Due to the pandemic, our church has not held in-person worship since mid-February. Back then, we thought we’d be gathering again in our sanctuary after a few months, at the most. Certainly by the summer. Now, nearly ten months later, weekly worship continues online. Thanks to dedicated, tech-savvy staff and volunteers, the quality improves weekly. We’ve had several drive-in services, with the pastor and music leaders outside, distanced from one another, and congregants in their cars. Our only inside events have been a few small memorial services. As I said in an earlier post (I Wanna be Sedated, October 21, 2020), our congregation has suffered some tragically sudden and unexpected losses this year. At these indoor services, health protocols mandated by our bishop are followed diligently. Attendance is limited to twenty-five, and seating is distanced, with every other pew marked off with blue tape. Masks, of course, are required.
When I recently accompanied my daughter to record her scripture reading and advent candle lighting for an upcoming virtual service, it was our first time inside the church in months. I hadn’t much thought about what I expected our sanctuary, set up for distanced seating, to look like. So I was surprised when we found ourselves laughing.
Every blue-taped pew bore a sign that gently and humorously declared it to be off-limits.
This one might be especially appreciated by our Jewish friends.
I’m glad to be part of a church that finds a thoughtful way to take a light-hearted approach to a serious situation. I’m grateful that my church is taping off pews and modeling the importance of masking. I’m thankful to belong to a congregation that understands and values this vitally important truth: in keeping our distance and wearing a mask, we’re showing love to our neighbors during these anxious and uncertain days.
As we prepare for Christmas, let’s remember that in living out God’s love, a different set of rules applies in this most unusual of Advent seasons. We church folks have often heard fellow congregants, when faced with the prospect of change, make this protest: But we’ve always done it this way! In 2020, and well into 2021, as the vaccine roll-out progresses, we’re called to do things differently. God is calling us to do so. Let’s keep the faith, and not only talk the talk, but walk the walk.
Redeemer, come, with us abide; our hearts to thee we open wide;
let us thy inner presence feel; thy grace and love in us reveal.
–Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates
Words: Georg Weissel, 1642; trans. by Catherine Winkworth, 1855 (Psalm 24)
The annual Halloween joyride was on. “Come on, kids!,” beckoned Slim. Our pack is a pod, so let’s go!” This may be Kiko’s favorite event of the year. He loves nothing more than to ride shotgun with with Slim.
To Kiko this means settling in for a cozy doze in the passenger seat, the top down, the sun warm, the wind refreshing. He can count on Slim to take his time with the drive; this will be no quick there-and-back trip, but an unhurried, meandering cruise over roads hitherto unexplored.
I can rest assured that Slim and the gang will be back with plenty of time to set up for the Halloween festivities, which this year, thanks to the foresight and organization of young parents, involves a neighborhood parade and safely distanced candy give-aways.
Nearly every year the Halloween joyride yields some unexpected pleasure. This year it was the spotting of one of Slim’s more reclusive pals who happened to be walking along a woodsy section of road. “Trevor!” Slim yelled, braking so suddenly that the chihuahua twins Ruth and Rocky ended up atop Kiko in the front seat, briefly waking him from his nap. “I can’t believe it! Is it really you?,” asked Slim incredulously.
“Indeed, it is I. Trevor Wildermann, III, at your service,” replied the tall, hirsute figure, barely visible among the shadows.
“Unbelievable. I awaken to a covid pandemic and run into the true King of Social Distance, the original wild man himself!,” Slim exclaimed. “What brings you to the suburbs of Northern Virginia?”
“I just returned from early voting. It’s the last day for it locally. I’m a citizen now, of course. Have been for some time. My house is just there among the trees. Mostly quiet eccentric types in this neighborhood. They’re discreet. And they know not to refer to me as “Bigfoot.” The vulgarity of the common parlance offended Trevor to his core. His feet weren’t even especially big, considering his height. “I’m confident that the secret of my whereabouts is safe, unless perhaps you, Sir, decide to reveal it to some goofball at the Travel Channel. You wouldn’t, would you?”
After Slim pledged total silence regarding his friend’s Virginia residency, Trevor invited him to pull the car around back and join him on the open-air courtyard for drinks and snacks. While Kiko and the pack explored the artfully landscaped gardens and drowsed in the sun, the two old friends indulged in a leisurely catch-up. Luckily, Slim had planned the joyride for early in the day.
