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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 . . .

 

THE HOLY SPIRIT, PENTECOST SUNDAY

img_mouseover3Yesterday was Pentecost in the Western calendar. For me it was an enjoyable experience because I was able to play the role of theologian during the sermon, which is always fun for me. For the most part I gave an exposition of Acts 2:1-13. One of the things I didn’t do was go into a deep discussion on the imagesHoly Spirit in the context of ministry today. If I did, I would have used this amazing quote from theologian Hans Küng in his magnum opus On Being a Christian (p. 468–Doubleday 1984).

We cannot overlook the fact that any talk of the Holy Spirit is so unintelligible to many today that it cannot even be regarded as controversial.  But there can also be no doubt that the blame for this situation may be laid to a large extent on the way in which the concept of the Holy Spirit has been misused in modern times both by the official Church and by pious individuals.

When holders of high office in the Church did not know how to justify their own claim to infallibility, they pointed to the Holy Spirit.  When theologians did not know how to justify a particular doctrine, a dogma or a biblical term, they appealed to the Holy Spirit.  When mild or wild fanatics did not know how to justify their subjectivist whims, they invoked the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit was called in to justify absolute power of teaching and ruling, to justify statements of faith without convincing content, to justify pious fanaticism and false security in faith.  The Holy Spirit was made a substitute for cogency, authorization, plausibility, intrinsic credibility, objective discussion.  It was not so in the early church or even in the medieval.  This simplification of the role of the Holy Spirit is a typically modern development, emerging on the one hand from Reformation fanaticism and on the other hand from the defensive attitude of the great Churches, seeking to immunize themselves from rational criticism.

 

 

images from sharefaith.com and goodreads.com

AIRPLANE MODE AND OTHER ADVENTURES

This going to work every day again has been a difficult adjustment. The biggest adjustment has been reacquiring some skill sets that I previously had mastered, but lost due to atrophy. It is true–use it or lose it. Here are some things I need to work on:

1. The important skill of remembering to turn your iPhone to airplane mode if you intend to use it to read scripture during a worship service. Easter Sunday it was still dark (and rainy) when the sunrise service began, so I thought myself clever using my iPhone to read the scripture because of the backlight. In the middle of Isaiah my phone asks me if i want to update. I tell it no. It asks if tonight is good. Rather embarrassing.

2. I had forgotten how hard announcements are. I flubbed them up royally yesterday, and even had to rearrange on the fly. Once upon a time announcements were seamless to me and I spoke the language of “put on your calendars” and “you will not want to miss” as if it were my mother tongue. Now I stammer and stutter all the way through.

3. Time management is the hardest. I grossly overestimated how much time I had between small group and worship service yesterday.

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Another skill to reacquire is keeping my eyes open while preaching.

The result was we started everything several minutes later than we intended, thus pushing everything late.

4. Temperature control, for me, is vital. If I get too warm when I am preaching my throat gets hoarse, I cough, and then I feel myself losing energy. That happened yesterday because I did not make certain the thermostat was set at the right temperature. By the time I left the building, I was in need of hydration and a throat lozenge. I used to be on top of things like that, but somehow along the way I’d forgotten.

5. I didn’t make it to the back of the building quick enough on any of the first three weeks. That has got to change, because I have found, through the years, that a lot of pastoring happens at the back of the door after a worship service.

There are other things I’ve got to re-learn, but these are the ones that are bothering me on this Monday morning.