  I can’t possibly consider in-person worship, at least at this point, for a community largely of those most at-risk.  Even with no evidence of community transmission in our county, I can just imagine worship where everyone brave enough to attend worship in the sanctuary is sitting rigid and apprehensive, worrying about sneezing and/or coughing—or the sneezing and coughing of others in the sanctuary—with no choir to sing and everyone at appropriate social distances, not able to do more than nod at each other.

Gathering in our sanctuary at this time wouldn’t feel any better than our online worship.  In fact, I suspect that it would feel worse.  Sure, it would be nice to be in our lovely sanctuary and to see each other in physical form (rather than in those Brady Bunch boxes of Zoom).  But, we all know we are in the midst of a global health crisis, and we all know that we must act and behave in a responsible, loving, and prayerful manner.

We have learned, essentially, that we don’t need our building to be church.  We don’t need the sanctuary to worship. 

We know we are important.  And, we are essential, for the small group of people who have found a spiritual home at Old South.  We are responding in that way, led by the Spirit who draws us in, no matter how we gather, in order to empower us to be sent out, even if the sending looks a whole lot different than it did a few months ago.

The President, if he had bothered to go to church this weekend, or if he had ever actually paid attention when in church, or stopped treating church-goers just as political pawns, maybe he would have a better idea of what essential actually means, or better yet, what a life of faith actually looks like.

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The Strange Case of the Unpopular Bible Study

In my long tenure as Pastor and Teacher at Old South, Bible study groups have never been especially well-attended.  Over the years, I’ve led short-term as well as long-term groups, on a range of topics.  I’ve offered studies that have met in the evening and during the day, and, occasionally, I’ve tried a seasonal approach to try to lure people into a group.

I’ve never had more than a small handful of Old South folk attend any study.

For a long time, I heard a wide array of excuses from those who did not attend.  These excuses mostly had something to do with a conflict with another group or meeting, or, as in the case of several choir members, they already spent (before the pandemic) a considerable amount of time each week engaged in church-related activity.

Still, it’s always been one of those places that has caused me concern.  How can so many who seem so committed to a church community display such a sustained lack of interest in exploring our holy book outside of the small bit that we do during Sunday worship?  What is a church where the great majority of parishioners does not engage in conversation with each other about sacred stories, wrestling with meaning and questions?

With our ongoing “stay at home” order in Maine, I’ve been curious about what our new reality might reveal about the health and well-being of Old South’s connection to matters of faith, like Bible study.

There’s no way around it:  I’m concerned.

While it’s true that at least some members of Old South are still working, although very differently than they did, many have shared that they aren’t doing a lot. After all, a large percentage of the congregation is made up of retirees.  They may be active retirees, but our current situation has forced major changes to community life.  And, at Old South, choir and choir rehearsals, like so many gatherings that can’t easily be transferred to online platforms, are on hiatus.

Bible study, though, remains as unpopular as ever.

For the last several weeks, the topic of our weekly virtual Bible study has simply been the scripture passage from the previous Sunday—Let’s talk about the sermon!  Ask your questions!  Tell me you think I’m completely wrong or that my sermon didn’t make any sense!  Anything!

With the small group that assembles on Zoom, we have had lively and interesting conversations.  This week, we discussed some of the words in last Sunday’s scripture, John 10:1-10, where Jesus talks about sheep, gates and abundance.  Is “gate” really the best way to translate that Greek word that actually means “door” and what does “gate” or “door” mean to us?  What’s the difference between a gate and a door, relative to the image of sheep in the passage?  And, what about the word “abundance” at the end?  Are we living our lives abundantly at the moment?

We had a good chat.

The four of us.

I find myself wondering:  What does this mean?

Various situations, issues, and conversations over the years, have led me to worry about Old South’s health and well-being not simply as a church, but as a Christian church that is part of a tradition where Bible study has, historically, been an important element of church life.  There’s really no question that Old South is a church nearing the end of its life.  Before the pandemic, though, I would have said that, while we are dwindling, we still had spots of vibrancy—mission and music at the top of the list.

