Wednesday, December 30, 2020

That One Solitary Life...


Christmas 2020 was one for the books--the history books--pretty much like the rest of the year. Will anyone cry if the door hits 2020 in the backside on its way out? Usually we celebrate the New Year with the ball drop in Time Square. There were enough balls dropped in 2020 that I don't care to see another one, though.

I want to say a good word about Christmas this year, even in its "stunted" form, due to COVID-19. There is a poem attributed to author James Allen Francis that goes like this:

One Solitary Life

He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant. He grew up in another village, where he worked in a carpenter shop until he was 30. Then, for three years, he was an itinerant preacher.

He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family or owned a home. He didn't go to college. He never lived in a big city. He never traveled 200 miles from the place where he was born. He did none of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but himself.

He was only 33 when the tide of public opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. One of them denied him. He was turned over to his enemies and went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed to a cross between two thieves. While he was dying, his executioners gambled for his garments, the only property he had on earth. When he was dead, he was laid in a borrowed grave, through the pity of a friend.

Twenty centuries have come and gone, and today he is the central figure of the human race. I am well within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned--put together--have not affected the life of man on this earth as much as that one, solitary life.

The object of the Christmas celebration was a little like that "Charlie Brown" Christmas Tree pictured above, as this poem reminds us. Even Isaiah 53 doesn't paint a pretty picture of the "suffering servant" we see in Jesus Christ. And yet, here we are--the reconciled, redeemed, empowered People of God--because of this one "solitary" life. I'm guessing that when we first run into Jesus in Glory we may just pass him by, because he won't stand out, and I'm also guessing that his being "seated at the right hand of God" will look a lot more like a child lovingly seated beside a doting parent. The great, great power of heaven is almost always understated. Burning bushes, pillars of clouds, sneaky angels, and a Jesus who heals a blind man by making mud with his spit and slathering it into the man's eye sockets--not exactly Hollywood stuff, at least until Cecil B. DeMille got ahold of some of it. 

Maybe Christmas 2020 was a most fitting one to pay homage to the founder of Christianity? I know that around St. Paul's, as I take stock of the things we did to "rescue" Christmas of the "Grinch" that was COVID-19, I begin to smile! "Light Up Night," a video "Christmas Eve Service" that touched so many hearts and showcased the great gifts of God's people, a parking lot service on Christmas Eve with incredible music, honking horns, and a message of hope--these all certainly paid homage to a God born in a stable. In fact, as I sat in the "preachers' tent" during the parking lot service, with two soggy feet, cold to the bone, icy rain drip, drip, dripping onto the top of my head, and with wind whipping all around, all I could think of what it must have been like on that night so long ago on a Bethlehem hillside when that "one solitary life" entered our world. I could almost hear the voice of Jesus say to me in that blustery tent on December 24 of 2020, "My friend, this is the closest you have ever been to Christmas!" And to top it off, Pastor Karen used wonderful "food pictures" in her sermon that night, making us all so hungry that Dara and I went home and raided the 'fridge for a hearty snack! As we warmed up in the comfort of our own home, we watched the St. Paul's Christmas Eve video, and Ms. Erin's video she made for our church's children, and the "best Christmas ever" got even better! And given it was my last as a pastor before a planned 2021 mid-year retirement, I now have to say it was my most memorable.

Friends, it's time to count our blessings, even as we say a prayer of grace for those battling this awful pandemic, either personally, health-wise, or on the "front lines" of the hospitals and clinics. It's also a time to pray fervently for the world to be vaccinated, ASAP so we can put this Coronavirus to bed for good. And let us pray that the scientific breakthroughs made while "warp speeding" the development of these COVID-19 vaccines will usher in a new era of tools to fight back future viruses before they become an epidemic, or God-forbid a pandemic. 

Let us also pray and work for the coming of God's Beloved Community. Each new crisis has brought us a sample of it--wars that brought people together to win over tyranny, natural disasters that mustered the best in us to give aid, the aftermath of acts of terrorism that gelled a nation (at least for a season), and great human accomplishments like the moon landing or the American Civil Rights Act of 1964 that signaled to us all how we CAN be better, as a people. Please, Dear Lord, help the lessons sink in without another pandemic! With God's help, may 2021 be the year when the Beloved Community begins to sink its roots deep into our hearts and across Planet Earth. And may it be a year of healing for all.

I don't think I've ever looked so forward to a NEW Year...a HAPPY NEW Year. And may it be for all of us, without conditions, other than the human one we all must bear. And for those of us who call upon his name, may Jesus be our "central figure of the human race" once again. Shalom, Yinz! 

Friday, December 11, 2020

New Light

I am not dead. I realize that the last time I updated this blog was back in September. Not a good track record for someone who had the goal of doing weekly updates in 2020, but then a few things have happened this year. A few things...

I did something I've never done before back in October (and no, I didn't eat broccoli on a stick, or anything)--I took a week's vacation. In 36 years of ministry, I have taken time off in the "lazy days" of Summer, at some point, and the past few years, have taken most of the month of August off. This year, though, with the kind permission and coverage of my pastoral colleagues, I took a week in October, and Dara and I stayed in the keeper's house of the Cove Point Light near Lusby, Maryland. Dara likes lighthouses, and I have to admit, they hold a certain fascination for me as well, so when I found one that you could stay at, I got online and booked  it. I'm always trying to find something out of the ordinary that will "wow" Dara, as she "wows" me, just for who she is. A few years ago, I booked us into a few nights at a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house near Cleveland, over her July 4 birthday. The Cove Point stay was another attempt to thrill her, and it worked pretty well.

Cove Point Light is a working lighthouse on a peninsula overlooking the Chesapeake Bay. It is the oldest lighthouse in Maryland. A local historical preservation non-profit has restored the keeper's house, put in some modern conveniences, and rents it out. We went in October for three reasons: we're not "sun" people, so the moderate weather of October is about perfect for us; it was half the booking price from the Summer prime season (still expensive, but I didn't have to sell a kidney to afford it); and if you want to book it during the Summer season, you probably can't get in until 2023--it's that popular. (Having told some St. Paul's folk about it, a couple have tried to book it even in the OFF season, only to find that it has become VERY popular, and unavailable for at least a couple of years.)

In the off season, they give you a code for the huge electronic gate that secludes the peninsula, and you really have the place to yourself. There is a private "walking beach" (no swimming because of huge riptides), a great screened-in porch, which we made great use of, and a wonderful kitchen for preparing meals--quite handy, given COVID restrictions on what would have otherwise been some enticing local restaurants. (We DID order takeout our last night there from a local "soul food" restaurant run by a couple of African American sisters, and WOW, was that food INCREDIBLE!) Just sitting on that porch (or on the beach) reading and watching Chesapeake Bay boat traffic was wonderfully therapeutic.

This introduction to my central point in this reflection may be the longest one you will ever read. Here's what I really wanted to share, as we are in the throes of Advent...

Above is a photo I took of two lights, both very, very old. The kerosene lantern still works, and provides a subtle light in a dark room. The oldest lighthouse in Maryland still beams its guidance out into the bay, behind it. Both are faithful lights that chase out enough darkness that people like Abraham Lincoln could get his education by a kerosene lantern similar to this one, and small crab boats and giant sea-going tankers could be safely guided into the Chesapeake. They may be old, but light is light! No matter the form, fuel, or luster, it drives out darkness.

In this Advent season, we look forward to the coming of the Light of the World--Jesus, the Christ of God. Jesus is both an old and a NEW light. Ancient, in human time is the story of Christ's birth, along with the Gospel's promise that Christ would be "the light of humanity," and that the darkness he would drive out would NOT overcome this light. The NEW light of Christ is that which shines fresh and new each Advent and Christmas season when we open our hearts to the Good News once again, and allow the timeless message to drive out our personal "darkness." Advent is also a time we pray for and "expect" God's Realm to break into our world, as it fights the darkness that seems always to be trying to "overcome" it. This year,  it is COVID-19 and a divided nation, both of which bring a pall of fear. Is there anything more "dark" than fear, especially when that fear seems to be gaining in intensity, rather than abating? 

Friends, like the light of these ancient lights above, the eternal light of Jesus Christ can still drive out the darkness from the "room" of our personal lives, and that same beacon can provide guidance and direction to our future, guarding us from the threatening rocks and the crashing waves. 

May the newness of Christ's presence keep you safe and well, as we approach the end of a tumultuous year, and may that strong beacon of the "Spirit of Jesus" help you navigate the unsure waters of the coming new year. 

And just in case I "go quiet" again, due to the continuing challenges of being a pastor during a pandemic, we pray you will have a Merry Christmas, even in the shifting tides, a Happy New Year, and find time for a blessed respite from the storms of life. Peace on Earth, goodwill toward Yinz!

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Some Things I Think I Think...