The two had met in Bavaria during one of Slim’s Grand Tours of Europe in an earlier century. Trevor’s family has owned and operated the historic Hotel Wilder Mann in the Danube River town of Passau since the mid-1500s. It’s his custom to spend the spring in his charming hometown, where the Easter season, very dear to his heart, is so beautifully celebrated. The covid outbreak prevented his return this year, much to his disappointment. The fortuitous encounter with his old friend offered a welcome bit of consolation.
As the afternoon shadows lengthened and the pups began to get restless, Slim felt the tug of duty. It was time to get back to prepare. The two friends said their goodbyes with reluctance, yet rejoiced in knowing that this time next year, they would meet again.
Upon his return, Slim got to work. We had decided to greet trick-or-treaters from my mother’s house this year, as it’s more easily accessible for the parade. Slim placed two tables near the street on which to lay out a wide array of candy. He made sure to include goodies that the nut-allergic could enjoy. He set up chairs for everyone at the top of the driveway, so we could watch the festivities from a safe distance. Kiko, who didn’t know he’d be spared the constant doorbell ringing of a typical Halloween, had retreated upstairs earlier to his night-time bed.
Before long, the first vehicles of the parade began to approach from the nearby cul-de-sac. While there were plenty of walkers, other kids were conveyed in decoratively festooned golf carts, cars and SUVs. There were riding mowers and Radio Flyer wagons carrying puppies and toddlers. Parents and kids were masked and careful about maintaining distance between family groups. Most neighbors participated, with candy-laden tables set up at the base of driveways. The happy, expectant spirit of Halloween flourished, despite the unusual circumstances.
Slim was buoyed by the treat of seeing his dear friend, the elusive Wildermann. Even if that chance meeting had not occurred, he claimed, he would still have dubbed the evening a satisfying success. As he reclined again on the swooning bench, his mood was one of jubilant calm.
Before he retired for the night, our wise October companion offered these reassuring words: “Never underestimate life’s capacity to surprise you and to cheer you, especially when you least expect it. I’ll go back to sleep soon, and I’ll dream sweet dreams. Meanwhile, you’ll get through this thorny patch. I’ve got a good feeling about it. Cheers to 2021!”
Our skeleton friend, Slim, was crestfallen, but not surprised, to awaken at the beginning of October and learn the news of covid-19, or as he refers to it, “the latest pandemic.” He thought he’d misheard at first when I told him there had been nearly 230,000 deaths in the U.S. since February. He remembers the 1918 flu epidemic, when he and my grandfather were taken ill that fall. “Sam and I were hit pretty hard, but we were lucky and managed to pull through. We were young back then, and among the most vulnerable, for some reason. One of our best buddies was not so fortunate. We heard later how worried Nora had been about Sam. So glad he made it!” (I am, too, or neither my mother, nor I, would have been born.) My grandfather was thirty then, a new father to my mother’s older brother, Leland, who was just over a year old, still an only child. Neither my grandmother, nor the baby, was sickened. “After we were out of the woods, Sam and I swapped stories of our wild fever dreams,” Slim recalled. “For two full days, I was in a fox hunt. I was the fox, the hound, the horse and the hunter, all at once. I hadn’t thought about that in years.” Slim is always a gentleman, and he chooses his words with care, typically avoiding expletives. “That was some crazy $#*%,” he said, shaking his head.
The vivid memories of the nightmarish experience, and his shock at so many lives lost in 2020, prompted Slim to take to the swooning bench at my mother’s. As he draped himself in a comforting shawl, he mused. “How many died in what we used to call the Spanish Flu, even though it didn’t start there? Always gotta play the blame game. About 675,000 in the States, over the course of two years? And this pandemic on track to rival it? I thought we’d have learned to do better by this point. What year is it again? Goodness gracious. People know about masks now, right?”
Though knocked for a loop by the grim state of our current covid world, Slim rarely lingers long in life’s valleys. Encouraged by his loving pack, happy to reconnect with our family, he rallied. Soon he was ready to engage in more pleasant reminiscences. . .such as my grandparents’ celebratory wedding dinner at the Canary Cottage in Louisville, on the first day of 1915. . .
. . .and to hear from us about a few good things that happened in 2020, such as the whirlwind trip my daughter and I made from Charlottesville to New York City when she unexpectedly got tickets to Saturday Night Live. . .
