Peace is something we hear a lot about in December each year. It is the theme of the third week of Advent, and also the title of my homily for that week. It is in the Christmas carols we know (“Sleep in heavenly Peace”), classic Christmas songs (“Peace on Earth, good will toward all”), and most of all, one of the titles for Christ we find in the prophets – Prince of Peace.
As I mentioned last month, it is difficult to find peace, let alone share it with others, if we don’t have peace within ourselves. Mother Frances offers us an insight to finding peace. We need to dwell in God, and allow God to dwell in us before we can find, know, and share peace. It sounds simple, and it is. Very simple. But as many of us know from experience, it is not easy. That’s because it is not something we can just learn, take a test, and then be done with looking for it. It doesn’t travel with us through life, like an award or diploma might. That’s why we can have experiences of deep peace in our soul for a moment, hiking in the mountains, sitting in front of a fire, holding a new-born son or daughter, and then the moment passes. We move on, back to our lives. That is the issue right there. We have the habit of going “back to our lives.” We have moments of connecting with something beyond ourselves, but then we turn back to our “reality.” What the Gospels, and our faith, and Mother Frances and other spiritual travelers in Christian history have discovered and share with us is that we need to develop a new habit, one that takes us out of our “regular” lives and opens us up to God. Prayer is a place where we can develop this new habit, this new way of looking at life, ourselves, and others. Not prayer that is full of
words, but prayer that is open to listening to God, to seeing the world from God’s perspective. Not jus for five minutes a day, or an hour, but constantly throughout the day, inside us, as we go through each day, until it becomes our habitual way of being. This is why peace is so difficult. We have to dwell in God, and allow God to dwell in us. It is who the Prince of Peace, whose birth we celebrate, calls us to be.
A lone young woman came along the path. Immediately I thought about my “Boundaries” training. How do I let her know I’m a safe person for her to walk by? How do I greet her “with peace” without intruding on her boundaries? We got closer and made eye contact. I nodded, said “Hi”, and kept walking. Hmm.
Further along the path a woman and 2 kids approached. One of the kids was African-American, while the other 2 were Caucasian. I thought about my Cultural Competency training. How do I greet them “with peace” in a way that is considerate of their culture(s?)? How do I let them know I’m ok with a mixed racial group? We got closer and made eye contact. I nodded, said “Hi”, and kept walking. Hmmm.
At this point, I was not too sure I had this “greet everyone with peace” thing down yet. As I thought about it on the rest of my hike, and on the drive back home, I reflected on the feelings I had as I approached these people. I realized that for one thing, I was not at peace within myself when I greeted them. Perhaps the maxim is not about giving others peace, in the sense of saying something like “Peace be with you”, or “Go in peace.” Perhaps it’s about greeting others with the peace I have within me—greeting them from a place of peace, which can also share that peace with them.
Of course, that means that I need to have that sense of peace within me. That means that all the things I do to create peace within myself—prayer, reading scripture, worship, going on retreats—are not just for me, but are also gifts I give others, when I greet them from that place of peace.
Every living person on this planet is a pilgrim. We are all on the journey we call “life.” We all participate, at some level, in the spiritual portion of that journey. These maxims are ways we can deep-en this part of our journey—slow down, let go, build hope and faith, grow and share peace, and receive from God the deeper gifts of life. As brothers and sisters of and in Christ, let us search for the ways we can continue to be the pilgrims he calls us to be in this life God has given us.
The first is “I am not in control.” At first that seemed to go against the grain for me. Aren’t we supposed to be in control? We learn early on at the playground that it’s not ok to go over and take a ball away from another kid just because we want it, or to go hit another kid who took the ball away from us. We learn to be in control of our desires and reactions as we go through life. We can also be taught that we control our own destiny. We can be whatever we want to be, if we just put our minds to it.
As we grow older, we learn the nuances of being in control. We find out that being controlling, where we try to control the actions or lives of others, is not a good thing. Even being in control of ourselves, if overdone, can be a bad thing, both for our physical and mental health. This maxim is not about abdicating responsibility for what we do or say. Rather, it’s about learning the limits of what we are called to control, and what we are not.