1. I like to drive. I just like to drive. I find it generally relaxing, especially during this COVID-19 period when traffic is a little lighter, I'm usually not in a huge hurry to get anywhere in particular, and the weather is still nice enough to let me drive my Miata convertible (which I call the "Batmobile," since it is all jet black). One of the greatest thrills of my life was when I passed my driver's test at age 16. The freedom being able to drive afforded was amazing and still is! I could drive to the country to set up my telescope; drive myself to the library; pick up a friend and go visit other friends; or go on a date without arranging for a ride! One of my "dream" trips in retirement was driving along Rt. 66 and seeing its weird, historical sights. I may not happen now, though, as I recently read a story by an African American writer who said that Rt. 66 was never a place for Black people--it was pretty much a whites-only passageway, and its attractions were restricted. This reality shook me up, and I'm not sure I would enjoy this trip, now. Maybe now we should drive along the routes declared more "safe" for African Americans  by Victor Hugo Green's Green Book?

2. AND this leads to my second thing I think I think: I support the Black Lives Matter movement wholeheartedly. The purpose of this movement is to focus on the many ways that our African American citizens' lives are adversely affected just because their skin is a different color. Lately, the national focus has been on how Blacks are treated by law enforcement, ranging from their treatment by police, to jail sentences that have resulted in the incarceration of an incredibly disproportionate number of African Americans, jamming jails and prisons, nationwide. As Michelle Alexander has pointed out in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, the majority of Blacks in jail are there for minor "three and out" drug offenses and/or just because they cannot afford to pay a fine! Black Lives Matter (BLM) seeks to both shine a light on the numerous ways African Americans are being oppressed, as well as protest when high-profile cases--the latest being the Breonna Taylor killing and subsequent investigation--occur. Of course now we know the outcome of that investigation, and it is no balm for the fears and disparate legal treatment of the Black community. My heart still breaks when I hear an African American parent tell of how they must give their children "the talk" about how to avoid seriously negative outcomes if stopped by police. Even this counsel didn't help George Floyd. As has been stated by many, Black Lives Matter doesn't mean that only Black lives matter, or that all lives don't matter. The movement--and even the statement--only seek to shine a light on an injustice, and one that is unique to African Americans in the United States of America.

3. I think there is something as "White privilege." As a white person, I have never been denied anything just because of the color of my skin. I have African American friends who were told there were "no vacancies" in apartment complexes when there were, or who have had car salesmen try to talk them out of new cars because of the assumption they have bad credit. A couple of years ago, our church had Tim Stevens, former chairperson of the NAACP in Allegheny County, and founder and executive director of the Black Political Empowerment Project (B-PEP) speak here. During his talk, he asked how many of us in the room had ever been pulled over by police for a "safety check"? No one in the room raised a hand. He stated that he has been--about 100 times. The dictionary defines "White privilege" as: the unearned, mostly unacknowledged social advantage white people have over other racial groups simply because they are white. White privilege doesn't mean that most white people didn't have to "work" to get what they have (a frequently-stated objection to the phrase), it just means white people don't encounter the hoops to jump through or the barriers to overcome that persons of color do. And when we don't have these, we subsequently may deny they exist. Of course, as I have said many times to people who claim racism and/or White privilege don't exist, go ask a Black person. We are not qualified to make this judgment, as they are not in our experience. 

4. I think COVID-19 is a serious threat to all people, not a hoax, and not just a "mild flu." This is not just an opinion, but an assessment based on physicians, medical scholars, and researchers who are members of my congregation. COVID-19 is caused by SARS-Cov-2, a virus that is no respecter of persons. It doesn't care what you "feel" about it when it infects you, and it is the "Russian Roulette" of viruses! Is it true that some who are infected have little to no symptoms of the infection? Yes. But it is also true that people of all ages and states of health are among the 200,000 Americans who have died at the hands of the virus. What reasonable person, what religious believer, what Democrat or Republican, what young, middle-aged, or old person would want to roll those dice? But, here we are, witnessing persons who deny COVID-19's horrid efficacy, or taking a political stand against the closings and restrictions aimed at reducing the impact of the virus and keeping as many people as possible, safe from it. We have people demanding that children be sent back to the classroom in communities where the virus is particularly active. Friends, is there any among us who is not tired of this virus? Is there any among us who doesn't want it to go away, never to return? Of course not. But we cannot vote it away, we cannot wish it away, we cannot will it away. COVID-19 will be conquered by science--an effective vaccine--and by safety measures such as face-coverings, social distancing, frequent hand-washing, and avoiding unnecessary crowds, until one is available. 

5. I think prayer is a thing. I think something happens when we pray--maybe many things. Our prayers for challenges like those listed above (yes, even driving) may effectively solicit God's help. Our prayers may be turned inward by the Spirit of God to change us--altering (OR "altaring") our attitudes, straightening out our "stinking thinking," and moving us to some healing action on behalf of others, as well as ourselves. I also think you don't have to be religious to pray. I have seen it "work" on behalf of persons who profess not to believe. There is no magic to praying, but there is magic in prayer. It's a righteous magic. 

6. I think taking time to read the Bible is a thing. Reading the Bible is not done as a self-help exercise as much as it is a selfless-help exercise. If we read the Bible with this thesis statement in mind--God desires to forgive, redeem, reconcile, and prosper the human community--we will go far in properly interpreting the scriptures. While the book is full of stories of harm, hate, war, judgment, if we focus on the "reconciling" thesis, it will give us the clear lenses to view and apply what it is trying to say to us. Even as the people Israel regularly fall prey to creating idols, modern Christians have tried to turn the Bible--or even the cross--into idols. In fact, both of these point to God's redeeming action in the human realm, luring and enticing us to work to make it look more like the realm of God.

7. I think sin is a thing. Actually, I know so, and not just "because the Bible tells me so." I confess to inordinate anger over the current political climate in a country I love, and to letting that spill into some of my social media posts, the blood-pressure-raising tirades I've regularly held in my inner-dialogue, and in profanities I have uttered at TVs, radios, and computer screens (thankfully not actual persons, but I've come close). I could blame everything on the divisiveness we are experiencing, and which is being fanned into an even larger conflagration by the Coronavirus, but I confess I must look inwardly to where I have let this take root. How about you? Anything resonate here? I think the current social environment--which seems like a terrible retrenchment to earlier times when people actually had less respect for one another, and even voted it into law--has exposed my own sin. I keep thinking, "Preacher, HEAL thyself!" Years ago, a wise preacher told me, "Preach at yourself, and if someone else gets in the way, it's on them." I am trying, with God's help, to "relearn" this valuable lesson. In case you haven't had the epiphany, this stuff is hard! Where would be be with God's grace?!!

8. I think I need to take a drive. It's almost the end of the day, so it will be toward home. Time for a little top-down therapy, motoring prayers, and maybe a little Native American flute music on the Batmobile sound system...and to those of you who waded through my meandering thoughts, Shalom!

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Treasure Hunt...


Sorry it has been so long since my last Blog post, friends. I last posted on August 21, just after coming off of a shorter-than-normal vacation, and two days before I turned 66. That's it--I'll blame it on getting old! No, really, I'll bet you don't recognize the man pictured above, do you? I didn't either, but let me fill you in.

His name is Forrest Fenn. He's currently in the news because he just died at 90. He was a self-styled adventurer and art collector, who also got into collecting other treasures, including coins and gold. Over a decade ago, he was diagnosed with cancer, and after treatment, he used his personal rejuvenation to "remake" himself, and began doing things he had never done before, and going places he had never been. About that time, he wrote his autobiography entitled "The Thrill of the Chase." Turns out, he buried a "treasure" of cold, coins, and other collectables worth at least a million dollars somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, and salted his book with clues as to where it was. It's estimated that over 350,000 people read his book and went on adventurous treks through the Rocky Mountains, trying to find the riches. Unfortunately, some of those souls were not experienced at such man vs. nature challenges, and five actually died while searching. That's the bad news.

The good news is that on June 27 of this year, an anonymous Fenn-finder found the booty, and thankfully, Forrest Fenn was still around to see it. But there is better news. Fenn's challenge greatly broadened the lives and interests of a majority of the remaining 349,995 who survived the search and learned to love hiking, climbing, kayaking rivers, and reveling in the beauty of the Rocky Mountains. As you can tell from the title of Fenn's personal story, "The Thrill of the Chase," this is the lesson he was hoping to teach by hiding the treasure.

Jesus told a parable about a man who finds a treasure buried on a plot of land. He so wants to possess the treasure that he goes and buys the plot of land so the treasure can be legally his. Fenn's searchers "bought the land"--they discovered the wonders (and some, the dangers) of nature. A number of them have written stories and articles about how enriched they have become by going on the treasure hunt.

Forrest Fenn kind of "pulled a Jesus" on his readers, launching them on the trip of a lifetime. We don't know all of their stories, but obviously many of them left what was normal, or comfortable, or secure, and launched out to find a financial treasure, uncovering instead a new lease on life, beauty, and taxing experiences that jazzed them up with a whole new vision of what living is about. They met new people--including in many cases other treasure hunters--and learned to sleep under the stars. Some even quit their jobs to do a "Come and follow me" act.