But, now I find myself dwelling in a place of much greater concern.  Am I leading a Christian church or what is essentially a social club?  It’s clear enough that the people who gather for Sunday worship genuinely like and care for each other.  They check in with each other, making phone calls and sending email.  They are especially attentive to those who are grieving and dealing with very difficult aspects of life.

Is that enough, though, to be “the church”?

I’m not sure.  And, so I wonder and I worry.   And I pray for the wisdom to understand the clues and the lessons, the gifts and opportunity of this strange journey into pandemic crisis.

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I’m Working!

In the midst of all of the difficulties, uncertainties and unpleasantness of the current pandemic, one of the more minor issues, yet still a persistent one, is that I find myself being asked, one way or another, about what I’m doing with all of my new-found “stay at home” time.  Friends, acquaintances, and family (who do not live with me), frequently ask how I’m managing with all of my new “free time”:  What are you doing?  Are you working on puzzles?  Are you developing a new hobby?  Are you sorting through your stuff?  Or, they are making suggestions:  Hey, do you want to share recipes?  Interested in any book suggestions?

Or, what feels like the worst of all, a couple of people have asked about when I expect to be able to have worship services again, as if Old South has gone completely into hibernation through the crisis.

It’s difficult not to shout in a loud voice:  I’M WORKING!

Before Easter, I was working more than usual, even more than a typically busy holy season.  I’m still doing worship.  I’m offering opportunities for online “gatherings” during the week.  I’m planning and delivering a variety of programming, including an almost daily Zoom service during Holy Week (it was interrupted for one day, when we lost power and internet at home).  And, I’m still actively involved in work, at Old South and in the Maine Conference, that is simply part of my life, pandemic or no pandemic.

I’m working.  I’m learning how to deal with the transition from in-person events and worship, to online events and worship.  I’m updating the church website (at a small church, I’m the church webmaster) several times a week, rather than once every couple of months.  I’m learning how to create a YouTube channel, and how to upload videos to that channel, and then how to upload other people’s videos to our new channel.

I’m spending a great deal of time wrestling with hard (for me) to understand technology, and then finding that I must do what I really don’t like doing:  ask for help.  Or, worse, allow myself to be helped when my family has had enough of my cursing and muttering.  And, then I need to help others connect in this new way.  And, I worry– a lot– about those who refuse even to try to connect to our new way of gathering as church.

I must add here that I am tremendously thankful to a couple of Old South folks who have really embraced our new ways of gathering and have offered themselves as coaches to those who with our new online existence.  They are a significant blessing, to be sure.

I’m working.  I’m writing sermons and other worship materials.  I’m trying to provide some level of pastoral care.  I’m trying to help people stay connected.

It’s all different, that’s for sure.  I’m not surprised to find that I really don’t like this new way of being, that I really rely on Sunday in-person gatherings to get a sense of how people are doing and to listen for those little pieces of information that people share.  And, it’s also not surprising to discover that it’s much harder (actually, just about impossible) to get people to share those little pieces on a Zoom screen.  On the positive side, though, it’s been nice to have more contact with people who have moved away, but have been joining us for worship in this new, online congregating as church.

Folks from Old South know that I’m working, and it’s been nice to have them acknowledge that it’s taken some effort to move our life online.  I’m grateful.

To those who are not part of my church community, who think that I’m just hanging around with nothing to do, who want me to do that weird email chain mail recipe exchange (I’ve received several such emails) or want to help me occupy my time with their ideas of what I could be doing:  I’m working!


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Easter Worship, In Captivity

The word that continues to loom large in my head, when I think of worship in this time of pandemic is the word “weird.”  It’s not an uncommon word, to be sure, and it’s not a terribly good word.  And, yet it’s the word that I keep coming back to, whenever I think about my recent experiences with leading online worship, especially worship on the most significant of Sundays, Easter.

It’s weird.  So terribly weird.  All of it.