. . .and to anticipate a better future, post-pandemic, post-election, posthaste.
By Halloween morning, Slim had the usual spring in his step. The air was invigoratingly chilly, and it was time to get down to business. Halloween would be different this year, but it would still be Halloween. “Onward ho, pack!”
On this 4th of July, bitter divisions are markedly and grievously evident among so-called fellow Americans. Is the Covid-19 pandemic intensifying in our country? Or is it actually winding down? Do some of our methods of governing, policing and even voting exacerbate inequality ? Or is the playing field, in this land of opportunity, truly and gloriously level for all Americans?
More than ever, answers to such questions depend upon our perspective. Our perspective, more than ever, influences where we choose to find our information, and what we perceive as fact or fiction. And where we choose to find our information, in turn, reinforces our perspective. If we associate almost exclusively with those whose opinions echo ours, our perspective is further fortified, and our views increasingly justified.
Have you ever held firmly to a belief, certain without a doubt of the righteousness and correctness of your conviction? And then, perhaps in response to an unexpected observation, or a comment by a friend, or a passage in a book, be prompted to rethink that conviction? And in so doing, to watch the sure foundation develop cracks and crumble to dust?
I’m recently been reconsidering some of my long-held viewpoints. Most of us probably hold fast to some beliefs that need to be reevaluated. Some of the “truths” we espouse may be opinions based on flawed premises. An openness to new ideas implies a willingness to rethink. Changing one’s mind may not be evidence of weakness of will or intellect, but instead, of humility that leads to wisdom. We should be wary of those in leadership positions who claim otherwise. Let’s not be led astray by those who actively seek to magnify rather than diminish the divisions between us.
On July 4th, we celebrate our nation’s founding principles of liberty and justice for all. Shouldn’t we ask ourselves this: Do we really want these ideals to apply to everyone? Or only to ourselves? Is it liberty and justice for all? Or liberty and justice for me? Let’s reexamine our perspectives. Let’s be humble as we try to understand those of others. We can work toward unity while honoring diversity. Our country has done this before. We can do it again.
Oh beautiful, for patriot dream that sees beyond the years
thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears!
America! America! God mend thine every flaw,
confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law.
Memorial Day has one foot on solemn, hallowed ground and one in a carnival tent. It’s a time for honoring and remembering those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in serving our country. It’s the kickoff to summer fun. It’s flag-draped coffins, wreaths laid on graves, and quiet green fields marked with rows upon rows of neat white stones. It’s barbecues, pool parties, and family reunions. It’s a time to mourn. It’s a time to party. It’s a time to raise a glass in a somber, earnest toast. It’s a time to drink with joyful abandon, perhaps to the point of forgetting.
This Memorial Day is unlike no other. It’s topped with an extra layer of melancholy. The number of American lives lost to Covid-19 approaches, in less than three months, the inauspicious milestone of 100,000. As of publication of this post, the figure stands at 98,034. Among the deceased are those who survived past wars but were no match for this invisible enemy, a shape-shifting virus.
Today, when we honor our war dead, we also pay tribute to those who have lost their battle with a new, confounding foe. We lament the fact that this summer is likely to be short on carefree fun. But it could be empowering to view our actions (and our avoidance of certain actions) as tactical responses in our collective Covid fight. Every time we wear a mask at the grocery, or don’t get together with a big group of friends, don’t travel to visit family, every time we keep plenty of space between us and those we meet, we’re being zealous soldiers. We’re fighting the good fight. It may also help to remember, when we forego an activity that used to give us particular pleasure, that we’re fighting not only for ourselves, but for our loved ones and neighbors.
What I missed most, this Easter during Covid-19 isolation, was singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” among my fellow worshipers at my home church. I missed looking around during the joyful song, exchanging smiles with friends who have become family over the past twenty years. I missed seeing our modest, pleasant sanctuary nearly full for a change. (As in most mid-sized churches in our area, attendance declines yearly.) Charles Wesley’s majestic hymn, the words written in 1739, remains the quintessential anthem of Easter triumph. Our talented organist knows how to do it justice. I can hear the music resounding beyond the church walls. I can imagine that those walking by outside wonder, momentarily at least, if they’re missing something worthwhile. My favorite verses are the second and third:
Love’s redeeming work is done, Alleluia!
Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia!
Death in vain forbids him rise, Alleluia!
Christ has opened paradise, Alleluia!
Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia!