OK, I'm 66 and contemplating retirement next year. I've loved my work as a "professional disciple," but am not a very adventurous soul, beyond my spiritual journey and penchant for reading and writing. In these, I may be a legend in my own mind, as they say, but at least I've tried to think--and preach--outside the box a bit. But when it comes to "comfort level," I've often said that my idea of roughing it is the Red Roof Inn instead of a Ramada. I'm generally not the outdoorsy type (stop it, those of you who know me, I can hear you laughing!). When I shared a video of my son's incredible hiking, kayaking, and climbing, 400-plus-mile trek along the "lost coast" of Alaska with his life partner, everyone who viewed it looked at me and asked, "Where did HE come from?" 

My wife persuaded me to join her in getting into bicycling a few years ago. We're doing more of that, now. My daughter and her family like to hike, and on our recent vacation with them, they had us on both a hike and bike trail ride. I bought a new telescope, and one night we stayed up way past the grands' bedtime so we could set it up and view the late-rising moon, as well as a couple of planets. Every day, as I drive through North Park on my way to the church, I find myself drawn to wanting to spend more time there in retirement, hiking, walking with Dara, and maybe even fishing. As I think I mentioned in an earlier blog, at his request, I took a very young Evan on a few fishing trips, and thoroughly enjoyed it! The thing that spoiled it was actually catching a fish--ruined the whole "peaceful" thing, as that was violent, and disgusting (having to de-hook the fish without touching it because those things feel weird, and then gently kicking it back into the water). 

When the kids were little, we bought a used tent camper and even tried camping, because I read an article that families that the common denominator in families that maintained tight relationships over the years was that they went camping. It was fun, actually, but when it became clear that we were all more enamored with visiting historical, scientific, and artistic venues, the camper gave way to just the car and decent hotels. Also, Dara didn't like that she had to do all of the cooking (remember, that's another thing I'm just learning, as preparation for retirement). But now, even camping is taking on a slight lure. Very slight. But a lure. It would seem that the "buried treasure" of retirement has already begun to alter my thinking.

So, what does this have to do with Forrest Fenn, Jesus, and you? Well, lesson one is: don't wait until retirement to try some things "out of the box" for you, and take a few steps outside your comfort zone. And, if like me you did wait, so what? Do it now! Don't let the fact that there are snakes and ticks in the woods keep you from taking a hike. (OK, I'll admit, now I'm preaching to myself...) Read an article or a book about something interesting, and then go investigate!

And that's lesson two: there are treasures out there! People, places, experiences, mission opportunities, lots of stuff to learn about, or see, or find--all of it waiting to be discovered. When Jesus said, "Come, follow me," twelve people took him up on it. My son tells me that he and Shannon may have only been the 11th and 12th persons to go on the "lost coast" hike they did. And while over 350,000 went on the hunt for the pot-o-gold old Forrest planted, most of them found something far richer than the contents of his treasure chest. Engaged with passion, curiosity, and faith-seeking-understanding, life really IS a treasure hunt! Let's get going, Yinz! Shalom!

Friday, August 21, 2020

My Conversation with the Late Saints...


At the urging of my dear roommate, I'm taking a continuing education course called "Photography as Ministry," made available by some part of the United Methodist connection. It cost money, so I'm taking it seriously, and I think Dara is trying to prepare me for next year's planned retirement, knowing: a) I minored in photojournalism in college and just bought new camera equipment; and b) she doesn't want to lose her sanity when I retire, expecting me to be constantly under foot (I'm the touchy, feely, huggy type, and she's the "get out of my face" type). 

Anyway, one of our most recent assignments was to walk around our church, spend some time in prayer, and record images of what grabs us. At St. Paul's, I wandered into the dark sanctuary where the beautiful stained-glass chancel cross--illuminated 24/7, except for Good Friday afternoon through Easter morning--was glowing, and grabbed several photos of it, both in its totality, and then zoomed in to some of its pictorial details. I had to stop and sit down for an unexpected extra moment of meditation and prayer when I got to the cross detail that shows the elements of Holy Communion. For United Methodists, in the best tradition of Jesus and John Wesley, to have not shared Communion with one's beloved community for months is just unheard of! I stumbled emotionally, as I prayed for relief from the presence of the Coronavirus and for a fresh measure of grace in the absence of Holy Communion. The image from the cross at least served as a prophetic beacon that we will once again break bread together at the table of the Lord. Sometime. The prayer I gave was that it would be, miraculously, soon. 

I was also moved by the cross detail of the open Bible, which reminded this preacher that we are called to preach the Gospel "in season and out," not deterred by something as lame as COVID-19. From parking lots to pixels, we have continued to open that Bible, pore over the text, and proclaim a word of hope, love, and grace. This, too, was comforting.

I walked into the New Horizons room, which had a "stale" aroma to it right now, brought on by the lack of activity it has had during the pandemic. This also caught me off guard, as this is possibly the busiest room in the church when things are "normal." Bible studies, Church Council, countless committees, ministry groups and task teams, the full church staff, Weekday Ministries personnel, and a growing number of "outside" organizations vie for spots on the calendar governing New Horizons. I prayed for as many of these groups as I could think of, but took no pictures. I couldn't figure out how to capture "stale" on film--it's just not the same as "empty."

Next, I put in some steps (literally) to swipe my electronic fob over the lock that "clicked" me into the ground floor of the Christian Life Center, which houses our huge Preschool and Childcare programs. While our Weekday Ministries have been and will be operating, even in the face of COVID-19 because of the great need of our families, this is the time of year when they are always shut down for cleaning and primping, getting ready for Fall restarts. This means the classrooms and play areas are just deserted. Covers are stretched over the toys, tables, and art easels like shrouds over the furniture of an abandoned old mansion. It smells clean, though, as our custodial staff has exorcised any molecule of bacteria, virus, or even dust from all surfaces, vertical and horizontal. Partly because they have the time to thoroughly clean now, but also in rehearsal to the necessity to do so diligently, daily, when the humans--littles and grownups--return in a couple of weeks. Elated to see a solitary light at the end of a dark hallway, I pleasantly encountered Linda and Laurel in the Preschool office. Like all good adult co-workers right now, both were masked, as was I, and like three nurses discussing a patient's vitals, we had a refreshing kabitz about the challenges of again filling these rooms with hundreds of over-active, highly energized germ-bearers, soon. (My words, not theirs...) I snuck into Mary Polley's inner sanctum of Childcare and took a couple pictures of that space, also suspended in time, dark and lonely. I said a prayer for all of the children of the world, as well as the bunches who will be romping around here, soon.

My last stop was back upstairs, to the chapel across the hall from the rear sanctuary entrances. This is where the St. Paul's Columbarium resides. Entering, I turned on the lights in the display area of each unit, and captured a few million photons into the memory of my camera. Then, again, I had to pause, sit down, and unpack a sudden feeling of "presence" that overcame me. As I reviewed some of the names on the plaques, I remembered conversations with many of these saints in "ages past." And I could almost imagine renewing these exchanges right now, asking each what they thought of the pandemic, and of the fact that their busy church is now host to only kids and cleaners, at least for a season. I walked over to the newer of the two Columbarium units and began a somewhat protracted chat with the resident of niche P2--Faith Geer. In my mind's eye, I could hear both her emotional, eyes-dancing, rapid-fire assessment of what COVID-19 was doing to both her church and her schedule, and her lists of "do's" and "dont's" about how to proceed with getting things back on line. I asked her to appeal to Jesus for us to wave his hand and take away this "palsy," this "demon" that has been a gut-punch to his church, but got the feeling that maybe, just maybe, her already incessant appeals on our behalf had temporarily put her in the doghouse with the King of Kings. I could feel a tear fall, though, I swear, between here and that place "on the other side of the veil," a tear not of pity, or even empathy, but one of the pain in not being here to help us cope, plan, and fix. I wondered if she is bored a bit with heaven, but I guess we'll know if, when we arrive, there are signs posted everywhere. I sure hope she enjoyed our conversation as much as it was soothing to me, though. 

This "Photography as Ministry" gig might have been a good idea, I guess, even if it was predominantly designed to keep me out of my wife's hair at some future date. Some of the photos I have been "receiving" (the term our teacher prefers, eschewing the typically violent photographic terms like "shooting," "taking," or "capturing") will probably end up as "calming" photos I have been posting daily on my Facebook page during the pandemic. Others may just serve as personal conversation starters. 

Thanks for "listening." Remember, they are too, that "great cloud of witnesses," and they're pulling for us. The least we can do is pull together. Grace and peace, Dear Ones!

Saturday, August 1, 2020

A Little Break in the Action...