At the start of this whole social distancing thing, I was worried that the older congregation that I serve would simply disengage from the church, that the new online platform would feel too perplexing in the sea of new challenges that we face.  I’ve been gratified that so many people have gotten onboard and online.  People have asked if they can share the worship link with friends and family far away, and a few of those have “zoomed” in.  All of my daughter’s college roommates, for instance, from their various locations (Philadelphia, Syracuse and Michigan), attended Easter worship.  And, there have been those who have taken the opportunity to try to mess with my head.  One person joined Easter worship without video, and called himself “Napoleon Rodriguez.”  My husband and I got a bit nervous about that, since the name was not one we (at first) recognized.  While we haven’t recognized every name that has appeared at our “Zoom” worship, we have recognized the great majority.  Later, I discovered it was my brother, chiming in using a name from the 1980s cult classic, Repo Man.  Ha ha.

For our Easter Sunday worship, many of the women (and a few of the men) wore Easter bonnets.  A few people got dressed up, with clothing that one would expect to see on an Easter Sunday morning in the sanctuary.  The organist had gone to the trouble of videotaping the postlude, early last week, from the church sanctuary, playing on the church organ.  I had told people there would be a surprise at the end of the service, and the postlude did not disappoint.  It looked like at least a few people were crying.

The service itself went reasonably well, with the technology cooperating, which allowed the organist to play during the service (on the piano, from his home), the soloist to sing from her home, and the chair of the Outreach Team to share information about the church’s latest outreach project.

But, it was all so weird.  My husband and I have set up a small studio, of sorts, in what used to be our bedroom (the lighting is the best there).  I’ve set up an altar, and Joseph takes care of managing the pieces of the service from my computer.  I have to remind myself to look at that small box perched on the top of the tripod.  I’d prefer to be looking around the sanctuary, into the familiar eyes of my congregation.  Alas.

It’s just all so weird.  And strange.  And unsettling.   It feels so completely and utterly distant.  I realize that that’s the point, but having no visible congregation in front of me, allowing me to get some sense of whether or not I’m making any sense, or offering anything (like body movement) that allows me to know what resonates with them, is very disconcerting.

What would the Sermon on the Mount have been like, had it been shared over Zoom or live-streamed through Facebook?  What would be remembered of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, if the participants had to feed only themselves at home?  What would have happened with the bleeding woman, if she had no cloak to touch?

There’s so much about Jesus and the church that involves a sense of touching, and physical proximity (appropriate touching and closeness, of course).  Even in John’s version of the first Easter, we know that Mary wanted to touch the risen Christ, probably started to reach out to him, but he warned her against that action.  I can’t say that I’m much of a toucher, but I miss the in-person gathering of the people of God, the body of Christ.

What can I say?  It’s weird.

And, the weirdness will continue, as it looks like our worship in captivity will go on for a while longer, much longer than I would like.  I can’t imagine that it will ever be anything but weird, and strange.  But, I’m also eager to discover what will come of this new way of being the church.  What sort of resurrection does Christ have in mind this time around?

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A Not So Good Good Friday

We are well into our “stay at home” order that Maine’s Governor put into place April 2nd.  At Old South, we have been holding worship services, meetings and other gatherings online.  This new format isn’t perfect, but it has offered an opportunity to try some new things, like daily Holy Week “gatherings” (up until today—more on that in a bit).  We’ve also been able to welcome new people, from near and far, to our online worship.

Now, we are at Good Friday, a day on the liturgical calendar that holds special meaning for me, as we usually sing one of my most favorite hymns, O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.  Today, I’m not only stuck at home, but forced to postpone our online noon service until tomorrow, and even then may have to cancel it.

Last night, it snowed.  And snowed.  Wet, heavy, large flakes of snow.  And then the wind picked up.  By midnight, the electricity had gone out.   I could tell when the noise of the generator woke me up.  In the morning, I discovered that we had also lost internet access.  Who knows when we’ll get the power and internet back.  (Thankfully, my phone’s hotspot setting allows me to check email and post to this blog.)

