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I’ve Been Reading History Again

I’ve been thinking lately about the fall of the Roman Empire.

Let the reader understand.

I am specific when I saw Roman Empire as opposed to “Fall of Rome” because one of my historical presuppositions is Rome, as an idea, never actually fell. The empire collapsed, but not the idea. In fact, collapse is probably not the best word for it. Disintegrate would be better. Governmental structures evaporated but people still continued to think of themselves as Roman and they passed these ideals along. They were so successful at maintaining the ideals that today we celebrate the American Senate, our civic architecture is decidedly Roman, garrisons man outposts in every corner of the empire, our legal code is rife with Latinisms, and the national symbol is an eagle.

I will not bore you with my analysis of the Roman Empire’s demise. Instead, I want to share an observation I found in one of my old history texts. As you know, the Empire in the west fell in 476 A.D. but the Empire in the east, Byzantium, continued on for centuries. The discussion in the history text was of the church — a specific interest of mine, for obvious reasons — and how it viewed itself in these two very different parts of the Roman experience. In the east, the church viewed itself as intertwined with the empire itself, like the priesthood in ancient Israel’s kingdom. Byzantine faith was comfortable blending and bending the decrees of emperors with the teachings of the church.

By contrast, the church in the west learned to view secular power with suspicion. It was not the Christian empire extending ecclesiastical power at will, but rather it was Noah’s Ark, seeking to save and rescue the faithful as the world drowned in a rising flood of chaos. To be sure, this is the snapshot of the church at the end of the Roman Empire in the west. Eventually, history teaches, the church would grab at secular power with both hands, clutching and clawing for as much control and wealth as possible.

But that was not the case at the end. At the end, it was the church that held order. It was bishops who negotiated with tribal chieftains to spare cities. It was the church that gathered up orphans and raised them. It was the church that held together legal systems. It was the church that brought organization — even borrowing the terms like diocese to describe things.

Allow me, please, to philosophize a moment from the historical situation about the present. These two views are powerful in today’s American ecclesiastical landscape. Some view the church as a partner with politics, both on the left and the right, to wield power. Others, both on the right and the left, think of the church as an instrument to rescue those who are perishing, those drowning in the chaos of change and the evaporation of civilization.

The current climate we are in, perhaps, is the most Roman we have ever experienced.

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Free Sermon

I’m feeling a theme for this week’s COVID Chronicles. It is our last week, and the theme is theology. Trust me, no one coordinated this because we’re not that smart. But that is what has happened — Kathy on Monday, Shaw yesterday, and then today Rob Cely does it again.

Click on the garden hose to read his story, “The Last Sermon of Daniel Ramone”.

After you read the story, you’ll see how dark this image choice was. You’re welcome.

What I’m Learning in COVID-19 Captivity

I Woke up this morning to the cold realization it was week two of the church in exile.

The feeling is so strange that it qualifies as as an out-of-body experience. My entire remembered life I have gone to church on Sunday with precious, very precious few exceptions. I have never missed a Sunday of preaching because I was sick. Even on vacation I go to church.

But here we are.

I thought it would help me this morning if I went ahead and acted as if I was going. I trimmed my beard a bit, cleaned up, and put on a white buttoned down instead of a t-shirt, and a nice wrist-watch rather than the Timex I’ve been wearing on quarantine.

These thoughts bring me to what I’d like to share with you this morning, and that is namely what I am learning during the COVID Captivity of 2020. I don’t know how historians or sociologists will label this time period when they study it, but I do think a lot is going to change about how most of us live. I’m not certain we will ever be ‘normal’ again. That might be good because maybe what we called ‘normal’ was actually quite abnormal. These changes will flow from what we learned, and most of all what we learned about ourselves.

The first thing I have learned is from the malaise I woke to this morning. I have learned I really, really, really love church. I miss gathering with the people of God more than anything else about this. The church is in exile, pushed underground (necessarily so, but still underground so to speak), meeting in clandestine family units huddled around television screens and smart phones desperately trying to connect in some way with the body of Christ. I miss the hugging, the handshaking, the close talking, the hand-holding, the patting on the back, and the warmth of community. I miss it and I have learned that I am significantly less human without it. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, and that is a very high holy day for us with ritual and Holy Communion. My soul longs to gather with the festal procession of my brothers and sisters, and I eagerly desire to eat that meal with them. I miss it, and the thought of missing it disturbs me.

I will never take Sunday morning for granted again.

Another thing I have learned is how much my family and their presence means to me. I can’t imagine going through this without Mrs. Greenbean and the sprouts. The youngest sprout was sent home from college and the oldest is still working through Zoom and digital presence, but she is able to be at the house quite a bit. Our family has always been close-knit, but now more than ever. Because those binds that tie are so tightly wound around the four us, we are not breaking in this. We are growing stronger.

I’ve learned how much I depend upon presence, touch, and personal interaction in pastoral ministry.