Pilgrims learn there are a lot of things “out of their control.” Walking on a pilgrimage to Mecca, or Jerusalem, or Santiago, Spain, people quickly learn they have no control over the weather, their aching muscles, whether the trail is easy to follow or washed out from a storm. There are all kinds of variables in the pilgrimage of life over which we have no control. I’ve lived more than half my life in Washington State not because I made a choice, growing up, that I want-ed to live in this state, but because I fell in love with a woman while visiting my brother in Seattle. Love is certainly not about being in control; quite the opposite. In love, we cede control to another. In fact, we often find that the best experiences we have throughout our lives occur when we are simply present, and not trying to be in control.
I can be in control of my actions and reactions, though I am not always so. Many times emotions, or psychological need, or simply surprise can wrest control away. But beyond myself there is very little I can actually control. Although many of us feel we “should” be in control, much of
our lives is beyond our control. When we can let go of the need/desire to try and be in control of all around us, then we can relax, and pay attention to, and enjoy, more of the journey, the pilgrimage, that is life. As people of faith, what can help us in this letting go is the belief that there is someone else taking care of that for us—God. When we open our hearts in prayer, trusting in God to guide us, we acknowledge we are not in control. We let go of that responsibility, which is not ours, to the One in whom everything “lives and moves and has its being.”
Inspector Lewis is one of my all-time favorite British mystery shows. Robbie Lewis, who was Inspector Morse’s sergeant in that series, now has his own sergeant, James Hathaway, who is a bit of a mystery himself to Lewis. In one conversation, Robbie finds out that Hathaway, who went to seminary for a year before becoming a policeman, had gone on the pilgrimage walk called the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Robbie asks what it was like when Hathaway got there, at the end of the journey, and Hathaway responds that he didn’t get there. He got as far as the edge of the city of Santiago, then turned around and walked back. Robbie, astounded, asks why he would turn around without going to the place he had spent so much time walking toward.
I don’t recall Hathaway’s specific answer, because I never understood how he could do that either. I imagine many of us would feel the same way. It’s pretty much ingrained into us, as part of our culture, that if you set a goal, and do all the work to achieve that goal, that you complete the process by enjoying your achievement. It would be like painting a beautiful painting and putting it in the closet instead of hanging it on the wall, or writing a great novel and putting it in a desk drawer instead of publishing it. Why would anyone do that?
I participated in a virtual Celtic pilgrimage during the month of June. We met on Wednesday afternoons on-line and talked about Celtic spirituality and saints, and about pilgrimage. On Sunday afternoons we would walk for 2-3 hours (this was before the heat wave, fortunately), then talk about our ponderings on our walks in the Wednesday sessions. I had never done a pilgrimage before, nor studied what they are, and the biggest learning I’ve taken from this one is that the journey is as important as the destination, if not more so. This is not new wisdom. In fact, the old adage “stop and smell the roses on the way” says much the same thing. Life is not just about getting to my destination at Place B, or completing the six items on my checklist for the day. Life is also about what happens as we travel from Place A to Place B. It is about the people we encounter and the things we experience in the process of doing those six items. It is also about the ways we get diverted from our “agenda” into the lives of others, and perhaps even, at times, into life with God.
One of the sayings given to the pilgrimage group as part of a “Pilgrims’ Credo” was this-”I bring back only what God gives me.” God may give us what we are looking for (or even what we don’t know we are looking for) at any point on our journey, not just at the end. Sometimes, writing the book or painting the picture is enough, and nothing more needs to be done. Perhaps Hathaway found his answer on the road, and so didn’t need to enter the city (I’ll have to watch that episode again!). As pilgrims on our journey of faith, let us be watchful, and open to whatever God has to give us on our way.
