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...

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...