We're getting ready to "go on vacation." That used to be so simple, but not anymore. We've been holing up like a couple of mice in an ice storm, "self-quarantining" in an effort to travel to Prospect, Kentucky to see our daughter and her family (and our two grandchildren) whom we haven't seen in person since Christmas. They are self-quarantining, too, so as not to take the chance of catching and transmitting Coronavirus to the "old people." "Plan A" was to take the Prius Prime, which would get us to Prospect on less than a full tank of gas, no problem, and to drive straight through, with no stops. "Plan B" has kicked in, because the grandkids want us to bring our bicycles, and Dara's Prius is the one with the hitch for the bike carrier. It may not make it on a single tank, which means a stop along the way. Who am I kidding? Two 65-plus adults who begin their day with serious shots of coffee? No potty stop? Not going to happen on "Plan A" OR "Plan B!" "Plan B-prime" includes potty stops, as needed, and the purchasing of KN-95 masks to wear for the various stops. Since we're not leaving until early Monday morning, a "Plan C" could be in the offing.

You may be wondering what the "K" in the KN-95 masks is all about? Basically, it means that while the masks are "designed" to filter out between 95 and 98% of potential virus "stuff," they are not certified as valid PPE for medical personnel. Hence they may be sold to the general public. Are they better than the homemade cloth masks we typically wear? Maybe. So, we bought a few to take along on the trip for the necessary interaction with "the public," which is now a threat, apparently.

"Plan C" would most likely be just staying home. It could happen if any of us wind up with symptoms that could be COVID, or if either of our States loses a pissing contest over the latest "surge" of the Coronavirus. Pennsylvania has a whole list of States that if a person visits one of them, they must quarantine themselves for 14 days before returning to work. That could be a deal-breaker, if Kentucky would go on that list. Or, if Kentucky flags Pennsylvania, we would have to skip the trip, as my son-in-law, an engineer who is mostly working from home during COVID-19, does have to take some trips for his job, and in this case, we would be the potential culprits, coming from a "rogue" State. Now, I've never done a two week "staycation," and I'm pretty sure I'd drive Dara to distraction in short order. I'm not the "put on some soft music and read five or six books" type. If I'm reading, the TV is on, and my computer is beside me with a browser open. This drives her crazy because she is a "Put on some soft music and read five books" type. Or, she would just lock herself in her sewing palace and sew, sew, sew. A two-week "staycation" in the Sterling household would end up with a mad wife and probably 10,000 new COVID masks sewn in frustration. I'd get several of them as gifts, ones which I would check for strychnine.

We're also doing something new--"cleaning for vacation." We never did that before COVID. We're sweeping all of the carpets, cleaning the tile floors, sorting through clutter and discarding the chaff--I even hand-washed two cars and gave the Batmobile a protective, ceramic coating. We weeded the garden area around the deck, and spruced up the front of the townhouse. Why are we doing this? I guess because week two of vacation will involve coming back home, and we want it to be neat? I don't really know, but I'm into it, too. It's not just Dara's idea. I never thought I'd take the first day of a badly needed vacation to play Felix Unger, but here we are. Just call it the psychological side-effect of the Coronavirus.

One thing I feel good about (other than being excited to see my grandkids) is leaving St. Paul's in good hands. Pastor Karen is always wonderful to step in and take the reins when I'm away, and in the past three years, I've taken almost the whole month of August off! She is just coming off of a two-week staycation, so normally I'd say she's well rested, but you know what she did? CLEANED! She rented a huge dumpster and decluttered her whole place! It's the Coronavirus, I'm telling you. Anyway, at least she got away from the stresses of a church and its daily attempts to minister during the pandemic. AND, there is another good thing happening--Rev. Chad has joined our staff for this year, and he has hit the ground with both feet running. He's doing some excellent devotionals over social media, and has preached a couple great sermons. He's also trying hard to "meet" people via our Zoom meetings, and will take the handoff on my Summer weekly Bible Study on Zoom! So, I don't feel as bad taking two weeks, at this point. This great church is in even greater hands! And our Leadership Team and church staff are awesome, as well, in what they are doing. Believe me, it's nice to not be needed!

We're only taking two weeks now because if we tried to stretch out two more weeks of staycation I know I'd be the victim of a justifiable homicide. Besides, we are still hoping to take a week in late October when we've booked a week staying at a lighthouse (in the lighthouse keeper's house, actually--beside a functioning lighthouse on the Chesapeake Bay). They are still taking guests, as the whole thing is out on a secluded, gated peninsula.

Dara loves lighthouses, and this looks like a wonderful late Fall getaway. Oh...I just had a sudden nightmare...what if we get the Coronavirus urge to clean this puppy? No...go away...can't happen. Anyway, we just learned this week that while they are still having guests come, all of the linens and towels and stuff they usually provide, they are not able to, because of the virus. So, I need to start planning now how we'll get all of that into the car along with my telescope, cameras, books, and all of the cleaning, no, go away, bad thoughts!

One final piece of good news. So far, St. Paul's congregation has been little impacted by COVID-19, something for which we are extremely thankful to God about. We had one early death of a senior member of our congregation. She was in a care facility, and they believed she succumbed to the virus. Other than that, we've been fortunate. We have also been extremely cautious about our in-person activities, limiting them to outdoor-only worship, and to two, socially-distanced, funeral services. Both were limited to 25 persons and all wore face-coverings. Of course, like virtually all of you, we are live-streaming a service from our facility, but with a small crew, and with face-coverings in place right up until our speaking role. Prior to COVID-19, St. Paul's was not live-streaming our services, waiting until we could muster the funds to put in decent origination equipment. But with the onset of the pandemic shutdown, we purchased rudimentary gear and went online. That's a topic for another blog, though. Suffice it to say, live-streaming is now here to stay, even after the Coronavirus is history.

I pray this installment finds you well and safe, Dear Ones. I also pray it finds you with vacation plans of your own, even if they involve a dumpster and strychnine. (Well, not really.) For any of my ministerial colleagues who may be reading this, I have to say that I really missed Annual Conference and the chance it affords to see your faces and tell stories together! I'm not optimistic that we'll get that October one in, either, so it may not be until 2021 when we again spout, "And Are We yet Alive"...or maybe not. We can at least think it together. Shalom to Yinz! Later...I think I missed a spot over there...

Friday, July 10, 2020

Had to stop to pray...

Friday afternoon, I was sitting in my office "balancing" a number of tasks, none of which seemed to go with the others. I was the "only one home," as on Friday, Karen and the rest of the program and office staff work from home. I did have to sneak out around 1:00PM to get fingerprinted for the FBI check, as my FBI clearance had expired. I sure hope I don't harbor the Coronavirus, and/or that they REALLY clean that electronic fingerprinting device, as they go NUTS with rolling almost every inch of every finger and thumb around on that thing! Too bad they can't make it a dual-purpose device and have it check you for the virus at the same time, as they sure got a good sample of whatever was on any of my fingers.

Anyway, I was working on a sermon, writing my weekly update for our Friday email at St. Paul's, working on material for a wedding, answering emails and phone calls, and making contacts in my new responsibility as "eldest son," handling the financial affairs of my mother, who just turned 90. She still lives in the apartment she shared with my dad for a number of years and up until his death. She has a friend (who I think is 98?) who she speaks with, nightly, and generally is doing pretty well. Paying her bills just became too much for her, as her mental confusion is escalating. So, Dara and I made the trip up to the hometown a few times, figured out all of her finances, and set up online banking for her account so I can make all of her payments. Today was a tough day, though, as I had to call her to ask for the information off her new bank card so I could set up her local newspaper's account, which can only be paid using the card. She couldn't find her purse (which we set right beside her easy chair) and then once she found it, she couldn't find her wallet, and when she eventually found her wallet, she couldn't figure out which one was her bank card. She was frustrated and cried, apologizing for her confusion, which made me cry, and I finally just had to console her and suggest that I could ask my youngest brother to stop by after work (he lives in the same community) to find her card and call me with the information. After we hung up, I just had to stop and pray.

I prayed for my mom, I prayed for EVERYBODY'S mom, I prayed for all of the sons and daughters out there who are doing what I'm doing, and trying to intervene so an aging parent can stay happy and safe at home instead of making a transition to managed care at 90. I agreed with a prayer my mom said when we were last with her, that she could just "slip away" some night, quietly, peacefully, to be with Jesus and my dad. I know that's what she wants, but fear--like many of you do for your parent or parents--that it won't come down that way. I just had to stop and pray. While she is the last surviving parent of our four, I had to say a prayer in agreement with hers to "let her go," if it be God's will. Meanwhile, I pray to be helpful to her, keep her safe, and enable as much independence for her as I can.

She has a "Medic Alert" device, and the local EMS unit knows her (one of them is my nephew's brother-in-law) and has a key to her apartment. My youngest brother and his son and family live within minutes of her place, so she is as safe as she can be, currently. But it's hard hearing one of the smartest people I have known, a graduate of then-prestigious Allegheny General School of Nursing as a Registered Nurse, and with specialized training in mental health, be so confused she cries, quite aware of the confusion. I remember being so thankful for the closeness of prayer today, for both of us.