Especially when I see what is happening in India, Sri Lanka, even places like Australia and parts of Europe, that had COVID-19 rates knocked down so well in the past. It re-minds me that we are not out of the woods yet. We could still see a resurgence of COVID-19 here. As of the end of May, several counties in Washington are in the Red zone, including Spokane and Pierce (Tacoma area). Over 60% of the people in Yakima and Benton counties still have not had even one dose of the vaccine. Washington state is one of four states (Wyoming, Colorado, and Florida are the other three) still in the Orange zone. All the other states are in the Yellow zone. Many people in our communities are still vulnerable.
It seems to me the last part is the most important part. Stats, colors, percentages can help us understand and visualize. But really what we’re talking about is people. People afraid of a virus. People whose bodies and systems are damaged by their sickness. People who are dying. People who might still get the virus. Possibly our neighbors, our co-workers, our friends. People we know at stores, or restaurants, or shops around town. These are the people we’ve been trying to protect by getting vaccinated, restricting our activities with others, wearing face-masks and keeping our distance. Not just ourselves, but others. We’ve been trying to live out the commandment to “love our neighbors as our-selves.”
I feel like the sacrifices we’ve already had to make, such as not meeting together for worship, are a big part of what makes worshiping together now feel so good. Being able now to attend church on Sunday mornings, or go to a restaurant or movie Saturday night, can remind us how much we took the everyday parts of our lives for granted before COVID, and that many of the most important things we’ve missed during this pandemic involve being with people-talking with people, breaking bread with people, listening to people. People are important to us.
So let’s savor the reunion, rather than rushing to get back to where we were. Let’s notice the enjoyment we get with each step toward re-establishing our ties with others, so we may continue to notice how important those ties are to us. The changes will come. The restrictions will go. Let’s not miss the opportunity to learn, or re-learn, what God has to teach us about ourselves, and about our neighbors.
I wonder if worshiping together again will have some of those same qualities. It will be the same sanctuary, the same piano playing, the same pastor speaking, the same people there. But it will also be different. Pews will be taped off. The hymnals, Bibles, and offering envelopes will be removed. There will be things we won’t do, like passing the offering plate, holding hands for the benediction, Passing the Peace, singing. It will feel much different.
We will feel much different as well. It will be thirteen and a half months since we met together in the sanctuary last. We have all been conditioned to the danger of being with others. We have all been conditioned to being apart. There will be familiarity, but there will be difference too. Will that make our worship experience feel like it’s from another uni-verse?
Possibly. And maybe that’s good. I’ve spent some time thinking this past year about why we worship at all. Is it, as some cynically suggest, just a social time for people to get together with friends? I don’t think so. That could be done just as easily (and less expensively) at McDonald’s, Brewminatti’s, or the 10-4 Café. Sure, there’s a social aspect to going to church, but there’s more to it than just that.
I think it’s where we experience God, connect with God, slow down and listen to God. It’s where we are able to open the deeper parts of ourselves to that which is more than the universe. We don’t do that at other places (unless you’re drinking hot chocolate at Brewminatti’s) because that’s not what they’re for. We have developed the habit of opening ourselves to God in the sanctuary of Prosser UMC,
and so that space now feels like the right place for us to worship God. Certainly God can be worshiped anywhere. But those stained glass windows, the sight of the banners, the altar, the communion rail, the sound of the organ and piano, the smell of that sanctuary, lead us to feel praise and prayer.
Certainly it will feel different now. The habit has been deferred. It will feel fresh again, not routine. That is cause not for fear, but for joy!
At its March meeting, our Church Council decided to restart our in-person worship service on May 2. As stated in the Reopening Process article elsewhere in this newsletter, we can have up to 25 people attend in-person worship at our current phase.
So what will that look like? It will be different than what we’ve been used to for worship. We will all still have to wear facemasks, and have our temperature taken as we arrive. People from the same household may sit together, but must stay at least 6 feet away from other households, both when seated and when moving about the church. We won’t be able to sing, but we can listen to the organ and piano. We can’t have food or drinks, so no coffee hour. But we will be together.
There will be other things that will be different in the service. There will be no hugging, shaking hands, fist or elbow bumps between people not of the same household, we will not be doing the Passing of the Peace, Sharing Joys & Concerns (aloud), or holding hands for the benediction. The offering plates will be located on the tables behind the back pew, for you to place your offering rather than passing them. The order of worship will be projected onto a screen up front rather than printed on a bulletin. We will not have greeters. But we will be worshiping together.