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!
Once he died, our souls to save, Alleluia!
Where’s thy victory, boasting grave? Alleluia!
This Easter Sunday, during Covid-19 isolation, our family didn’t go to church, of course. Instead, church came to us. My husband, our daughter, my mother and I gathered in front of the TV for our local church’s online worship service. After that, we joined former neighbors remotely for the service from the Atlanta church I grew up in. We got a special treat when the pastor made a tour of our old Morningside neighborhood, the familiar parks and streets of my childhood quiet and uncrowded during this unprecedented time. We felt a renewed connection to dear friends, and to a place we called home, which we haven’t seen since my mother’s relocation to Virginia nearly three years ago. We heard two pastors speak movingly of the renewing, life-giving power of God’s love.
Across the country, ministers, church staff and dedicated volunteers have been scrambling to “do church” in a social distancing world, and it’s a challenging work in progress. But by its very nature, online worship, extending any local church’s reach far beyond the boundaries of any brick-and-mortar sanctuary, should send this emphatic message: If God’s love can’t reach across the miles and over the ages to warm cold hearts, change attitudes and offer hope, then what can? In the words of the classic children’s song: The church is not a building. It’s certainly not supposed to be a cushy clubhouse for an exclusive clique of like-minded, self-congratulatory, dogmatic ideologues. Yet that is the impression that some of the loudest voices identifying as Christian are spreading, if perhaps sometimes unwittingly. What church-goer has not heard the criticism of Christians as judgmental hypocrites? What church-goer can wholeheartedly profess that such a criticism is unwarranted? Can we seize the moment and actively work to chip away at this image? Could it be that the new reality of Covid-19 is the prompt, the burr under the saddle, that will get us moving to change this perception?
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted an uncomfortable truth that most of us would prefer to ignore: health and long life are not guaranteed, not even to the youthful and hearty. Confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the US have exceeded one million. Nearly 62,000 Americans have died from the virus. While some people may feel a sense of security because their community, far from Covid hot spots, has remained relatively untouched, this could change. The safety net, if not illusory, is fragile and easily torn. Death is no longer the rare visitor, as we like to pretend. Instead, it lurks nearby, sometimes brushing elbows with us when we least expect it. Many people are alone, and lonely. Some struggle with despair and depression. Others are sharing uncomfortably close quarters, and nerves are fraying. Some may be justifiably fearful, as domestic violence is on the rise. Many are plagued by financial insecurity made extreme by sudden job loss. Thirty million people filed for unemployment in the last six weeks. Others, still employed, risk their own health daily as they perform their “essential” but poorly paid tasks. The mood of anxiety is not likely to lessen as states open or prepare to do so. It will not be “business as usual” for a long time.
If only the sad and the hurting could receive a message of love, of assurance, of hope. If only there were some group of unique individuals who might send out such a message, to help transmit rays of much-needed light and comforting warmth when they are so badly needed.
If only churches and those who used to find themselves regularly in church on Sunday mornings could rise to the challenge.
Let’s give it a try.
Let’s emulate the example of Jesus in our words and actions. Like the friend, brother, teacher and savior we honor in our name as Christians, let’s live by the words of the prophet Micah (6:8), and “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” Let’s embody kindness, empathy and compassion. Let’s leave aside our tendencies to debate the fine points of theology, and maybe even our determination to prove that the Bible (and therefore “we” as opposed to “them”) are “right.” Let’s refrain from referring to people with whom we disagree as “Godless.” Let’s try, even when it makes us squirm as we abandon our customary high ground, to leave the judgement to God. And let’s ensure that our church’s online presence is in sync with our actions. That it emphasizes forgiveness, inclusiveness, and transformative love.
May we “church folks” be a light in the darkness as we share the hope that springs from the certainty of God’s abiding love and saving grace for us, his flawed, often flailing, and all too human children. Who knows how many worried and sorrowful hearts we might touch?
It’s January 7th, 2020. The Christmas season is officially over. For our family, it was a happy and busy one. We felt fortunate to welcome our daughter home from college for an extended stay, as well as to have my mother living next door. I didn’t find the time for writing more than one quick Christmas post. But the message of Christmas is one to live by every day. And the gift of Christmas is persistent. It waits to be received, regardless of the time of year. So, a look back on Christmas Eve, and a look ahead, with hope for the future.