As I handle her finances, my indignation at the sad state of our nation and its poor care of its elderly just grows exponentially. And this is not about the current state of affairs, but about a long history of what I see as neglect. My mom worked for years as an RN in two regional hospitals, spent many years as a psychiatric nurse for the State School and Hospital in Polk, PA, and finished her nursing career in what was truly hazardous duty as a psych nurse in the now defunct Oil City Hospital Psychiatric Wing. She used to tell scary stories of mentally ill patients being dropped off in the middle of the night by the police, and how she was often threatened by them. She used to say how she would pray to God silently for them (and I'm sure for herself!) even as she talked them down, consoling and soothing them in the midst of their crisis. She was a highly skilled, overly dedicated healthcare professional who worked the dreaded 11 to 7 shift most of her career so she could put us to bed, be home when we got up in the morning, make our breakfast, pack us off to school, get dinner ready to put into the oven, and then collapse until being ready to greet us after school. After about 50 years of such dedication to institutions such as hospitals and the State of PA, what is her reward? About $1,200 in Social Security, $131 from UPMC, and $317 from the State of PA, each month. Absolutely boggles my mind.

I've traveled to a number of countries that take so much better care of their citizens, from cradle to grave. Finland is one of the happiest countries on earth. People all make a good wage, their education and healthcare are all covered, and they retire to a decent standard of living. My friends in Great Britain don't have to worry about healthcare, either, and mandatory retirement plans can't be just "cancelled" by a company when that company falters. I've had way too many senior parishioners in my 35 years in ministry in Western PA who had that happen to the pension they had worked their whole life for. "Sorry, we spent your pension. Tough luck."

On top of it all, both my parents were happy with the simple retired life these meager financial provisions offered. They never complained. I guess I'm doing that now for them both. And while our retirement promises to be better funded, much of that is because we have been able to contribute our own funds to it. Back in the day, office workers like my dad and nurses like my mom barely made enough money together to raise and feed three boys, let alone stash any future savings. I have also been able to carry a large insurance policy on myself, which would have provided for my family, had I died prematurely (itinerant preacher's families become homeless when the clergyperson dies). My dad and mom both had "whopping" $2,000 policies on themselves. It's what they could afford.

Sorry for the cathartic ramblings here, but it was a day for prayer and introspection, after that earlier phone call with a confused mom. Again, I know that these words may resonate with your own caregiving situation, currently, or may invoke painful memories of days past. One thing that I think the Spirit inspired during my "cry in my beer" prayer today was a sudden wave of gratitude for my parents, for all they sacrificed for me, and that at almost 66 years of age, I still have my mom around. The other part of that gratitude is the honor that comes from taking care of some of her affairs, which has lightened her burden and allowed her to better enjoy whatever days she has left on this earth. I'll bet you felt (or feel) that way, too. Hey, stay safe, stay well, Dear Ones! And remember, when all of this starts to get to you, stop and pray! Shalom...

Friday, June 26, 2020

With a Heavy Heart...

Well, while the cautions of COVID-19 are FAR, FAR from over, it's time for this blog to move on. Unfortunately, because many have not been good little siblings and kept their face coverings on in public, and didn't avoid crowds, COVID-19 has begun to make headlines again. Who knows, we may just wind up in another lockdown! So far, so good in Pennsylvania and Allegheny County, but I'm seeing less and less people taking precautions, and we could be in the same boat soon as Florida, Texas, Arizona, and other "hot spot" states. My neighborhood had its annual "Garage Sale" a couple of weeks ago, and as I was trying to get out of Adams Ridge to go to a morning wedding, I witnessed that most of the hundreds of people clogging the streets, and a majority of those hosting sales, were not wearing face coverings, so who knows?

But this is not the main reason my heart is heavy, today. Two OP-ED pieces in the New York Times today jarred me to a higher plane of reality--one by conservative columnist, David Brooks, and one by an African American writer, Caroline Randall Williams. Got me all shook up...

Williams begins her column with the phrase, "I have rape-colored skin." She went on to describe her family heritage, which included at least one great-great grandmother who was raped by her "owner," introducing caucasian blood into her family tree when a pregnancy resulted. Williams declared herself a true "daughter of the Confederacy," writing, "My body is a statue of the Confederacy." Her column uses poignant and powerful facts from the African American experience to persuade the reader that dismantling this ridiculous "mystique" of the Confederacy of Southern States is an essential step in dismantling racism and white supremacy in this country. I think she is right, but her facts are convicting to read, and frankly, made me feel even more culpable in my white privilege for "protecting" forms of racism my head and heart don't believe should exist. The obvious question emerging from her piece is: "What are we going to do about this?"

David Brooks, in his column "America is Facing Five Epic Crises All at Once," gives us a nasty dose of current reality, including the battle against racism renewed by the murder of George Floyd. He of legitimate conservative chops has been a critic of the current president since his elevation to that office. In this column, that theme continues, bolstered by Trump's latest incompetencies over Black Lives Matter, COVID-19, and trying to kill the Affordable Care Act in the midst of a pandemic.

However, Brooks spends most of the column offering a serious critique (and a number of suggested correctives) to what he calls "Social Justice," with the two words capitalized intentionally to make it a "thing." As one whose 35-plus years in ministry and three degrees of higher learning have sensitized me to the concerns of social justice, and spurred me to preach, comment, and at least begin to act on a variety of justice oversights that threaten People of God whom I love, I admit to having my hackles raised at the genesis of Brooks' rhetoric. Why was he calling out "Social Justice," a collective cause he has championed in previous columns? Had me worried.

Brooks has long been a critic of academia, even though he speaks at institutes of higher learning all  the time. His "popular" critique is what comes out in this column--"academic elites" believe change can come from manipulating the culture. Manipulating is probably the wrong word, but it's what I thought of as I read the column. "Persuading" maybe? Or just trying to sweep the Zeitgeist in a different direction? Either way, Brooks believes this gets folk all steamed up, but has little lasting power to bring about needed change. He rather derides "symbol bashing" as an effective tool, such as believing that tearing down statues of Robert E. Lee will end systemic racism in the U.S.

I do have a bone to pick with Brooks, in that he seems to be doing something he often accuses his opponents of--painting with too broad a brush. Symbols--and words as symbols MAY INDEED be powerful tools of change. Who would argue that the demonstrations and protests for civil rights in the days of John Lewis, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. didn't sway a nation? And who would argue that the speeches and sermons of Dr. King didn't challenge white America and help it begin to comprehend his inclusive "dream"? I DO believe the protests around the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery are raising the consciousness of our nation, and while it takes a long time to "turn a big ship," the bow is beginning to point in a different direction.

Brooks' main point is that unless the people in power do something--pass legislation, change the rules, and exorcise the bigots and racists from the police precincts and the halls of justice, little lasting change will be affected. In our current scenario, some will quote the proverb that the "fish rots from the head, down." Why is it so hard to accept that America has marginalized people because of their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or socio-economic standing? And why is it so hard to see that America lives into its Constitutional blueprint by UN-marginalizing them? Brooks suggests we must do this by changing old laws and/or passing new laws granting equal rights to ALL people, and then enforcing these civil rights through the justice system. I would add that we must educate, educate, educate! And to do that equally, we must create new ways to fund schools equitably, and make higher education affordable for all.

Is David Brooks right that some of what is masquerading as social justice has become the quasi-religion of "Social Justice"? In some corners, maybe. But it's hard to argue against the passion of people who have seen officers charged with "protecting and serving," killing instead of protecting, and in front of cameras that show the whole world that this heinous action is tipped decidedly against People of Color. And how many trials have these "Social Justice" adherents witnessed where perpetrating police officers walked away acquitted of obvious crimes against People of Color, many of whom died because they couldn't breathe? It doesn't matter what took away their breath--a knee to the neck for nine minutes or a bullet from a semi-automatic service weapon that pierced a lung on its way to the heart. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Jonny Gammage, and Antwon Rose died without a trial, "convicted" by officers who declared them guilty of a crime deserving a capital sentence.

Do I agree with Brooks, that laws must be changed, along with systems of oppression that create and "enforce" them? Absolutely. All the protests in the world will not fix these problems without substantive change in the laws--or lack of them, in some cases--that permit oppression in the first place. Should police forces across this nation be trained professionally in such a manner that they do not act on their prejudices when "protecting and serving" the public? Absolutely. Should cops with long records of questionable "policing" like Derek Chauvin be weeded out from law enforcement? Absolutely. Should jobs that never should have been delegated to over-taxed police forces be given to the counselors and social workers who have the necessary training to "disarm" volatile domestic situations or handle an agitated person with mental illness? Absolutely. All of these changes require political action, and frankly, a change in the current "wind" of politics, which seems to be reinforcing the sad status quo.

As long as we white people remain in the majority (and that reality could end before I'm pushing up daisies), the continuing oppression known as systemic racism will prevail unless we make a conscious effort to sniff it out and end its power. We white people have to confess to the "sin" of white privilege, and dismantle its insidious systems. Brooks is right that just "educating" us about it--even when we finally "get it" and acknowledge its existence--will not end its oppressive power towards People of Color. Brooks is right that legislation must be passed at the federal level, and that will only happen with leadership that will "reach across the aisle" to foster incremental change. It will take a change of leadership at the top to begin to dissolve the polarization that is crippling our nation and killing our citizens, both literally and figuratively.