Because of our 25 person limit at this phase, which includes those leading the service, we will need folks to call into the office each week to register, if they wish to attend. As our average attendance is 35 people, that will mean some will have to, or choose to, stay home. We will therefore continue to post our service on-line, though now it will be a recording of the morning service rather than recordings made in our homes. Although we won’t all be together, this is the first step toward that.
Nursery care and Sunday School can also be available, and we will be working toward that as well. During this month we will be preparing the church space for our reopening. Some of the sanctuary pews will be closed off from use. Hand sanitizer dispensers will be placed out for people to use. The recording and projection systems will be worked out. Recruiting temperature takers, facemask dispensers, and sanitizing crews will begin. We will be getting our house of worship ready for its family’s use.
Having worship together is exciting to think about! But as I write this blog the infection and positivity rates for COVID-19 in Benton & Yakima counties, and in the state of Washington, has stopped declining, and is starting to rise. This is not the time to let down our guard, when we are so close. Keep wearing facemasks and maintaining distance. Get vaccinated when you can. We are very close to being able to get together, but we’re not there yet.
I chose the very familiar quote from Reinhold Niebuhr below for this month’s newsletter because as I came across it, I realized that in today’s world the quote needs an additional amendment: “Lord help me accept the change I cannot stop.”
I’ve had a number of conversations with folks that have gone along the lines of “I can’t wait to get back to . . .” and you can add in your favorite thing you miss. Going to movies with my son. Going out to dinner without worrying if restaurants are open in this phase of the latest reopening plan, or if they’re even still in business. Shaking someone’s hand. Giving/getting hugs. Spending more of my waking hours out of my home than in it each day. I can’t wait to get back to . . .
As I think about it, though, and as I read and listen to others, I’m beginning to believe we will never “get back to” life as we knew it before COVID. Certainly, there will be life post-COVID, but it cannot ever be the same for two reasons. One is that we will be different because of this experience. The other is that the world will be different also.
We will be different because we will have all gone through the trauma of life under COVID. It’s not a high impact trauma, like being in a car crash or the death of a loved one (although the latter will be a big part of the COVID trauma for far too many people). It’s a long, slow, relentless, daily trauma of having to live life differently. Stuck in a home. Out of work and money. Having to go to work where any one of the many people you encounter each day could pass along the coronavirus to you. Even if you think the whole thing is a hoax (which it’s not) or overdone, you have to live with the daily frustrations from the restrictions you don’t believe should exist. Day in, day out, for more than a year. We will emerge from this time, but we will be changed by it.
Our world will also be changed by this experience, and we have yet to see or understand how. Which of our favorite local businesses will survive, and which will have to close? How will our changed habits from this time carry over and affect businesses post-COVID? How will we interact with people in public places—rushing into social contact again, or holding back from the vestiges of fear instilled in us by our trauma? How will that affect our social structures—our
clubs and organizations?
The other reason I chose this quote is because it is a prayer. We will need God’s help as we go forward, for we cannot do otherwise. As we move into Lent this month, our prayers for serenity, courage, wisdom, and acceptance may perhaps be even more meaningful and necessary.
For example, they talked about how, 50 years ago, people, both socially and politically, by and large agreed to disagree. We may be of different political parties, but we can still coach a Little League team together. Today’s America seems much more divisive. If you don’t agree with me, you’re not American, and I won’t even talk to you! This divisiveness goes beyond politics—or more accurately, politics is expanded to include topics such as medical hygiene and vaccinations, scientific method, and even the concept of truth. There is a sense in which our social contract with each other, our ability to live with each other, is broken.
We have a “social contract” (in a broader sense) in the Christian faith. Jesus taught us the most important thing to do in life is to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. He also taught the “Golden Rule”—do to others what you would have them do to you—and that we are to love our enemies. This is the social contract the church espouses.
