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!

Saturday, April 4, 2020

The Quarantine Chronicles, Part II

Dara hasn't committed homicide yet, so that's a good thing for me. We've actually dealt pretty well with this whole "stay home" thing. How are you and yours doing? Oh, we get out to get a few groceries, although we are now only going "solo," instead of in tandem. I've made a couple of runs to St. Paul's to pick up books, sign a few letters and documents, and just to get a few miles in the Batmobile.

[I should explain the Batmobile. I'm a Mazda Miata aficionado, and I just love driving around in these little convertible roadsters, going through the gears, and seeing the countryside. For about eight years,  I owned an original 1990 NA model, bright red, it was. What fun! Then, since moving back to the North Hills to serve St. Paul's, I found that driving the little red Miata the 16 miles to the church and back from my home, was putting too much mileage on it (it already had 240,000-plus) and on its slowly failing ragtop. So, last Summer, I sold it to a friend for his wife, and I bought a 2008 NC model with a power retractable hard top, that is great for enjoying "roadster driving" and commuting to and from church! Since it is jet black, I christened it the Batmobile. There you have it.]

I like being home. After spending almost 30 years in church provided parsonages, with neutral beige carpeting and neutral walls, we now own our own town home. And while it, too, has beige carpeting, we've gone nuts with some nice accent walls and decorated just the way we want. It really feels like home. However, working from home is creating more cognitive dissonance than I would have expected. You see, when things are normal, I work at the church in a well-appointed study, preach in the cozy and inspiring confines of the St. Paul's sanctuary, teach Disciple Bible Study in the Disciple Room, and meet church folk in all manner of places, from their homes, to the hospitals, to the coffee shop. NOW, when things are NOT normal, I'm doing all of that from my house. The place that I used to come home to after a busy day of ministry--often coming home after 9:00PM, with studies and evening meetings--is now the same place I'm working. It's messing with my head, if you know what I mean. My guess is many of you are having the same trouble? I'm finding it hard to separate the two "pieces," and while typically, church folk have been wonderful to not call me at home, unless they have an emergency, now we are strongly encouraging this. The boundaries between home and work are temporarily gone. I make tons of calls, send texts, answer emails, all from the same "space" I usually use to relax and distance myself from all of that. Please know, friends, that I'm thrilled that we are able to continue to be present to our congregation through all of these means during the COVID-19 quarantine, and I wouldn't have it any other way, but psychologically, it's still a challenge, and we've got at least four more weeks to go. It certainly could be longer, as we will follow the CDC guidelines, and our paramount goal is to keep everyone safe and well! All that to say, please call, text, or email me if you have a need, or just need to chat! But if I sound different than when you reached out to me at the church, it may be because I'm needing to switch gears.

Then, there's the computer, GoToMeeting, and Zoom. Virtual ministry has taken some real getting used to. At first, it was pretty cool, that we could hold church meetings, lead Bible Studies, and even host a "Coffee Hour" over one of these "conferencing" programs. We could see and hear each other, and believe me, with this homebound quarantine, I'm really missing seeing all of "the folk." Seeing one another on the computer is a poor substitute for in-person fellowship, but it's certainly better than NOT seeing each other at all. However, staring at a computer screen, trying to use my Myers-Briggs "intuition" through flat glass and electrons, is also messing with my mind. Extroverts don't do well visiting through "windows." On the plus side, however, we have found that new folk are joining us for some of these virtual events, and I'm guessing its because it is far less threatening to sign on to a screen full of faces that are no different than your face on the screen, than entering a room full of strangers for the first time. This unexpected development is thrilling! It, along with how the virtual interface has given some quieter people a new boldness to speak out, has more than made up for the weirdness of meeting this way. Oh, and it's not just St. Paul's stuff we're doing virtually. Our District Superintendent, Rev. Dawn Hand, is holding weekly virtual meetings with all of the pastors in the Pittsburgh District at 8:30AM on Tuesdays. We pray, get the latest dope on what's going on in the Conference, hear what the Bishop is up to (or wants US to be up to), and generally "check in" with each other. Frankly, I find this more meaningful than the quarterly in-person meetings we had been having. Maybe the virtual meetings will continue? I should suggest this to the District Superintendent.

Our livestream and recorded "Worship Moments" have been generally well-received by Yinz. I must admit, though, it's still pretty strange leading even this subset of "worship" to an empty room and in front of a small video camera. The first two weeks, when Pastor Karen and I could be in the sanctuary with the Tech Team and Alaine, our organist/pianist, it was at least easier, because we could interact in real time. When the quarantine sent us all home, we each do our separate pieces, and these are uploaded to Facebook and YouTube. I have been doing the live-streaming part from my living room, which again is a weird boundary to cross. But it's what we must do, if we want to stay in touch with the great folk of St. Paul's, continue to offer affirmation and spiritual inspiration, and keep you informed as to what is going on, church wise. Again, there is good news. The equipment we had donated to allow us to do live-streaming, and the experience we are gaining with it, will allow us to continue to live-stream our regular worship services when we return to normal. We might even be able to live-stream Summer's Chapel in the Woods services! Who knows? How true it is that out of the unexpected challenges of life, new life may be brought forth. We pray for it, we work for it, and we hope for it, don't we?

Then, there's this. The latest in social distancing is the mask we are now supposed to wear when we must venture forth to the grocery store or the gas station. Dara and many of her friends from "Stitching Together" have been making masks for several medical and care-giving organizations, with wise counsel and aid from some of our medical personnel who are members at St. Paul's. I, of course, am a guinea pig in this photo, but the double mask with a built in filter fits, and it is the one I will wear out in public, even if the elastic on it makes my ears look a little like Stephen Colbert. I encourage all of you to pick up on this. Lots of folks have begun making simple masks for public wear, and the CDC is even suggesting a homemade mask from a bandana might provide some simple protection. And, as you have been hearing everywhere, don't go out if you are ill! If you have a need one of us can help you with, call. But don't risk your own health, or that of others by leaving your home sick, unless it is to the doctor or the emergency room. 

Well, I've rambled enough for this installment of the Quarantine Chronicles, I guess. I close with a reminder that we are praying for you, our nation, and the world. May the grace and healing touch of God go forth, healing our land, keeping you safe and well, and bringing about the "new life" of normalcy, once again. It may indeed be a new normal, with many lessons learned about how to handle communicable diseases, and how to better understand and form the priorities of life and love. Be at peace, friends, be well. And don't stare at that screen for too long! Shalom!

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