Any hope I might have had to take my all-wheel drive vehicle to try to get to the church’s parish house to do today’s service from there (where there is power and internet) vanished when my husband:  a. went off the road when he tried to leave (we live at the end of a long, dirt private road), and, b. when he then discovered that a large tree had fallen across the road (and the earliest it can be removed is tomorrow).

Now, not only am I under a “stay at home” order, but I’m really stuck at home.  And, I can’t do anything that will allow me to connect to what always feels especially holy about Good Friday.  It’s not just about one of my favorite hymns, or the painful, difficult story.  There’s also something significant about spending time in a church sanctuary for part of this day.  When I knew that I couldn’t be in Old South’s sanctuary for today’s service, I heaved a heavy sigh, but then thought, well, at least I wouldn’t need to be without my community, even as small as it usually is for a Good Friday service.

It’s not that at home devotionals are without some sense of holiness, but it’s not nearly the same.  Without church, in terms of building or people, today feels rather barren and even more distant than social distancing.

Years ago, when I was a divinity school student, I attended the annual Good Friday three-hour service at Memorial Church in Harvard Yard, Noon – 3:00.  The first time I contemplated going to that service, I remember worrying about being able to sit in a church pew for so long.  And, then discovered that I wasn’t really ready to leave when the service was over.  While we don’t have such a long service at Old South, I still remember that feeling of being in that sanctuary and not quite ready to leave and to return to normal life outside.  That memory comes back each year during the Good Friday service.

While I certainly have that feeling of being away from the life “outside,” stuck inside as I am, there is a definite disconnect in the experience.  I’d rather not feel like the disciples who huddled up in fear behind a locked door, thinking that they might be next.

This year is a whole new experience of Good Friday, and I’m not sure if I’ll look back on this experience and come to realize that maybe it was, if not a good experience, at least worthwhile.  I’ll hope, at least, that next year, when this current circumstance is a distant memory (for surely it will be by then?), that I won’t take anything for granted.

What language shall I borrow, to thank Thee dearest friend,                                          For this thy dying sorrow, thy pity without end?                                                                    O make me thine forever, and should I fainting be,                                                             O let me never, never, outlive my love to Thee.                                                                   (O Sacred Head, verse 3)

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Reflections on Hosanna

Homily for April 5, 2020, Palm Sunday                                                                                      Mark 11:1-11

They shouted Hosanna.  Over and over again, as the procession made its way into the city.  “Hosanna!  Hosanna!”  The crowd shouted and cheered.  And, some laid down cloaks and others branches to heighten the festive air.

“Hosanna!” they shouted and cried out.  Hosanna!

Have you ever wondered—ever looked up—what that word means?  Hosanna?

It means “save us.”

Save us.  How appropriate.  And, not just in the first century.

How appropriate for this moment, this time.

Save us:  Those who are lonely, feeling much too isolated.

Save us:   Those who are wishing that they could feel a bit more isolated, with a house full of people who aren’t usually there—at least not all the time.

Save us:   Those who are consumed with worry—worried about the simplest of tasks, like getting groceries or some milk from the convenience store.

Save us:   Those who are worried about family far away, and there’s no way to get there, except maybe online.

Save us:   Those who thought they knew the plan for the spring—things to do, a new job, a trip.  And now all of those plans are in the midst of the great unknown.

Save us.  Hosanna.  Save us.  We may not be lining the streets, shouting out or lining the rode with coats and tree branches, but we may be lifting up this cry silently in our own prayers many times throughout each day.

Who among us doesn’t yearn for saving, for deliverance, from this strange, unfamiliar and difficult time?  Who among us hasn’t yearned to be freed, to be brought safely through to the other side, that life may get back to its simple normal once again?

Here we find a deep and abiding tie to our ancient brethren, those who gathered along the streets of Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday in the first century.  They too were seeking not simply a saving grace, a sense of blessing, but a literal saving—from the oppression of Rome, from religious leaders who worked in concert with the Romans.   They too sought and yearned for deliverance.  Hosanna, they shouted.  Save us.

Waving branches and setting down cloaks, with shouts of Hosanna.  Save us.

Yet, within a few days, that same crowd had changed their mind.  Their shouts of Hosanna altered to a viscous “Crucify Him!”