As we move out of 2020 and into a new year, I believe that we, as people of God’s Light, have an opportunity to bring that light into the darkness of our social structure. One thing COVID has done is throw all of us out of our regular routines and ways of living in daily life. As we come out of the pandemic with vaccinations this year, how will we choose to move into our new life in community? How can we, as people of the light, share that light with others, so that they can love their neighbor better, or treat others as they wish to be treated? How do we help build a social contract in which we all care about, and for, each other?
I hear people talk about how eager they are to “get back” to their life as it was before the pandemic. But do we really want to “get back” to a divisive society? Do we even want to “get back” to the apparent glory days of the panel, 50 years ago, with the racism, sexism, pollution, lead paint, and all the rest we’ve been trying to change, and have changed, since? Or do we want to move toward hope, into God’s light? It is the calling we each have from God. Perhaps we can bring others along, as we live into that calling.
This is the beginning of learning about right from wrong. Kids are very concrete. “Good” and “bad” refer to things they do. They don’t yet understand the abstract moral character of those terms.
As we grow up, we learn to appreciate ideas and concepts. We understand what it means to have principles. We can debate the advantages and disadvantages of economic systems, or different forms of government. We can even learn to see the world from other people’s perspectives—people from other cultures or nations.
Yet our common perception of God is often expressed in those older, more concrete terms. Is there anyone who hasn’t seen a cartoon of St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, often on a cloud, with a book stand in front of him. On that stand is the book with our name written in it, and check marks in the “Good” and “Bad” columns. We hope there are more marks in the “Good.”
It is a human way of thinking about God—”making a list and checking it twice; gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.” Jesus was born into a culture built around that idea. A culture focused on the rules of the Torah, the Law. A culture that believed that if you were able to observe the hundreds of rules in the first 5 books of the Bible, even if for only a second, you would be in a right relationship with God.—a task that was impossible to do.
God’s gift to all people each Christmas, as we celebrate the birth of Jesus, is the reminder of what Jesus taught us. The quote at the bottom of this page is that theme. In his stories, parables, teachings and actions, Jesus calls each of us to see reality differently. Like Mary and Joseph, like Simeon and Anna, like the shepherds and the magi, like the disciples and followers, like the people he healed, fed, and taught, we must allow ourselves to open to the reality he proclaimed, the reality of a living relationship with God in our lives.
When we are able to glimpse that reality, then we see the people of the world, indeed, the world and cosmos itself, differently. Because of that difference in perception, we will act differently, because our actions always reflect the way we perceive the world around us. As Paul noted in several of his letters, we behave better when we open our-selves to God’s reality because we have opened ourselves to God’s reality, and not because we want to earn our way into heaven.
Santa Claus may be coming to town this month, but God seeks entry into our hearts for eternity.
November is a month I enjoy very much. Fall is definitely here, with colored leaves in the trees and on the ground, and a definite chill and the smell of wood smoke is in the air. Halloween has just led us into this month, and I look forward to one of my favorite holidays—Thanksgiving. I think I like it so much because of all the memories of family gatherings, and the wonderful food there is to eat.
But this year things feel different. We come to this time with 8 months of fear and more or less seclusion from each other because of a virus, and 6 months of increased racial tension, in our world. We begin this month with an election that has seemed to highlight the divisiveness and disunity in our country. We will move through this month with record numbers of people in our country unemployed, hungry, and losing their homes. Many students can’t go to school in person, while many others have some form of hybrid learning. It was recommended that we not hand out candy for Halloween, and, with cases of the virus surging again, it will probably be safer not to travel and gather with family. It feels like a difficult time to be thankful.
In difficult times, it is important for us as Christians to remember to hold all things lightly, except our faith. Paul wrote in one of his earliest letters to remind his congregation in Thessalonica to:
“Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.” (I Thessalonians 5:13b-22, NRSV; emphasis mine)
If we can hold lightly the things of our world, the events of our lives, so that we do not “quench” God’s Spirit in our spirits, God will give us the energy, and the grace, we need to be patient with others, to forgive those whom we perceive to have done us wrong, to admit the harm and pain and wrong we have done to others, however unintentionally, to see the goodness in those with whom we disagree, to resist allowing evil to live within us, and to empower us to do the good we can for ourselves and for others. In focusing on our relationship with God, we can rejoice, we can pray, we can give thanks.