And if you are still of the "school" that believes the Civil Rights Act of 1964 fixed racism in America, please reach out to a Person of Color for a conversation. Equality has not been reached in America until the person you think has attained it, agrees. And we are far from that right now. Heck, African Americans fear they may not survive the "safety stops" they face at the hands of suburban patrolmen, and must have "the talk" with their male children about what they must do when detained by a police officer on foot or pulled over in their car,  to avoid becoming the next statistic. All I had to tell my two children when they got their driver's license was, "If you get pulled over, don't be a jerk to the cop," not things like: "Put your driver's license and car registration in a clear folder, on a lanyard, and hang it from the rear view mirror so you don't have to open the glovebox to retrieve it for the officer." Or "Keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times, and don't move, suddenly." (Pittsburgh activist and long-time NAACP President Tim Stevens--who once told me he has experienced over 100 of those "safety stops" as he traveled around Pittsburgh suburbs in his work--has written a whole fold-out pamphlet to help African American parents give "the talk.")

Thanks for letting me vent, Beloved. As I said at the top of this week's blog, my heart is heavy. When that happens, I pray. Been doing a lot of praying. And I want to DO something to help end oppression in my country, a country formed around the idea of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for ALL. And this adherent to the "quasi-religion" of "Social Justice" believes that ALL means ALL. Join me in prayer; join me in action. Write your representatives; call their offices; join a demonstration; read widely about these issues; vote. Vote. Vote. Shalom!

Friday, June 12, 2020

The Quarantine Chronicles: The Final Insult...

Yeah, I bummed that title from the "Police Squad" movies with Leslie Nielsen. I caught up with all of them during the lockdown/quarantine one night when nothing better was on the TV, and that's saying something. While it won't be the last thing I write about COVID-19, it will be the final installment of what I have been calling the "Quarantine Chronicles."

COVID-19 is NOT over! All of our medical friends remind us of that daily, and Pennsylvania's "Green Phase" just means we are "green" to continue social distancing, wearing masks, washing our hands constantly, smelling like sanitizer is our cologne, and venturing out to the increasingly opened businesses VERY gingerly. Getting your hair cut is still a risk. Getting your nails done is still a risk. Eating in a restaurant is still a risk. Swimming in a community pool is a GREAT risk, as are jammed bars, concert venues, movie theaters, and churches. Go to things that are out of doors, and STILL do your social distancing and mask wearing. Get used to washing your hands thoroughly and more frequently for the rest of your life, especially if you would like that life to last a while.

I like to shake hands. Almost everyone likes to shake hands. You do it to greet, you do it to affirm, you do it to close a deal. And you do it in the greeting line at church. Nope. Not any more. Dr. Fauci said that even after the Coronavirus has been neutralized (to what degree it will be), social gatherings--and even places like church--should give up on hugs and handshakes. He said if we do, we will greatly reduce the impact of influenza and the "common cold." Both of these things may have a devastating effect on seniors and those with weakened immune systems. Our new "COVID habits" might help us stay healthier, in general. I'm OK with that. But I still like to shake hands, so I've got to erase that "tape" from my 65+ year memory.

I'd like to adopt the Indian greeting, "Namaste" with a gentle bow and folding of hands together. As I understand it, "Namaste" means "The divine presence in me greets the divine presence in you." And while it may have Hindu origins, it sure sounds like a wonderful and humble greeting for Christians, Jews, and Muslims, as well. One of my clergy colleagues said people in our churches would flip out, though because the greeting "isn't Christian." So what is Christian about shaking hands? Hugging? The Bible talks about greeting one another with a "holy kiss," but in the COVID era, that's not very "Christian," either.

A United Methodist news article I read the other day suggests using the "Vulcan" greeting Mr. Spock in Star Trek used. It's kind of a "V" thing you do with your middle and ring fingers on your right hand, accompanied with the phrase, "Live long and prosper." When the writers of the original Star Trek series were looking for something unique for the pointy-eared extra-terrestrial to use as a greeting, Leonard Nimoy (the actor playing Mr. Spock) flashed the "V" sign from his upbringing as an Orthodox Jew. When done as a blessing, the Jewish worship leader uses both hands, and brings the thumbs together in a representation of the Hebrew letter "Shin." Mr. Spock only used one hand, though.

I don't think that is a good idea. First of all, it comes from a fictional TV show, and secondly, the origin of it is from a real religious observance that should be kept solemn. Maybe we just humbly bow toward one another and cross our arms, which my wife tells me is sign language for "hug."

Of course, we could always take to wearing a second mask with eye holes and go to calling one another kemosabe, but that is from another fictional TV show, and besides, the media historians think it was an inside joke derived from the Spanish phrase, quien no sabe, meaning "who does not know."

We can wave. And with our hands drenched in sanitizer, it will be an aromatic blessing as well.

We're not rushing back into the church building, either. Enclosed spaces are not as "safe" as the out of doors, so with Summer here, our first attempts at "in-person" worship gatherings will be outside, with social distancing and masks, and no singing. No singing? Oh yeah, we shouldn't sing around others. Some of us have known that for years, not because of viruses, but because it's annoying. Singing with  mask is annoying to everyone, and singing without a mask is possibly a COVID-19 lawn sprinkler. And speaking of sprinklers, our outdoor worship will be "weather permitting," for the time being--we're not going into the church building on rainy days. Stay home and tune in "Worship Moments."

Preaching should be done at a distance, too, and should be kept short. Frankly, I've heard THAT for decades, too, and not for it being a viral issue. I do try to write sermons that could "go viral," but that's for another day. For now, my congregation universally suggests that short is good, and "I'll just sit in the back row."

The good news is that we have an opportunity to REALLY "Rethink Church," something the sloganeers in the United Methodist Church have been pushing for years. Amazing that it has taken a potentially deadly virus to get us to do something that neither sin nor the Good News has been successful at provoking. I can see a new hymn coming: "Jesus, Sanitizer of My Soul."

I'm writing this from my church office, by the way, something I feel free to do in the "Green Phase." Many of our staff are still working from home, though. I can write, read, and study in my office without a mask on, but as soon as I venture into the office suite here, it's on. I just completed a long pre-marital session with a couple, socially distanced, and all wearing masks. Boy, is that tiring. It's hard being pastoral and encouraging while looking like Clyde Barrow about to hit the First National Bank, and sounding like Sylvester the Cat. We got through it, though, and the couple was oh so gracious.

I'm still liking eating meals at home. Some of you who are on facebook know that I've delved into cooking a bit, but my sweet tooth has coaxed me into a great recipe for iced cinnamon roles and praline pecans. I've learned to make and eat "Chicago Dogs," which is something for a former hotdog "purist" who believed only in natural casing weiners on a chewy bun, adorned with nothing but yellow mustard. Did you notice that none of these things falls into the category of healthy eating?

Well, that's it for now, Dear Ones. Hope to see you "at church," either via our continued live-streaming "Worship Moments," or at one of our outdoors, numbers-limited, pre-registered, socially-distanced, and masked in-person worship services with short sermons and no singing. Boy, I'll bet you can't wait! Hey, stay safe and stay well! In the midst of it all, don't forget that God's grace is still amazing and abundant! Shalom!

Saturday, May 16, 2020

The Quarantine Chronicles, Part V

Sorry for the delay in posting to this blog--things have been happening that had a higher priority, like Pennsylvania's governor moving Allegheny and Butler Counties into the "Yellow Phase" of re-opening in the wake of the Coronavirus crisis. As with many of you, I'm sure, I've been pretty much planted in front of a computer for hours a day, meeting with church staff and our Medical Advisory Panel experts trying to plan for what we may open at St. Paul's UMC, and when. There are no clear answers. Every decision to return something to "normal," or even the "new normal," is fraught with risk. The problem with the Coronavirus is that it just doesn't care. It is a virus, doing what viruses do with no thought, pretense, or respect for its host. It just does what it is genetically predisposed to do, and we humans are now convenient hosts.

As I listen to some of the political and economic rhetoric out there, it sometimes sounds like its speakers or authors believe they are fighting something that is attacking them, their "candidate," or their bank account with personal malice. They grow more angry, and believe that the way to "fight back" is a kind of "damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead" approach designed to vanquish the enemy Coronavirus. "We'll show that virus!" is the rallying cry as many of these folks rush to re-open businesses, restaurants, and even churches. The Coronavirus doesn't care. It's not "on the attack," has no personal malice for its victims, and will only respond to the learned and logical approaches advocated by science. You can't kill this virus by an act of will--or folly. It needs washed away, sanitized, and blocked by masks, gloves, or geography (social distancing).

The heartless Coronavirus (I don't mean "heartless" like mean or nasty, I mean heartless as in it has no heart, nor even a brain) got some false press, early on. Some in the African American community got the errant idea that people of color were immune to the virus. Nope. Now, the African American community is the one most devastated by it. Others believed that children under a certain age were immune. Nope. In fact, researchers have recently observed a kind of "post-COVID" syndrome appearing in young children that resembles Kawasaki disease, a childhood autoimmune illness. It can be quite serious. There seems to be no dispute that "old people" (at 65, I'm now so considered) are more at risk because our immune systems are running on 33 and a 1/3 rather than 45. Ask an old person--someone over 60--to explain it. One thing we know for certain about the Coronavirus and COVID-19, the illness it results in, is that we know little about it, with fresh discoveries happening almost daily. And most of them aren't good news.