How could that be?  How could such a dramatic change happen in such a short time, from cries of “Save Us” to “Crucify Him”?

When they shouted “Hosanna” on that very first Palm Sunday, it turns out that it really was a sort of demand, with a lot attached to it.  “Save Us” was not some simple slogan, with an implied “please.”  It was a mandate, an expectation.  And one that didn’t have a lot of time attached to it, or much a variance from what they wanted—and at that moment.

Deliverance.  Now.  Big and decisive.  Now.  Romans gone.  Religious leaders doing the work of God and not in concert with the ruling Romans.  Now.  Save us.  Now.

The clues that the demands and expectations they had were not going to be met in the way that THEY wanted were clear enough right from the start.  This so-called Savior riding in on a humble beast, not a weapon or army in sight.  No chariot, no jewels, no trappings of royalty, no arms or armor, no soldiers in front nor behind.

This, so clearly, not the Savior they expected or wanted.  Not any number of Hosannas or branches waved or cloaks laid out was going to change that.

The question for today, the question as we begin our journey into Holy Week:  do we fall into that same trap?  Or, perhaps the question may more rightly be:  how many times have we fallen into that same sort of trap?

Deliver me.  Deliver us.  Save me.  Save us.  In the way that I want.  In the way that I need.  Or, I’ll turn away.

Like those who lined the streets on that first Palm Sunday, do we yearn for that sort of Savior who will swoop in, destroy our enemies, and give us want we want in the way that we want it?

Hosanna.  Save us.

What sort of yearnings do we have, as individuals and as a church?  What desires of God do we hold in our heart?

Do we welcome the Savior that we want or the Savior that Christ actually is?

Jesus doesn’t provide easy answers or a simple and decisive victory over our enemies.  Instead, he presents himself fully as the humble servant.  Where is strength?  It’s in weakness.  Where is your hope?  It’s in looking for a new way, a different way—not in violence, not in vengeance.

Here is your Savior, but he isn’t going to save you, or us, in the manner that we would like or prefer.

Today, on this Palm Sunday, in this strangest of times, at the start of this holiest of weeks, we take a moment to consider what sort of Savior we are looking for, what sort of Savior we want.  We have an opportunity to reflect for a moment on the sort of Jesus we are looking for, yearning for.  It’s best to begin this week not in the same place we began last year’s holy week, or the year before.  Here’s a new week, in a decidedly new time.

So take a moment and think about the sort of Savior you are looking for.  You don’t need to tell anyone else about it.  But, take a moment.  And, by taking that moment, we begin this holiest of weeks with an honest reckoning of where we are and who we are, that through this week, we may learn a little more about ourselves, and about who and what this Jesus was and is, and what it all means to us, and to Christ.

Will we be among those who shout Hosanna one day and then Crucify a few days later?  Or, will we be among those who walked quietly but determinedly with Jesus along the way, there when he was crucified and then there to discover the empty tomb of Easter morning?  Will we be among those who turned against him because he didn’t fulfill their expectations, or will we be among those who pushed those expectations aside and, therefore, discovered what saving is really all about?

I look forward to the journey of Holy Week with you, this year, this week.  Each day (except for Saturday), we’ll have an opportunity to spend a few moments together, to listen to the stories of this week, to reflect on our own faith, and our own expectations of Jesus, with the hope that, by doing so, we may discover something new and wonderful, something meaningful and marvelous.   Welcome to Holy Week.


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Not Counting Pets (or puppets)

And those who ate were about five thousand men, not counting women and children.        Matthew 14:21

Old South has now held two online worship services, one on March 22 and the other this past Sunday, March 29.  I’ll admit that I was very nervous about moving our worship experience online, especially as I thought about who might attend, and who likely would not.  My guess for attendance for that first Sunday was around twelve.  While twelve is a nice biblical number and certainly above the quorum set by Jesus himself (wherever two or three are gathered in my name . . . ), it would not have been a very good number at Old South.  We are a small church, to be sure, but not that small.  But, we are an older church with several people who don’t even own computers and others who are not particularly amenable to learning new ways of using their computers.