Our lives, our experiences, have been, and continue to be, different than what we’re used to experiencing. But we must rely on our faith in God, so that we may continue to grow, and that God may continue to lead us into our future.
Abbie, a young woman of about 20 years, was recently driving her car from her mom’s home in Boise to visit her dad in Bremerton. Just outside Prosser her car started having some problems and making some noises that made her feel it was not safe to drive. She pulled over, and contacted family on her phone. An aunt told her to contact the sheriff, and they would give her a ride to the nearest town. And so it was that Abbie ended up at the interstate rest area in Prosser.
She didn’t have much money, had no credit cards, and her phone battery was getting low. She asked people she met what she should do, and someone told her she could get a Ben Franklin bus back to the TriCities and get a Greyhound bus back to Boise. On the city bus, Abbie met Glenn Baker, from Prosser. Glenn knows many things, including, apparently, that the daily bus to Boise had already left Pasco, that she didn’t have enough money for a ticket anyway, and she would be stranded overnight in the TriCities. He convinced her to come back to Prosser, and then, using a borrowed cell phone, he called me, arranging for me to meet them when they got back to Prosser.
I met them at the bus top, and listened to Abbie’s story. I knew right away she qualified for the assistance program Jubilee Ministry has. I took her to the police station and she got vouchers for food and a for a night at a local motel. I took her to the store and to her car, still on the highway, so she could get her things. Then I left her at her motel.
When we were at her car, I borrowed the key and tried starting it. It started, but ran rough. After getting her to the motel, I offered to try getting her car off the highway. Darrel Fortune and I went out to it, got it started, and drove it to her motel, giving her key back to her. The next day someone I was talking with about Abbie’s adventures offered to pay for her bus ticket home, and give her a ride to Pasco.
When she left Prosser that day, she told me how amazed she was about Prosser. People were so friendly and helpful
to her. The town was so nice looking. Even little things, like being able to leave your car unlocked when you went into a store were surprising to her. She said her experience, which could have been very bad, had turned out so well that she wanted to come back just to visit the town again.
She reminded me. That’s where we live. That’s the people who live around us.
I’m a bit disappointed in the political conventions in August. Yeah, I expected to hear some “trash talk” about the other side from each of them. But it seemed to me both went farther than that, saying the election of the other candidate would be the end of the world as we know it. That theme sounded a little hollow to me, because it’s like we’ve already been living an end of the world as we knew it. We can’t go to movies with friends or family. We can’t go out to dinner in a crowded restaurant. We can’t hang out with friends, sharing our favorite adult beverages at a Brew-pub. We can’t walk around town without taking a mask with us in case we come close to someone else. We can’t shake hands or hug. We have to be isolated, distant, safe, even when we are together. That is an end to life as we knew it.
The people who have just gone through the hurricane in Louisiana and Texas have seen the end of their world as they knew it. Many have lost everything they didn’t have with them. The destructive force of the wind and flooding have taken their world from them.
There are plenty of other examples in our world of the end of life as people have known it. It can be depressing if we think about them too much. But that ending does not have to include the end of hope. People can, and do, recover from hurricanes, pandemics, recessions, deep divisions, despair. If I know people, there will be thousands of volunteers to help those left in the wake of Hurricane Laura. People send aid to countries that have faced disasters. People work until they’re beyond being tired to save lives in hospitals. People put together soup kits to help those in need in their own communities. People sew masks for those who don’t have them. People grow gardens and give the food away. Hope and help are all around us.
In life, we learn that the end of the life we have known is the beginning of a new way of living. Jesus even said that we have to be born anew in order to live the life to which we are called by God. The hope and help, within and without, carry us into the new life of each day as we learn again what life truly is. Life is not what the politicians or the media try to tell us it is. It is what we see, touch, hear, experience each day. “New every morning is your love, great God of light, and all day long you are working for good in the world” (UM Hymnal, p.877). God is continually at work to bring good into our lives, and to help us bring good into the lives of others.
