Questions around reopening, mission, and my grief
Sisters and brothers: Thank you. In this difficult and painful time, as we have responded to COVID-19 and as both my father and my wife have died from cancer, you have upheld and carried me in your prayers, encouragement, and personal support. Many of you have said that you do not know what to say, that you do not have words. I often find myself wordless. That acknowledgement itself is a gift. Some of you have apologized for crying with us. At times in this process, we have run out of tears, so it is a gift for someone else to shed some tears for us. I know what we really desire is the power to make everything different and right. It is an expression of our deepest longings for what is good and whole and holy – our longing for God. And it reminds me that our God chose to save through weakness, chose to embrace fully our human weakness and to invest it with glory. As much as I have witnessed it in this season, it remains a mystery. I am thankful.
I do want to take time to address three important questions that I hear from you, either directly or implied, and I list them in the order in which I address them in this letter:
- · What are the church’s plans to reopen?
- · What opportunity is hidden in this pandemic crisis?
- · How are you doing, JP, with your double griefs?
What are the church’s plans to reopen?
Frankly, we haven’t made those plans yet. I am grateful that our governor always included churches on the “essential business” list. I am grateful that the stay-at-home order is lifted. I am anxious to be able to greet everyone with a hug, but I know that I still need to be careful for the most vulnerable among us (including my mother-in-law).
Your council (our governing board) and staff have been doing research. We are reading the guidelines of the CDC and the Pennsylvania Department of Health, reviewing the recommendations that come from the office of our Bishop, and studying best practices and the reopening experiences of other churches in other parts of the country.
In our discernment process, we are keeping the following values in mind:
- · We remember Jesus’ commitment to care for the “least of these” and are profoundly concerned for those who are most vulnerable to this virus.
- · We are committed to John Wesley’s first rule: “Do no harm.” Public safety is important. We do not want to contribute to the ongoing spread of this pandemic. It is our goal that there are no deaths and no new cases caused by our actions or inactions.
- · We are called to nurture and build our community. Our building has been closed, but the building is not the church. The church is the people – you and me, both gathered and scattered, mobile and homebound, old and young, poor and rich, male and female. We are most certainly “open.” We are doing our work, witnessing to the presence of Jesus and the grace of God that saves and heals body and soul.
From the recommendations, best practices, and reopening experience of other churches, there are several things that we need to keep in mind as we imagine what reopening could look like for us. Please note that we have not made any final decisions on these matters. I am just sharing the kinds of things we are learning in our study.
- · We have already removed and cleaned all hymnals, Bibles, and friendship pads to minimize sharing potentially contaminated surfaces once we reopen. We have obtained individually packaged communion elements. Offering plates cannot be passed. Masks must be worn.
- · It is recommended that we avoid congregational singing and choirs, because singing produces more droplets and they spread a greater distance when we sing than when we speak.
- · Socially distanced worship will greatly limit interaction, require reduced attendance particularly for our 10:45 service, and typically means that children’s programming such as nursery and Sunday School is not open.
- · Reopening plans need to include a way to notify everyone who attends a service if someone in that service later tests positive for the virus.
- · Some churches control attendance limits and prepare for notification processes by means of requiring worship reservations in advance.
- · Given the difficult changes involved, some large reopened churches have in-person attendance below 15% of the prior attendance averages. Every place is different, but the lesson these churches share is that despite the deep desire to gather in person, there remains significant concern about doing so.
Whatever we end up doing, two things are clear:
- · In-person worship will not be a return to “normal.”
- · Online worship, and other forms of online community, will grow in significance.
What about Mountaintop Kids in the COVID-19 crisis?
One of the things that attracted us to this new partner is that they had obtained a waiver to continue to operate under phase red to serve essential workers. They prepared many extra measures to protect their staff and the children and families they serve. So, once the building is ready (and you should see the makeover it is getting!), they will be opening and following the recommendations of the CDC and state agencies.
What are our next steps?
