“It has been a while,” he said.
I was talking to a member over the phone during office hours, such as they are. I had asked if he could come be a reader for our worship recording in the sanctuary, and he said it had been a while since he had read scripture in worship, or been in the space, or had communion, or seen anyone for that matter.
“Pastor,” he continued,” I’d be happy to do what you ask. But to be honest, I just don’t feel God’s presence through the screen. I’ve been going to churches that have in-person worship, and I’m not so good with computers. Connecting, and staying connected has been hard. I miss church.”
I sat on that for a moment. This is the man who brings people in recovery to worship. The man I had accompanied to a prison retreat, synod assembly, community forums, and men’s retreat at the bible camp.
He is a faithful worship and education attender and, though sometimes rough, gives thoughtful input after worship or in class. When things had gotten ahead of him in his remodel after retirement, and his house was nearly unlivable, I finally convinced this helper to receive help from fellow members. Side by side, we wired, repaired, plumbed, installed, and received from the Spirit dwelling among us in the process.
In so many ways, he is at the heart of what it means to be church, and yet he missed church—the incarnate connection, the body assembled in worship.
To be honest, he isn’t alone: I miss that too. I awoke too early one morning, and a litany of contrast began to run unchecked—six months ago we had confirmation class in person; we had cross generational church night in person. We had a Lenten series on empire and faith; we had worship in person; we were going to go on a prison retreat, and we were signing kids up for camps. Now, to quote a council member, everyone feels like their real lives are on pause. “I miss church.”
I miss some of the rhythms and the now realized ease of checking in with one another in those patterns. While many understand that staying apart is the surest way of countering viral transmission, they are eager for one another as signs of God’s presence, as those who hear the word together, who bear together, who share longing. Will it be awkward to be together again? Will it be the same?
Rapidly coming to the end of Matthean texts as Advent approaches, thankfully out of the vineyard, something strikes me as we’ve been riding with Matthew’s Gospel, riding along on an experience our great-grandparents may have had around the Spanish flu.
- January 20th (Martin Luther King, Jr. Day), the first case of COVID in the US was reported in the state of Washington
- January 26th we heard in Matthew 4: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” (v. 23)
- March 8th we heard in Matthew 17: “the disciples fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.” (vv. 6b – 8)
- March 13th the first case of COVID was reported in the state of Montana and we stopped meeting for worship in person
Jesus proclaimed the good news of the kingdom, cured all kinds of illness among people, told the disciples not to be afraid, and they focused on him. It sounds like a plan or perhaps a witness.
How are you, dear colleague, dear church? How have you been doing? It’s okay to get gritty in your honesty, pointing to places where you’re not sure God is present, or where your grief might even be admitted. But, like good beginnings, and unprecedented moments, we can share where we have seen Jesus among us. What was Jesus’ ministry on earth if not one long adaptative challenge— a new reality in, with, and under a violent and hope-crushing one?
- I have seen Jesus in my colleagues. Knowing only one of our six ELCA congregations in town was equipped to stream, we gathered as one church and four pastors, sharing resources, preaching, covering music, and leading. We re-assured members that we were still gathered. Not only did our people get to be the larger church together, sharing one cup as it were and enjoying worshipping as the body of Christ, it gave our collective councils time to make technology upgrades and COVID community decisions. We gave one another permission to take Sundays off, and I heard great sermons and felt the load to be lighter. We finally gathered for drive-up communion and lawn chair devotions in the congregation I serve, but I am so grateful for my ministry cluster.
- I have seen Jesus in my congregation. Knowing the vital role gathered community plays for those who worship, eat, and visit together, the council and myself set out to form a calling team: what do you need, are you okay, are you seeing anyone, can we get you something? Later, when the time stretched, it transformed into an “information drive” for the directory, sharing the task out to members who called ten other members. Not only did we find many of our phone numbers were out of date (email your church, people!), our folks said how wonderful it was to connect to people and have great conversation with members they may normally not have associated with. A parent took over teaching confirmation online and co-led a white privilege class via Zoom. Others didn’t wait and continued sharing prayer concerns, delivering quilt material to those at home, and sitting on sidewalks and lawns with seniors.
- I have seen Jesus in my synod. Knowing that we truly weren’t prepared, and that our pressure points were being exposed, the synod staff led from the front. The bishop wrote recommendations about communion, held Zoom meetings with clergy collectively, matched pastors to COVID advice and financial resources, and wrote “a truly pastoral letter” (in her words) that made many of us cry—she gets it, she feels it, she is centering us in Jesus. They took turns recording worship each Sunday from their office chapel to supplement our efforts or provide for congregations whose circumstances did not allow for recording. They held tech summits, idea exchanges, dwelling in Scripture, leader care opportunities, and anti-racism training—all via Zoom.
- I have seen Jesus in the word meeting the world. Knowing God in the systemic racism made newly present for too many, the political division and rancor that leaves so many feeling more isolated or even abandoned, and the invisible virus that stalks our best intentions, spaces, and relationships, I have seen something extraordinary. I have seen my anxiety in leading transform into doing less with less. I have seen our presiding bishop and colleagues wrestle with growth and courage to bear witness to the kingdom of heaven drawing near with renewed possibility and connection: Rev. Lenny Duncan’s encouragement to face racism, local Lutheran Abby Huseth’s illumination of the cry of creation and the pivot to hopeful action, and Krish O’Mara Vignarajah’s invitation to continue to advocate for the widow, orphan, and sojourner. I have seen the city in which I live establish a COVID supply warehouse and needs network, take action on housing barriers and homelessness, increase the food bank’s capacity, get involved in the city’s budget process like never before, demonstrate for Black lives mattering, and engage the public service commission on renewables with vigor.
It has been awhile since we did church the way we used to, but I have seen Jesus and the Church very active in this time: proclaiming the good news, curing all kinds of illness, telling disciples not to be afraid, and centering us on the center.