I’ve also learned what I can live without. I can live without the false gods of this world — sports, musicians, Hollywood movies, shopping, workplace esteem, and so many other 21st century deities which have been stripped of their power like the gods of Egypt before Moses and his staff. I don’t need these things to be happy and whole. I miss my church, but I don’t really miss watching the NCAA basketball tournament as much as I thought I would. I miss eating in a restaurant with family and friends but I don’t really miss the movie theater that much.

The flip side of what I’ve learned I can live without is what I can’t live without. I can’t really live without the grocery store being open and the truck drivers delivering goods. I can’t live without the clerks, stockers, and diesel mechanics who are literally keeping America fed and our coffee pots happy when everyone else is on lockdown. When this is all over we as a society need to radically rethink the pay scale disparity of athletes and grocery store workers. Who are really worth the big bucks? And while I’m on it, it doesn’t apply to me as my children are grown, but many of you are realizing the value of your child’s teacher, school, and daycare. Again, remember that when this is over.

I’ve learned doctors and nurses are heroes.

On the darker side of Greenbean, I have learned to be suspicious of people who don’t take this seriously. This may sound judgmental, and I apologize to a degree if it is, but whether it is someone in the media, politics, or a cranky neighbor, anyone who doesn’t take the advice of professionals, experts, and scientists is a fool who should not be trusted with anything or any decision making process. If you fail on this, in my opinion, you’re disqualified from making decisions in the future on anything. Put another way, I’ve learned to see people’s reactions to COVID-19 as a filter on their values.

Having gone dark for a paragraph, though, let’s brighten it up. I have learned that the Lord is still crafting, molding, and shaping me. He is good, and he is still blessing, even in the midst of societal upheaval. I give thanks that I am healthy, and I give thanks for those who are ministering to the sick. I give thanks I have plenty to eat and I was able to buy toilet paper. My family makes me smile and we played Scattergories and Mexican Train and watched old DVDs. Our church staff is amazing and they are working so hard to keep as much ministry going as possible. The needs of the world, Italy, Spain, China, Iran, and New York City drive me to my knees in intercessory prayer, and that is a good thing. I recognize our interwoven existence, and that each one of us depends upon the toil and wellbeing of everyone else. Remember that famous phrase, “No man is an island” — it was written by John Donne during the plague, and at a time when he himself thought he was dying from it.

Ultimately, I have learned that I am still learning. The Lord is still teaching. And life continues under his shepherding hand. All of these bring forth praise from my lips.

EMAIL IS DEAD

File this one under “Continuing Education.”

As most of you know, in 2013 I resigned my beloved church of 14 years and relocated across the country to my ancestral homeland in order to focus on writing. Then, six months ago (March 2016) The Lord made it clear to me and our church that I was to pastor again.

What I have learned is that things changed while I was away.

I don’t mean away from Texas, I mean away from day-to-day ministry.

One of the things I have learned, the hard way, is that email is dead.

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When I was in Port Orchard, we relied upon email for almost everything. It was efficient and cost effective. I think my love for email was bias. When I arrived in Port Orchard in 1999, they were very much in the technological word of 1985–One computer used only for printing the bulletin, no internet connection on site, and certainly no email database. I was opposed early on with the typical “What about people without a computer” and I told them that “We will still use snail mail for those folks if they request it, but soon everyone will be using email for just about everything.” I think people 30 and under view email the same way I think of a fax machine–as something akin to an abacus. Nevertheless, it is hard to let go of a beloved method.

I was right, of course. Right up until I left email was our primary mode of communication. It was more vital than our website, the app we built, Facebook, Twitter, or text messaging. We had email distrubition lists for every group, sub-group, and ministry in our church. It was wonderful. It was easy. It worked.

That is not the case in my new environment. True, some of that might be location, but I suspect it is a cultural shift. Almost no one emails anymore. Most people don’t check their email more than weekly. The only thing email is useful for now is to send a document–and the only way that works is if I send the person a text message saying, “I sent you a document, check your email.”

Email is dead. Text messaging is alive and well.

This fall will find me trying to figure out how to be non-intrusive about the use of email and communication, particularly with worship guests. Again, for the past decade my modus operandi has been to send guests an email first thing Monday morning. That will not work anymore. A phone call is, I think, a little too pushy and needy. But a text message, that seems to be the zeitgeist of the age.

Just text me, everyone says.

Text messages fit our desire to absorb information quickly and move on. With our phones we don’t have to log in, clear spam, or use an bulky app. It is intuitive. It pops up on the screen. It waits until I’m ready to answer it.

This is different for me as a minister. In 2013 text messaging was certainly around, but it was something we mostly did amongst close friends and family. Remember? It would never have crossed my mind to text a receipt to someone, to text a customer service issue, to text a stranger, to text a business, an airline, or anyone I didn’t know very well. But that has changed, dramatically.  We text everyone all the time about everything.

I wonder how the Apostle Paul would have used text messaging . . .