- · Develop plans for select smaller groups to gather in our space.
- · Expand interactivity and discipleship in our online space.
- · Experiment with technology to enable gathering over the phone for those without internet access.
- · Take advantage of the opportunity hidden in this crisis to relocate discipleship and evangelism to our homes and other personal spaces.
What opportunity is hidden in this pandemic crisis?
Most of us have a small circle of “safe” persons with whom we gather privately. They may be our extended family, our best friends, our caregivers, or next-door neighbors. This provides us with an opportunity to “do church” in small gatherings, no matter the affiliation of the persons involved. Just as this unique crisis forced us to take some big steps forward into the online world, accelerating a trend that was already at work in our culture, so this crisis provides us the opportunity to gather to share Jesus together in settings that tend to be much more effective for discipleship – our homes, our personal spaces. The ancient church’s meeting places were primarily in homes around dinner tables. In Jerusalem, large groups gathered in the temple. In Ephesus, Paul used a lecture hall. In Philippi, Paul met people at a riverside prayer meeting. But the essential gathering unit was in homes. While things have changed over the centuries, that original model has never lost its effectiveness.
It is my hope to equip us to be church even though we are mostly scattered, to be church in our homes and other personal spaces. Perhaps this opportunity calls to you, and you think about gathering your circle of “safe” persons to explore faith in Jesus and share in dinner together. If so, please let me know.
How are you doing as you deal with your double grief?
Jesse and I watched the Avenger’s Endgame movie together. It’s fun. (Spoilers ahead!) At the end, Tony Stark, aka Ironman, dies. I don’t care about his death. I thought he died at the end of the prior movie! But when Pepper Potts told him, “We’ll be okay,” she echoed the conversations that we had with Robin over her last days. Robin wanted to hear us say that, with confidence. And she wanted us to know that she had confidence in us to find our way through our grief in a way that honors the grace of God in which she lived and died and yet lives. So, I found myself crying as Pepper Potts assures Tony Stark. And Jesse apologized for picking a movie that made me cry.
How am I doing? My standard response is that I think I’m doing well, but I really don’t have any comparison data. I have never been through anything like this before. It is painful. I miss Robin dearly. At the same time, I am here to live. That is what Robin and I have always chosen, even in the most difficult and painful things we have had to face. A friend of mine, Curvin, who was our congregational care leader in the last church I served, lost his wife around the same time as I lost Robin. He can’t do many of the things he used to do, but he guesses that God has left him here to do stuff and have some fun. While I am sleeping more, and I struggle at times with focus and memory, I am finding fun, cherishing memory, and working toward some new rhythms.
What am I doing? All along, I have maintained my practice of daily Scripture reading and prayer, though I have gotten a bit behind on my reading schedule. I am beginning to return to other practices that nourish my soul and structure my life – exercise, time alone in the woods with Zoe. I am also creating space to do things that I simply enjoy – gardening, cooking, music, writing, conversation with friends, time with family. I plan to coach soccer again this fall. And, I am tending to the legal and financial transitions involved in both deaths and working through stuff in the house.
I have posted several pieces to our church website that give you a glimpse into my grief:
· Song of the Scriptures, sung in honor of Dad
· Weep with Me, a sung lament
· I Can Only Imagine, a dance requested by Robin
· Remembering Robin, which I shared at the graveside
· Remembering Dad, built off of what I shared at his graveside (which we actually had to hold in another cemetery because of COVID-19)
How am I doing? To the extent that I am doing “good,” that’s grace. I don’t feel particularly strong and resilient, and neither I nor Robin ever signed up for being inspirational. It’s all Jesus. In my gratitude for all that God has given, even in this painful time, I remember you in particular. There is no way I could thank you enough or thank you all personally. The prayers, the cards, the “honor guard,” the meals, the friendships. I am blessed, richly blessed. Thank you.
Stepping out together with you on new adventures with Jesus,
JP Bohanan, Pastor