(Below is the fourth in a series of pastoral letters addressing the NWPC in the pandemic. To read previous letters click on the following links: March 13, March 26, April 17.)
May 21, 2020
Dear Siblings in Christ,
It is almost startling to realize that Memorial Day weekend—and the unofficial start of the summer season—is nearly upon us. It’s as if the past two months, interminably long as they were, never actually happened, and we’ve jumped from mid-March to mid-May in the blink of an eye. The weather hasn’t done much to help this feeling; the recent “polar vortex” left us feeling as though we’re still closer to winter than we are to summer. Nonetheless, we find ourselves moving into new seasons: the season of summer, the season of Pentecost, and the strange new season called “Yellow Phase.”
“Yellow Phase,” as I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you, is the phase in which Lawrence and Mercer Counties find themselves in the commonwealth’s plan to recover from the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. We all know from learning to drive that a yellow light means, “proceed with caution” and “be prepared to stop.” And so, certain restrictions have been lifted that enable to people to visit some businesses again, and small gatherings of 25 or fewer people are permissible. This is a cautious step toward recovery, but there is still a long way to go; and, if this step proves to have been too hasty, we must “be prepared to stop” once again.
Meanwhile, the cautious relaxation of restrictions does not make worshiping together as a congregation any more tenable a decision than it would have been last month. The Session, having met last evening, continues to exercise caution as well. The church building will remain closed to public activities until further notice, as the Elders continue to monitor closely the recommendations of the CDC, WHO, and the state’s Department of Health in order to determine whether and when to reopen it.
You have heard me say from the pulpit that I am not a particularly patient man. Perhaps you can relate to the feeling I get when I’m in a hurry to get somewhere and I’m forced to sit at a traffic light, waiting for it to turn green! “C’mon, light! I just want to go!” But for all my impatience, I wait for the light to turn green, because it’s the safest way to drive. You might find that a useful metaphor for understanding why it may be some time before we are able to gather as a congregation: we must not allow our impatience to cause us to behave unsafely. The Session agrees that even when the state gives us the “green light,” it does not necessarily mean that we will rush to gather together for worship. As the Apostle Paul reminds the saints in Corinth, “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up” (1 Cor. 10:23). As I like to paraphrase this teaching, “Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.”
There’s another reason to remain patient that our Session noted as well: if we were to return to corporate worship any time soon, it would be such a drastically modified experience that you might rather have stayed home anyway. Even when we get the “green light” to worship in large groups, a number of things will need to change for everyone’s continued safety, because a “green light” doesn’t mean that the novel coronavirus has gone away. We may have to require masks for everyone entering the building; we may have to mandate foot traffic patterns so that people do not pass within six feet of each other in halls and doorways; maintaining six feet of social distance may still be advised; hugs and handshakes might be an impossibility. Professional singing societies cite scientific research in recommending that there be no congregational or ensemble singing before this virus can be mitigated by either a vaccine or a robust and reliable form of treatment. The reason for this is that singing creates an enormous outpouring of “aerosolized” droplets into the air—so much so that the recommended “social distance” for singing is twenty feet! So, the Session reflected upon all this and realized: if the choice is between “broadcast-only worship” and gathering for a worship service with limited social contact, no congregational singing, and the constant threat of infecting vulnerable people… well, that’s not much of a choice, is it?
If I may, I’d like to offer something of a “silver lining” to all of this uncertainty and disappointment. I challenged the Elders yesterday—and challenge you, now—to ask yourself how the church can continue to be the Church even when we aren’t able to go to church. Necessity is the mother of invention, they say; adaptive change is the order of the day. This is a learning opportunity for all of us, reminding us that the church is neither a building nor an hour-long event that takes place on Sunday mornings. The Church is the body of Christ, hands and feet working together to share the love of God in Jesus Christ with a world that currently feels frustrated, anxious, and lonely. I am seeing this happen, and it gives me hope. Linda Black and the Postemas have been working together closely to provide a VBS experience for our children in spite of the fact that we cannot hold a traditional program. The Session is exploring ways for small groups of church members to gather safely for times of fellowship. The deacons are reaching out to congregation members to express love and assess needs. The Stuart family recently constructed and installed a “Blessing Box” on the church’s property along S. Market Street, making it possible for folks to give and receive pantry staple foods in a time of economic uncertainty. This week, the Rotarians added free masks to the box. I rejoice in the ways the Spirit moves God’s people, in ways big and small, to love their neighbors. This is what being the Church, even when we can’t go to church, looks like.
It remains a source of great joy to serve Christ with you in these trying times. I pray for your health and safety each and every day, giving thanks to God for his amazing grace.
Yours in Christ’s Service,