One of the phrases I have been struggling with hearing over these past few weeks since the shut-down began in March is the longing of “getting back to normal.”
I get it.
It is a very human impulse to establish patterns, particularly patterns that work for us, and when a crisis enters that disrupts those patterns not only for days, but weeks and now months (and we are not out of the woods yet) it can be very disorienting to say the least. People can become destructive and act out of fear rather easily. I have been remarkably impressed (though honestly, not surprised) by how well as a church St. Paul has courageously stepped-up to the challenge.
Thanks for hanging in there.
Bishop Jim Hazelwood published a letter to the New England Synod yesterday, April 29, 2020 Read it HERE ). As our conference dean I will be meeting with the synod staff and other deans in the next week as the bishop leads us in discussion around the contents of this letter.
I strongly urge you to read the letter and read it carefully. Jot down some notes, circle or underline phrases and start thinking of your questions. We’ll have much to discuss over the next month (and several months) as we plan to “re-open” the building. (NOTE – we never “closed” St. Paul. We just shifted our ministry to operate outside of the building over the course of these weeks). Again, you have handled this disruption remarkably well and I thank you for all of your connecting, reaching-out, and creativity to continue being the faithful, generous, loving, caring, joyful people I know you are and our church family to be.
I call your attention to Bishop Hazelwood’s first paragraph (1.), because in these sentences Bishop Hazelwood articulates exactly what I have been feeling over the course of these weeks:
“Recognize that re-opening is not going back to normal. The church we all remember, what I call the January Church, is not something we will be returning to anytime soon. If you view re-opening as an attempt to go back to the model of church as usual, I believe you will be continually frustrated.”
I believe he is absolutely correct in his assessment. The era we all knew prior to covid-19 is over. With it, the January Church is also gone. Life has changed. We might try to pretend that it hasn’t. We may rebel against new realities and try to fight the changes around us. We can long for the good old days. (These are all innately human impulses too). But deep down…you probably know what he is saying is true. April 2020 is a different world than January 2020, and things will continue to change around us, with ramifications that will be felt for months, years, and potentially decades ahead of us. This new economic, geo-political, environmental, technological, cultural upheaval is touching every facet of human life on the planet. This is true for the church as much as any other organization and our familiar ways of doing things. There is no business as usual, but thank goodness, God created human beings to be rather clever. The image a friend of mine Pastor Paul Kramptiz articulated a few weeks ago in a conversation we had still rings in my ear: “We are learning to fly as we build the airplane and we are already up in the air.”
To me, the implications of where we are and where are going are clear. We can’t think about the future like it is still 2019 (or for that matter like its 1989) anymore. We might need to take some time to grieve and console each other about that reality (and we probably should) – but I am convinced that ignoring this time for what it is and pretending nothing has changed, staying stuck in the past or just hoping this will all blow over and go away will only lead us to where the church as a whole has been trending over the last half a century – further decline and irrelevance, the very “frustration” our bishop articulates so well. We can do better. We are a much stronger church than that. We are blessed.
So rather than expend our precious time, energy and resources seeking a “normal” we can never get back to (because those days are gone); or dwell on the things we worry about losing; or turn on each other because it is always easier to assign blame and point fingers than to dig deep and do the difficult work that leads to transformation, I suggest we lean into God and each other and go another direction.
Let’s think of the pathway ahead of us as an open road, even if the destination is unclear.
Let’s visualize before us a clean slate where our primary concerns are no longer fed by our personal likes or what feels comfortable or convenient for us, but what the mission of “building community in Christ; serving Christ in community” demands of us in this time as we look to the future and our neighbors around us.
Let’s respond like this unprecedented time has given us an unprecedented opportunity to be part of and do something special – because this is our rainbow in the sky promise, our burning bush moment, our empty tomb discovery, our road to Emmaus encounter, our Damascus calling, our Pentecost coming of the Spirit, our New Heaven and New Earth revelatory vision of God’s redemptive future – and we best not miss out on what God is showing us and who in our community we might reach.
As we work on some real challenges ahead of us over the next few months, here are a few questions I think we should keep asking to guide us:
–Who are we and what is our mission & purpose? (Building community in Christ; serving Christ in community)
–What obstacles are in the way from accomplishing our mission? (Doubts, Fears, Limits [real and perceived], Baggage we have trouble letting go of but no longer need to carry)
–What assets do we have in order to accomplish our mission? (People, Resources, Partners)
–What can we learn from successes and failures to try and try again? (Plan, Do, Evaluate)
I believe with focus and determination alongside patience and encouragement – we have every reason to believe that there are amazing days for St. Paul still to come!
God has called us to this moment.
To be church in this new post January 2020 world will take resolve and courage; clarity and purpose; mercy and grace; creativity and patience and that same joy and peace that has brought us here and kept us together so far. We can do it.
What will we do next?
One of our council members said it best at our Monday night meeting:
“As we keep going, we will figure it out.”
God’s peace surround you and embrace you this day.