Since this blog has been temporarily labeled "The Quarantine Chronicles," let me address that. My wife and I have been "good," for the most part, staying home, always wearing our masks in public, and only going out for short car rides, the very occasional run for groceries, or to the pharmacy. About once a week, I take a run to St. Paul's to check my mail, drop off, or pick up a book, as I've been preparing sermons and my weekly Bible study at home. "Yellow Phase" will make little changes to this routine. We have been picking up some take-out food from favorite restaurants we want to see survive, and to get a break from cooking, ourselves. We think about and pray for our families which have to both help educate their children as well as work from their homes, and we pray for the seniors living alone or in senior care facilities that have been without visits for weeks. Many of them--like my Mom in Oil City--have only phone calls to comfort them, as they have never joined cyberspace.

One thing that will be different is that Pastor Karen Slusser and I, joined by Alaine Fink, our church organist/pianist and a couple members of our Tech Team, will be returning to St. Paul's sanctuary for our 10:30AM livestream presentation of what we have called "Worship Moments." Seeing us working together again--instead of piecing together a two-part video on Sundays--and the familiar surroundings of one of our familiar worship spaces, should be some kind of encouragement and ray of hope for our congregation. Of course we will maintain some "extreme" social distancing during this effort, with my colleague and I sitting on opposite ends of our Communion table, and facing out into the empty room, not toward each other. It has been our aim all along to be a good visual example of the realities of social distancing to our people. The message is that none of us is immune from the Coronavirus, and we must take it seriously. "Yellow Phase" is a baby step, and we are going to take baby-BABY steps, on the advice of our Medical Advisory Panel. No rush to gather in groups indoors for us.

Since not all of you are Facebookers, I would like to share some information I received at a webinar last week with the clergy leaders of several of the largest United Methodist churches in the United States. It was about "re-opening the UMC." Here is the actual report I put on Facebook:

“Attended” a webinar [Wednesday] on “Re-opening United Methodist Churches” with pastors of some of our largest churches including Church of the Resurrection, Kansas City, and The Woodlands, Houston. Some takeaways:

-42% of Church of the Resurrection members said in a survey they were not coming back to public worship until there was a COVID-19 vaccine

-47% of The Woodlands members surveyed said they would only come back with full “social distancing” in place

-Rob Fuquay of St. Lukes UMC in Indianapolis said that his “Purdue” engineers studied what it would be like to create “social distancing” space in their worship areas, and found that they would lose 80% of their capacity

-Church of the Resurrection isn’t even considering public worship until at least Mid-July or August

-All of the churches represented were “live-streaming” worship before, but never realized how popular it could be, and how it would be vital in a time like this; they are developing whole new “online” ministry opportunities

-They downplayed the need for high production values, urging churches that do not currently have “high tech” to just use a cellphone and a volunteer to livestream on Facebook

-Highland Park’s pastor, Paul Rasmussen, said his church doesn’t want to resume in-person worship until it is safe to sing; that could be quite awhile

-All of these key leaders urged much caution and delayed, “baby steps” in re-opening any of our churches

-NONE of these pastors sounded distraught! They all were sharing visions of how the “new” church might look, and what they could do now to bring it about in the midst of the shutdown. My thought was, “Do thou likewise.” They all said there would be “no going back”to the way things were...ever...

Obviously, theirs was not a rosy picture. However, as noted in the last thought above, each of these extraordinary pastoral leaders saw this not just as a health crisis that threatens their people and is robbing their churches from the opportunity to do ministry. The Coronavirus may be denying us the ability to do ministry the way we are used to doing it, but it is also exposing new ways to do evangelism, outreach, and even pastoral care. One leader spoke of the Internet as a whole new "mission field," instead of being just one of many "channels" her church uses to communicate. My report above should urge caution, reveal the concerns of our people about re-opening, and yet inspire us all to "try it another way," as we used to tell our children when they were frustrated in an attempt to successfully complete a task.

If any of you are interested in watching this webinar, by the way, here is the link:

UMC Webinar on "Re-opening Church"

When prompted for a password, it is: UMC123!! (including the exclamation marks).

One last thought: how is your mental health? I read an article in the press today about how the next "wave" of issues that will visit us (and no, it's not the "Murder Hornets") will be about our mental health. Thankfully, the mental health profession never "shut down." Counseling and help is available via teleconferencing with most providers, but certainly at least by phone call. If you are struggling, emotionally, with the restrictions and isolation of quarantine, please reach out. Call one of your pastors, as they desperately want to help you. If you were in therapy before the Coronavirus, keep that connection. Recently, a friend and colleague shared how his mental health went over the edge, with the Coronavirus being the trigger. Thankfully, he wisely sought help, encouraged by family, and is on the road to healing.

Someone has said, "We are in the same storm, but not in the same boat." Respond to your quarantine by taking stock of your "boat," who's in it with you, and how you are managing. Being quarantined doesn't have to mean being cut off from all of your support structures, friends, and family. It's 2020, and we have myriad ways to connect. If all else fails, write a letter!

As the United Methodist leaders made clear in the webinar I "attended," this crisis is not a time to allow oneself to be distanced from God. The spiritual intimacy of the Christ event, and the ever-present Holy Spirit meet us where we are, and are "with us until the end of the age." Reach out to them, too. This is a great time to meet Jesus again, for the first time. Reclaiming our "first love" of the one who first loved us is truly a "balm in Gilead." Shalom to you, Dear Ones! Hang in there!

Friday, May 1, 2020

The Quarantine Chronicles, Part IV

Over six weeks now we have been "sheltering in place," and most of our typical lives have been shut down. How are you faring, friends? My wife and I have eaten more meals at home this past six-plus weeks than we have in almost 43 years of marriage! Our schedules, both in raising a family and in being career people along the way, have changed us into dining gadabouts. When our kids were little, the local Eat 'n Park had our "family" table for us when we walked in. Yours truly is learning how to cook--very slowly. I found a recipe for cinnamon rolls that sounded good, so with a little guidance from the kitchen chemist and resident dietitian, I made them, and she frosted them. It was a bad idea. They were SO good we wiped them out in two days. We have pledged to not make another batch for at least six weeks. We are committed to avoid shrinking our clothes during this pandemic, if we can help it. And these cinnamon rolls will definitely harm this goal. I'll bet some of you have a few stories of such successes creating new problems, especially in the culinary area.

As I write this, PA Governor Wolf has moved 23 counties in in the Northwestern and North-central section of the State into the "Yellow Phase" of his stepped plan to "reopen" Pennsylvania, commencing May 8. The rest of the State, including Allegheny and Butler Counties, are still in the "Red Phase," which is the current status quo--full "sheltering in place." St. Paul's leadership has been discussing what we will be able to do when our area moves into the "Yellow Phase," and have concluded it is still rife with restrictions, especially regarding the kinds of things we do in a church. When our counties are cleared to begin reopening, many of you will be able to return to work, and we hope to offer our Childcare program to serve our families' needs. This could happen by June 1, but with today's cautious nod to the initially cleared counties, it could be later than this. Speaking of cautious, as we have been saying all along, we are committed to keeping all of our constituents as safe as possible. Even when it becomes our turn to move toward "normal," we will proceed even more conservatively than many other organizations, I'm sure. We are blessed with medical in-house medical expertise, and we will rely on their guidance, beyond that offered by the Governor and the CDC.

While both the Governor's office and our United Methodist Bishop have issued some guidelines about how things will roll out in the "Yellow Phase," and how the church moves forward during it, I shared a few "Key Cs" with St. Paul's in our weekly email update. Here they are, along with my brief intro to them:

In my opinion, moving toward a full reopening of the ministries and programs of our church could take several months, provided positive progress toward abatement of the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Here are a few hypothetical “stages” we may choose to observe:

1. Collaborative Phase – very small groups meeting in-person to sanitize, clean, plan, and organize for a gradual, safe reopening of church activities.

2. Cautious Gathering Phase—small groups of 25 or less, including Bible studies, LifeGroups, Christian Education classes, and segmented children and youth programs, following CDC and PA guidelines.

3. Careful Congregating Phase—limited gatherings for worship, including restrictions on number of persons in any worship space; music provided by individuals or small ensembles; modified sacramental practices; and “no-touch” greetings highly recommended. (This phase, as well as those above, may also involved “no touch” fever checks as persons enter the facility.)

4. Continual Social-Distancing Phase—while allowing for more in-person interaction, I expect churches and other public gathering places will require some form of modified “social-distancing.” While this may not involve six-foot safety zones or personal masks, cautions will continue in place, including providing sanitizing stations available near main entrances and in the church office. 