The familiar, expected beasts were all there at the nativity on Christmas Eve. There was the furry, gray-brown burrow, always a crowd favorite. The humble image of patience, fortitude and forbearance, this little donkey reminds us of the one that may have carried young Mary and her unborn child to Bethlehem many years ago.
Two fluffy sheep quietly munched on hay. The two goats took more curious notice of the onlookers around them. They remind us that ordinary farm animals likely witnessed the holy birth.
There were a few dogs, including Kiko, who was fortunate in meeting a kindly shepherd girl who allowed him to wander at will among the other furry creatures. Maybe those original shepherds brought with them a sheepdog or two? I’m not certain where the scholarship stands on this point. No shepherd would benefit from a dog like Kiko, who lacks the herding instinct as well as any semblance of a work ethic. Come to think of it, our dog’s interest in other living beings is confined largely to the smells they leave behind.
Sweet Delilah the camel, on the other hand, seems to truly enjoy social interaction with her animal companions, as well as with her human admirers. This year, as always, she snuggled enthusiastically with kids and old folks, and posed for endless pictures.
With such a remarkable menagerie so close at hand, the human presence may take a back seat at a live nativity. But those wearing the costumes of Mary and Joseph remind us that God chose to send his son to be born not to the rich and powerful, but to a couple who counted themselves among the working poor. Those dressed as shepherds recall the lowly field workers who were the first to be summoned, and by angels, no less, to receive the joyful, life-changing news of a savior’s birth. The so-called Magi, like their camel, would not have made an appearance at the stable in Bethlehem. These wealthy pagan astrologers from the East arrived months or perhaps even years after the birth, when Jesus and his parents were living in some modest home, perhaps in Nazareth. But they’re included in nativity scenes to signify that this baby, born to obscure observant Jews of the artisan class, is God’s gift to all people, regardless of heritage or ethnicity, and to all generations.
The point of the Christmas narrative, of course, is this baby. In our nativity, the newborn Jesus is represented by a mere doll, which, in terms of purely visual interest, cannot begin to compete with so much furry, four-legged charm. This unremarkable doll is an inadequate place-holder not simply for a real baby, but for a miraculous union of the human with the divine. The baby Jesus is, according to the Gospel of John, God’s Word, the Word through which everything was created, newly manifested in human form.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. –John 1:14
God loves us so much that he sent his son to live out the human experience as our brother and friend. Jesus pointed the way, through example, showing us how to claim our kinship with him and our inheritance as children of God. Jesus didn’t bring a message of complicated theology and countless esoteric rules to follow. The essence of his message, emphasized repeatedly throughout the years of his earthly ministry, is disarmingly simple:
Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples. –John 13: 34-35
The essential message of Christmas is simple, too. God’s great love breaks down all barriers, of geography, race, gender, of social and economic class. We humans are skilled builders of artificial and arbitrary barriers, but there is not one that can withstand the sheer force of goodness that is God’s love. God loves us all. And he wants us to love each other.
He has created us to do so:
In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him. The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. –John 1: 1 -5
So therefore, the light of God is present in all creation.* I like to think I can sense the divine spark shining within every humble beast at our live nativity, as well as in all our animal friends. What are they, anyway, but God’s beloved creatures?
That seed of holy light has been implanted in every one of God’s human children. With the kindness and compassion that have their source in God our Father, let us do our best to kindle the divine spark within ourselves. Let us nurture and share the warmth of that light with our neighbors, near and far. With those who look and think like us, and with those who don’t. Let us resist quick judgement, avoid pettiness, and act with generosity of spirit.
Let us love one another. We were made for this.
*This idea is explored powerfully and beautifully by Richard Rohr in his 2019 book, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe.
December, always the quickest month, has flown by with even greater speed than usual this year. Suddenly, our daughter is home, half-way through her third year at the University of Virginia. We’re wrapping presents. And it’s Christmas Eve.
Kiko, as usual*, has positioned himself squarely in the center of it all. (He’s the Milford Plaza of dogs.) Evidently, he suspects something very good is brewing. If only he could stay awake But the pull of sleep is strong and inviting. His head nods, and his body sways as he attempts to resist.
Sleep wins out.
Rolls of decorative paper make a comfy pillow on a sun-drenched carpet. I finish the wrapping, walking carefully around him. Soon I’ll wake him up and we’ll head over to the live nativity at our church. And that means it’s really, truly Christmas Eve.