Our online worship experience, though, has been quite the surprise.  For the first service, we had about 28.  This past Sunday, we had about 40.  Not including pets, or puppets (this past Sunday, one person, who had noticed the presence of pets the previous Sunday, brought a puppet, in the absence of any live animals in his household).  And there were definitely a few pets, like Tad the cat who doesn’t like his owner talking to anyone but him.

I am certainly heartened by this.  And hearing people check in with each other, seeking continued connection as the Body of Christ, before and after the service is both comforting and a little bit exciting.


Along with my tech guy (my husband) and my feedback crew at home (my young adult children who are not shy about offering “constructive feedback”), we are learning a lot (and quickly), about how to make this experience work with our platform of choice, Zoom.  We’ve been learning about lighting and what I should be wearing (and not wearing– like black clothing).  We’ve been learning about what the right length of an online service should be, and how to include music (a tricky, but important, part of our worship experience).

It’s fascinating to be in the midst of this radical change to how we are church.  And while I’m relieved of much of that initial nervousness, I find that I must, in a conscientious way, keep my feelings of utter disconcertedness at bay– for those feelings are still very much present.  I don’t like doing worship this new way.  I miss the congregation being right in front of me.  I miss the back-and-forth of our usual worship, the familiarity between preacher and parish.  But, I must put those unsettled feelings aside and move bravely forward.

It has occurred to me, over and over again over the past couple of weeks, that there are significant opportunities here, especially for spiritual growth.  And, it’s my job, whether I feel like it or not, to explore those opportunities and to find ways of laying out pathways for connection– to each other and to Christ.

Many need, in these strange and difficult days, spiritual feeding.  Those who consider Old South their church home need to know the reality of care, grace, blessing, hope and love.  It’s my job, my calling, to do what I can to provide that, to seek ways of linking these people with Christ, to help them open up to the spiritual food that Christ offers.  Even as I struggle to ascend the steep learning curve of online worship (as well as other ways of gathering online), I know that I must.

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt so keenly my role as pastor, of shepherd to the good people of the congregation I serve, and beyond.

And, I trust that I will be shown the way.

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It’s Time to Self-Isolate . . . from the New York Times

Like a lot of people, my usual morning follows a routine.  First, coffee. Second, make toast.  Third, drink coffee.  Fourth, say good morning to others who may be in the kitchen at the same time.  Fifth, open computer, review the headlines and visit the puzzle page of The New York Times.  Sixth, scan Boston.com (I’ve lived in Maine for almost twenty-five years, but I can’t quite shake that connection to Boston).  And, then, finally, I’m usually ready to settle down and read below the headlines in the New York Times.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I think it may be time to limit my attachment to the New York Times.  While it’s been the primary source to gather news and perspective, in regard to the U.S. and the world, I’ve become seriously annoyed at its coverage of the latest crisis.  Here are just a few recent headlines that have grabbed my attention:  “The Epic Failure of Testing in America”; “Stop Saying That Everything is Under Control.  It Isn’t.”; “Can’t Get Tested?  Maybe You’re in the Wrong Country”; “A New York Doctor’s Coronavirus Warning:  The Sky Is Falling”; “U.S. Is Plunged Into Deeper Disruption and Paralysis”; “The World We Once Lived In Has Vanished.”

The COVID-19 Pandemic is certainly very, very serious.  The news coverage, though, in the New York Times is aggressively disconcerting and unsettling.  Everything seems poised to draw me into panic, rather than offer information and balanced perspective  It feels like the headlines have been ramped up, to become something more akin to “click bait” on much less reputable sites.

As a clergyperson, I think it’s especially important to refrain from panic and to maintain, instead, the mantra that Jesus so often spoke:  “Fear not.”  How many times did Jesus utter such words?  I don’t know.  But, it was a lot.

