I am posting excerpts from pastoral letters written for the congregation of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Oviedo, Florida. These are offered with the prayerful hope that others might find perspective or encouragement in them.
After making another successful raid on Publix, our grocery store, the other day (it’s quite the adventure these days) I was caught up short by the realization that I had made it a standard part of my conversational repertoire to complain about the excessively personal questions that Publix clerks are encouraged to ask. “Do you have any plans for the weekend?” “You have anything going on tonight?” I know they have to do it, but the questions feel intrusive and I wished they would stop.
And now, there is a plastic shield between us and they are “gagged” with masks. “No, God, I didn’t mean that.”
A couple of months ago I lamented in my journal that I wanted Sundays to be more relaxing. Yes, it is a work day for me, but I thought that with some changes it would not be as stressful. But being realistic, I realized that I’m too much a creature of habit and routine. I wasn’t going to change.
But now my sermons are completed and preached on Friday mornings and I “go to church” with my feet propped on a footstool. “No, God, this is not what I meant.”
I’m not saying that this pandemic is all about me. I’m not the cause of it. But I can see that there are worse things than what I complained about two months ago. And it makes me want to go back.
But as I said in a previous week, going back is not the option.
There are those who are projecting dire changes for the church in the years ahead as a result of this period. Futurists are often wrong, and I’m not as glum. But that does not mean there will not be challenges. And the challenge at the outset will be how do we get back to doing what we do. Not only when will we meet again, but what will that gathering look like? Those are big questions that the church leaders will need to deal with.
Personally, I’d rather have church in my living room for just a bit longer than to mandate mask wearing or require “call ahead seating.” But perhaps these things will be uncomfortably necessary for a time. The issues are bigger than we are.
The changes I’m primarily concerned about are ones of habit. Like it or not, your and my habits have changed. I am profoundly grateful for those who have helped us maintain ministry in the midst of pandemic. None of us had any preparation for this, but you have helped us adapt. Community groups, the prayer gathering, our Ladies Bible Study, and who knows what else have continued to thrive. I was tempted Wednesday night to take a picture of Cord leading the youth group – sitting at a table with a computer-screen-full of faces before him. Ministry goes on because you are making it go on.
But it is abnormal ministry. It is ministry with a limp. And though we will learn good things from this, I’m concerned for the bad habits that could easily take root. For me, Sundays have become a wonderfully relaxing day. Perhaps you have found the same to be true. No clock, no deadlines, no frantically trying to get the family ready to walk out the door on time. Worship is a video. We can do that at 8:00 AM or 11:00, 2:30 PM or 4:36. Or not at all. And no one else will care, or know. What will that mean when once again worship starts at 10:30AM at a location on County Road 419? Will the power of the new habits carry over?
I’ve discovered that at heart, I’m a thoroughgoing introvert. Days of isolation agree with me. I like people, yes, but I like them in measured doses. I’ve learned in my isolation that I could probably live this way for a long time. Will it lead to avoiding contact or connection when normalcy, whatever it looks like, returns? Will the power of these habits carry over and become bad habits?
Experience tells us that ritual and routine are critical factors in those habits that help us flourish. Worship is but one example. Some of us developed the habit of flossing at an early age. Today, you can’t fall asleep at night unless you’ve flossed. Consequently when you are old, I will look with envy upon your fine, healthy teeth and gums. Habits serve us well. But when they are broken they can be hard to regain, as bad habits take over.
There will be a day, perhaps not too distant, when the former ways of being a church, gathering face to face, singing together, and communing together will return in some fashion. We introverts will need to climb out of our caves. We free spirits will need again to adhere to a schedule. We individualists will need to regain the value in the corporate. We who wore our pajamas to “church” will need to get dressed on Sundays. This will require, for some of us, great effort, believing that we are by so doing leaning into something good.
I want you to begin preparing to make that effort. If we do, we will emerge from this stronger. And better. I think I will be more friendly to the then newly ungagged and unmasked Publix clerk. And I may just realize that I am able after all to have a sermon ready to preach by Friday.
Sunday, and life, will be better.