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...

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...