The Work of the Pause
…those who had gathered together asked Jesus, "Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?" Jesus replied, "It isn't for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." After Jesus said these things, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. They said, "Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven." (Acts 1: 6-11 CEB)
Siblings in Christ,
I greet you this week knowing that you are absorbed in digesting the “Reimagining Life Together” document and beginning to think about your plans for your church and to reimagine what it will be like to be church on the other side of this pandemic.
Erin Martin shared in her devotions as part of the Bishop’s webinar on May 20th, this passage from Acts. Erin spoke of the little known and even less observed season of the Christian Year known as Ascensiontide: the nine days between the Ascension and Pentecost. She referred to this time as an imposed pause – this time between when the physical resurrected Jesus was lifted up away from the faithful and the time when the Holy Spirit descended upon them. What a great way to look at the time we find ourselves in, this time between being the physical church of the pre-pandemic and the reimagined community we will be when this is over. We are in an imposed pause. What we have known is no longer and what will be is still unknown. I will let your mind and soul play with this on its own. But the lesson for us is what the faithful did in this imposed pause: they prayed, and they prepared for whatever was to come (Acts 1: 12-26).
In an effort to help you in your work during this Ascensiontide – this imposed pause – I want to answer a few questions I think you have or will have as you do the work of Reimagining Life Together. These are questions the Bishop posed to the panelist in our preparation for the webinar on Wednesday, May 20th:
- How can we honor the values of 1) welcome and hospitality and 2) protecting health (by staying closed, limiting the number of people who can physically gather and encouraging vulnerable people to stay away from Church even after we are beginning to re-open)?
- We may feel that the presence of face masks and the absence of handshakes or hugs is unwelcoming and inhospitable, but in reality welcome and hospitality aren’t these things. Welcome and hospitality are communicated through how we honor and respect those who come. Welcome and hospitality are communicated through providing a safe space and a warm presence. Many cultures don’t touch when they welcome one another, for example. Instead they bow. Many cultures provide hospitality with expectations. For example, when you come into a home you are expected to remove your shoes or wash your feet. When I have experienced these things, I felt sincere hospitality and welcome.
- I also feel that encouraging the most vulnerable to stay away from coming to worship and gatherings is the hospitable thing, because I don’t want them to get sick or die. It is how I can love them and show them respect. I don’t want to put them at risk. That is part of what it means to be hospitable. And again, in other cultures when someone is in your home you pledge to protect them, in this case to protect our honored ones is to discourage them from coming.
- Why must we have a one-size-fit-all approach to reopening, when the virus is more present some places than others, and even governors are opening their states at different rates?
- First, we must understand that Governors are faced with a multitude of interests and have a broad spectrum of factors to weigh. They need to balance what is best with what is necessary. They reopen in as safe and practical way as they can, but they know that what they do puts people at risk. They know that what they do is measured by an acceptable risk – a certain number of people will get sick and some will die but they determine a level of “acceptable harm.” They try to keep that harm as small as possible, but it is in tension with other interests.
- Secondly, it only takes one infected person to spike a spread of Covid-19. One asymptomatic person infected with Covid-19 in a call center infected 94 of 216 employees. One infected person at a worship service exposed 180 others. There is not a 100% safe way for people to gather. I believe that being more cautious than our elected officials is prudent because the level of risk which is acceptable to me is much lower than theirs. Every serious scientist out there will tell you there is risk involved in gathering, so the church should not gather until we can provide an environment that is as safe as possible. This isn’t about borders or jurisdictions or political parties. It is about loving our neighbors. If the determination is that 50 or fewer is the safe group size, then that applies in Ashton, Idaho and Astoria and Lakeview, Oregon and Castle Rock and Bellingham, Washington and Anchorage and Nome, Alaska. It isn’t location, it is love of neighbor that should motivate us.
- As a Christian, how do you think about the tension between a) people who protest restrictions on public gatherings, and requirements to cover their faces, in the name of individual liberty and b) people who make the case that people are social creatures who bear a moral responsibility to care for “the common good?”
- Many people don’t like to hear this, but to be a Christian means to limit your personal liberties in the interest of love of neighbor. I firmly believe in personal rights and I am thankful to live in a country that tries hard to maintain them. But as a Christian I am called to put aside what is best for me and instead look for and work for what is best for all -- even when this has a negative impact upon me and my life. We cannot live in a way in which everyone does whatever they choose to do, that’s anarchy. We obey traffic lights because that is the safe thing to do for others and ourselves. We use restrooms because that is what is best for all. Right now, masks and restrictions on public gatherings are the traffic lights and restrooms we need to accept for the health and safety of ourselves and others. It’s not attacking personal liberties; it’s protecting ourselves and others.
- As we are extending the suspension of in-person worship, is there some other way than for each local church, no matter how small or how isolated, to struggle to provide worship on the internet? Isn’t there some way the churches might pull together to support each other during this season of separation and waiting?
- Yes, a vast array of ways. Most I have not thought of myself, but the panelists on the Wednesday webinars and those in the virtual pews and in the on-line council meetings, they know of ways. Talk to others, try things, link up with what someone else is doing, etc. This is the time to explore, innovate, take a chance and experiment. After all, we are where we have never been before.
- We are now learning that singing, loud exhortation and brass and wind musical instruments appear to spread the Corona virus very effectively. How are you thinking about having to giving up singing hymns?
- I hate the idea. Music inspires and uplifts and challenges and goes right to the heart and soul. Singing with others is a spiritual experience. I literally know God in singing with others. So, I hate the idea of not singing and giving up the brass and wind instruments and the complexity and depth they bring. I can’t wait to sing with others. But I will wait because if I sing with others, I put them and myself at risk. So, I sing in the shower and in my office and car. I sing by myself with others in virtual worship and I am remembering that music is more then singing and brass and wind instruments.
- Many of us are growing tired of not being in control, and not knowing how long we will be out of control. Is there a spiritual value in not being in control?
- Yes, in fact realizing that you are not in control might just be the most important spiritual value. Look at the 12-step recovery programs, look to our most cherished spiritual practices. Look to the Psalms, the Prophets, the writings of Paul and the teachings of Jesus and see that they all tell us that we cannot control life. They tell us that life is not controllable, and that control isn’t our goal or mission or calling. Our goal, our mission, our calling is to love and to do no harm. The sooner we can get comfortable not being in control the sooner we can focus on the more important things
- As we anticipate the eventual opening of our church buildings, can you share one thing you have experienced or learned during COVID-19 that has changed how you think about the church?
- I have been seeing amazing innovation and creativity in all aspects of how we do church. I want this to be the way we reimagine what church will be as we live into the new normal. I have learned – more accurately re-learned – that when we are faced with a crisis, we find a way, we let the Spirit lead, we ask the right questions, and we don’t allow limitations to get in the way of possibilities. I have experienced the beloved of God being church, just in new and different ways. I have learned that no matter what, we will be partners of God and Christ for the transformation of lives and the world, and that even a global pandemic can’t stop us.
May God grant you vision and insights. May Christ's compassion inform your work, and may the Spirit's sustaining fire warm you.
top: "Ascension" copyright Sr Mary Stephen CRSS
bottom: "Pentecost" copyright Sr Mary Stephen CRSS