In the first century, there was plenty to fear.  There was plenty to fear among those who gathered with Jesus as well as among those who gathered long after the crucifixion, in the communities that organized throughout the latter half of the first century (when the Gospel accounts were written).  The words “fear not” or “do not fear” were likely significant touchstones for those who actually knew Jesus when he was walking around, as well as for those who gathered in his name, in the early days of the church.

Do not fear.  Fear not.  These are the words to which we must cling, whether or not we find ourselves in the midst of crisis and/or a global pandemic.

This doesn’t at all mean that we should act recklessly, ignoring the advice of experts and public health officials.  But, it does mean that we resist panic, and we recognize that we may need to do so in a conscientious way.

Therefore, it’s time to practice a little social distancing when it comes to the Times.

Take a breath.  Remember who you are and to whom you belong.   And, speak again and again the words of Jesus.  They are just as important and just as vital as they were in the first century:  Fear not.

And, share your witness of hope and love, of not fearing in the midst of crisis, with everyone you can.

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Can This Old Dog Learn New Tricks?

Ministry in the Age of COVID-19

My twenty-year-old son blames his twenty-three-year-old sister for everything that is happening in the world, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.  For Christmas, Margaret gave her brother a t-shirt from Venice, Italy (where she had lived in the fall).  It was a shirt that she had purchased at the 2019 Venice Biennale, with the theme blazoned on the front, “May You Live in Interesting Times.”  Here’s a photo of the theme, juxtaposed with a damaged vaporetto during November’s acqua alta:


These are indeed interesting times.

I could use a little less interesting, actually.

Since there’s not any choice about it, we have in the midst of this crisis, opportunity (of course).  The question is, for an old, traditional, mainline church like the one I serve:  what sort of community can we be, will we be, in the midst of this new, ever changing and rapidly evolving (and scary) landscape in which we now find ourselves?

And, the even bigger question is this:  how well will I/we adapt?  How well will I be able to deliver meaningful guidance, leadership, and general faith connection, when I have I have to learn a whole bunch of new things?

Ministry in this new environment is no small thing.  For those of us in small, older churches, where there are still people who don’t even have email, let alone a decent computer or a smart phone, it’s simply overwhelming to begin to consider how in the world we are going to offer anything reasonable in terms of worship, meetings and gatherings for our church community.

Sure, I can try to learn how to provide online content.  I’ve subscribed to Zoom and I’ve created a YouTube channel.  I’ll start to update our webpage later today, and start working with the Music Director on what we can do about providing something that resembles worship for Sunday mornings for at least the next few weeks– for those who can access content online.

Can this old dog learn some new tricks?  And, even more than that: can I learn to deliver content effectively?

While there are some things that I think I can do without venturing too far from my comfort zone, I can’t help but worry about my ability to deliver good content.  Let’s take sermons, for one thing.  I know that I rely heavily on the in-person experience of delivering a sermon.  If those in the sanctuary start fidgeting early on, I know I need to just get to the point already. Or, if the sanctuary gets amazingly quiet, and I know that those present are all completely focused on what is coming out of my mouth, I may slow down, alter my voice, and extend for a bit, or simply provide a moment to take in that holy moment of quiet convergence, as if we can actually feel the Spirit tiptoeing through the sanctuary, drawing us in.

I rely a lot on the in-person dynamics of gathering, reading body language and facial expressions, and listening to comments and other sorts of utterances.  I’ve been at Old South a long time.  There’s an intimacy that’s been created over my many years with this congregation.  An intimacy that, as I reflect on it, makes me very nervous about our new life as a primarily online community– even if this time is relatively short-lived.

It’s not so much about the “tricks” of our twenty-first century world.  I use email and other social media platforms.  I can create online meetings, as well as worship.  But, will I be able to provide something meaningful and worthy in this very new way of being?  Will I ever feel the tiptoe of the Holy Spirit when we gather over Zoom?

I’ll admit my doubts.  But, I also need to admit that I know I must trust, trust that the Spirit will continue to make her/himself known.  When only two or three of us are gathered in Christ’s name, surely Christ is there as well.  Even through Zoom?

These are interesting times, that’s for sure.  But, may they be not only interesting, but holy and faithful.

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