5. Compassionate Greetings Phase—when things get to what will most assuredly be a “new” normal, I expect the church will continue to observe cautions such as the “no touch” greetings, and regularly recommending members “shelter in place” when ill. Renowned epidemiologist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has said that instilling more “safe” practices like this could go a long way in reducing societal transmission of other dangerous viruses such as influenza, and irritating ones such as rhinoviruses, even after the threat of the deadly Coronavirus wanes. As an organization promoting “love thy neighbor” as a core value, the church should consider leading the way in this effort.

A news article from Germany today stated that, as the church reopens there, congregate and choral singing would be highly discouraged, as these cause exaggerated breathing and excessive exhaling to create the necessary sounds! Frankly, I'd rather stay in quarantine longer than have worship without singing, although I'm guessing that is were we are headed, at least in the short term.

For now, we stay in quarantine, and reach out to one another via electronic communication, and to God in prayer, separately, but bound by a common Spirit. Everywhere we turn, we see the stress building in people, and in some cases, tempers flaring. At other times, we see persons withdrawing, detaching, and "disappearing" into the security of their home "fortresses." It is time for us to pray for, work for, and hope for not just an end to this global pandemic--although we all want that--but a stronger faith-based response to the negative stimuli we are experiencing. Jesus promised he would be with us, even to the end of the age. While I DON'T believe this is the "end of the age," I DO believe that Jesus desires to walk with us in this crisis, and that God is calling us to respond not just according to our personal "take" on it all, but as the Body of Christ.

If ever there was a time for redemption, reconciliation, and rebirth, this is it, and not just for the church, but for all of God's people. Friends, I challenge us to intentionally spend more of our quarantine time in prayer, Bible study, and building our trust in God and the living presence of Jesus in our midst. While we must wear masks in public during this "Red Phase," it is a time to take OFF our masks of fear, disconnection, and discouragement, baring our souls first to God, and then in deepening our relationships with God's people, even at a safe "social distance." While physical in nature, we are also spiritual beings, and as we relate to God as Spirit, so we are able to draw close to our fellow human siblings, even when we can't "touch" one another. Even at a distance. Even when all we can see is an image on a screen or a voice in a speaker. Let's stop making excuses that all of the "bad" that is happening to us because of this virus is what is causing our slow, painful dismantling. Instead, let us, with God's help, grace, and spiritual empowerment, use this time to BUILD, not tear down. If we can "get good" at deepening our relationships with each other AND God during this challenging time, so much more will we find blessed fellowship and meaningful discipleship when the oppression is lifted. Make these times count, dear ones. Trust in God; trust in the resilience of the human spirit! Stay safe; stay well. Grace and peace...

Friday, April 17, 2020

The Quarantine Chronicles, Part III

Last week, I ended my narrative with a photo of me and my "social distancing" mask, one made by my creative wife. Here we are, nearing the end of week three of April, and the masks have become "a thing." The governor has "strongly recommended" that we wear them anytime we go out in public, but especially when we are going where we will encounter others. Many stores that are still able to be open will not let you inside unless you are wearing one. I had to pick up something at the auto parts store today, and they were one of those "Wear your mask or don't come in" places. Like many have joked, if I were to enter Autozone during any "season" other than Coronavirus Spring of 2020 wearing a mask, I'm sure they'd set off some kind of alarm and/or phone 911.

While it really is NO joking matter to follow these important social-distancing and masking guidelines to try to keep us all safe and well, there are a few humorous things about it. Some people are wearing clever masks that make them look like dogs or cats. Others are wearing homemade masks with bright colors, Scottish tartans, or that look like underwear. To each his/her own, I guess. And, unless you are in the medical or dental field and wear these things all of the time, there is an "art" to talking with a mask covering your nose and mouth, and I was never very good at art. Listening to two people trying to carry on a conversation--a loud conversation because they are standing at least six feet apart--and through masks sounds a bit like the adults talking in those cartoon Peanuts specials: Wah-wah-wah-WAH-wah... And for those of us who have reverted to wearing spectacles, facial masks provide yet another challenge. Fogging lenses make navigating difficult, and I'd hate to run into anyone, for fear of being an inadvertent disease-spreader, or at least causing that fear in someone. Incidentally, one of my Facebook friends suggested rubbing mild soap or shaving cream on my glasses and then gently wiping them off. I guess the residual surfactant is supposed to keep one's specs from fogging up. Haven't tried it yet, but if I keep bumping into things while masked, I might have to.

Here's the next thing. My hair is about as long as it's been in many a year. Since I can't cut my own hair, and Dara eschews the thought of barbering curly locks, it's just going to grow. And I've given up on "styling" it, if that is what one would call it. I figured I'd be going nuts by now with it, but it's not too bad. I'm saving a lot of time fighting it with a brush and a comb, and the few times I've been able to take a top-down run in the Miata, it feels pretty good, having the wind rushing through this head of weeds. I've noticed, though, that when I walk out onto the deck on a nice day, the Robins are eyeing me. "Hey Barb, looky there--great NEST material!" If you've never been given "the eye" by a creature capable of flight, and with a sharp beak, believe me, it's a little disconcerting. Dara's hair is getting longer, and it looks great. Of course, she hates it. She's one of those practical beauties, much preferring simplicity over style, but I'm kind of enjoying it. Still, I'm guessing we will join 300 million other Americans making a beeline for the hair stylists when the "all clear" is sounded. I go to a cheap place because Dara doesn't. They will not be happy seeing me coming, as they don't charge by the pound.

Eating. We've already eaten more meals at home, around our own table, than we have in probably two decades. With our schedules, and living 16 miles away from St. Paul's, we have most of our meals in public eateries. I actually think we are eating more healthy meals, and I know that they aren't as loaded with sodium as commercial offerings are. I know I'm not eating as much. Theoretically, that means I should lose some weight, but I'm not holding my breath (except when wearing that stupid mask). I also find that my evening snacking has ratcheted back as well. Typically, after a long day at the church, including an evening meeting or two, I come home and hit the snack bin. But working from home, there is no "occasion" to mark with an evening snack, or at least not as robust a snack. How about you? Are you one of the "eating more sensibly" folk? Or the "God, please stop me from grazing" types? And speaking of healthy eating, we're encouraging our members to consider growing "Victory Gardens" to both help feed their families with veggies, fresh herbs, and such, as well as possibly sharing excess harvest with the food pantry at North Hills Community Outreach. We're tapping some of the expertise of our resident Master Gardener to help us provide resources and information to grow a successful garden. I'm great at growing Zucchini. I hate Zucchini. 

My "office" at home is the finished room behind the garage of our townhouse. It was meant to be a family room, but since our place is built into the earth in the back, there are no windows in this room. It's cozy, easy to keep warm, has a tempting 40 inch TV on the wall, and a comfy Laz-E-Boy chair, but it isolates one from knowing what is happening outside. So I'm kind of quarantined in a quarantined room, if you will. It is quiet, though, and sitting in front of my 27 inch Mac gives me window enough to the tools and information I need to write articles, sermons, and drivel like this blog. When, after a full day of Zoom or GoToMeeting meetings, a few dozen pages of writing or answering emails, I venture back to the civilization of the main floor, I feel a bit like Punxsutawney Phil being dragged out by one of those Groundhog Club "gomers." At least we have windows up there.

So how is it with your soul? This is a question John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, liked to ask his friends. How is this pandemic affecting your relationship with God? Are you feeling blessed to be still in the "healthy" column? Or angry at God for "allowing" something like this to happen? Are you motivated to pray for those who have either lost loved ones to COVID-19, for those who are at risk, and for the brave folk who are treating and caring for infected individuals in our medical facilities, be they hospitals, ambulances, or tents? I guess it really doesn't take much "motivation" to pray for all of these folk, does it? Just a little shot of genuine Christian love and compassion will do the trick. The anger? That, too, is OK. I would worry about anyone who isn't a bit angry and disillusioned over this scenario. None of us has ever seen anything like this, unless you happen to be a medical professional who offered your services in Africa during the Ebola epidemic. We believe in a God who is always with us, but who gives us freedom to live in a less than perfect world, and calls us to work for its perfection by coming together, crossing aisles, national boundaries, and personal differences to do so. That's a tall order. Are we up to it? With the help of God, we are, I believe.

What are you thankful for? The loved ones around us, for sure. I'm thankful that when I do have to go out in public, I see most folk wearing protective masks, trying diligently to obey social distancing guidelines, and still being just nice people about it. Have you noticed that you can tell when a person is smiling at you, even when they are wearing a mask? I think it's the eyes. Eyes smile. When our mouthes are not obscured, we don't normally notice that. But eyes smile. That's a wonder, isn't it?

Well, Dear Ones, it's a Friday night as I write this, and Friday nights are usually special in the Sterling household, even though during this quarantine I need a calendar to KNOW it's Friday. I'm going for a snack. I wonder if we have any Zucchini? UH oh, that's not a good sign--better go check my temperature first...stay WELL, stay SAFE, Yinz. Shalom!

What's Next?

  What’s Next?   2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 6:2 David and all the people...