So let’s go ahead. Move on. Step into God’s new love, God’s new life, for us each day. Let’s continue to stand with each other and help others as we experience the events of our lives. For it is God’s life, God’s love, God’s grace that is our constant. That life, that world, will never end.
Self-denial, in Christian tradition, is not meant to be a testing of our endurance, although it certainly can also be that. Self-denial is meant to be a practice that helps us grow in our relationship with God. The giving up of something, or not doing something, we normally have or do creates a tension within us. Our routine is broken! We can’t stop thinking about chocolate at snack time! In the midst of this self-induced stress, God works with us, and we with God, to grow into the tension. We learn we can depend on God to be with us in times of uncertainty and stress, large and small. We learn we are capable of growth at any age. We learn that routine and chocolate may not be the most important things in life (note I said “may”).
We are certainly in a time of uncertainty and stress. We cannot gather together at church for worship and fellowship. We cannot leave our home without a face mask. We can-not shake hands or hug friends, or even family who don’t live in our house. We have seen the results around our country and in our counties when we don’t abide by these rules. We don’t know when this will end, other than when we get a vaccine. We feel a jumble of emotions—anger, loneliness, sadness, guilt, restlessness, uncertainty, fear, hopelessness, and more—in what I’ve been recently calling our “COVID time,” these months in which we live a more restricted life.
In the midst of our inner unsettledness, there is an invitation. We can choose to see this COVID time as an extend-ed season of Lent. We are living in the liminal time between what was, before COVID, and what will be, after COVID. God invites us to use this inner unsettledness and this restricted COVID time, to grow personally, and in our faith, in our relationship with God, just as Christians have down through the centuries.
This month, and the first Sunday in September, I will return to the Lenten scriptures we skipped over after our worship services stopped in March. My homilies will focus on ideas in the Gospel readings that help us grow our relationship with God—to “Stay in Love With God.” I will also speak to how the unsettledness within us during this COVID time can help us in this process. However, we won’t, yet, pursue the Lenten narratives into Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. That will come for us, one day. There will be an end to the vigil we are keeping. There will be Easter.
From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, our bishop has framed the Northwest United Methodist response upon the structure of something called the “Three Simple Rules.” They are:
“Do No Harm”
“Attend Upon All The Ordinances Of God” (or, as Bishop Rueben P. Job rephrases it, in his book Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living, “Stay in Love With God”)
You will notice these are the titles of three of my homilies this month. So what are these “rules,” where do they come from, and why would our bishop use them in responding to a pandemic?
These rules are actually the “General Rules of our United Societies,” which can be found in the 2016 edition of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church on pages 77—80. The societies, and their subdivisions, called class meetings, were begun by John Wesley when, in the midst of his reforming work in Britain, he found people coming to him looking for some means of support in their new life of faith after hearing his words. He gave them a structure of small groups to build each other up in their faith each week, and these rules to guide them in what they did in their daily lives.
Bishop Job notes in the Introduction to his book that Wesley recognized the need for this kind of guidance was not new in his time, nor is it outdated in ours. “Most of us yearn to live . . . a good and faithful life in Christ. We do want to be faithful to the highest we know. We do want to practice our faith in ways that are healing and life-giving, not destructive and life-denying.” John Wesley, he writes, “knew that everyone needs help to live a holy and good life in a world like ours.”
The three simple rules are a tool the bishop, as a Christian, and especially as a United Methodist, used to respond to the pandemic. It is a tool we can use to respond as well, to COVID-19, to racism, to economic worries, to partisan divide, to every aspect of our life in this world. It is a way to live out the commandment Jesus said was the greatest— to love God with all our heart, mind, strength, and spirit, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
As we go through each one of these rules in the coming weeks, I hope you will find ways they can help strengthen and grow your faith in some aspect of your lives. Every one of us can use help in living a good and faithful life in the world we have today.
Do No Harm.
Stay in Love With God.
Last week Bishop Stanovsky and the leadership of the Greater Northwest Area of The United Methodist Church sent out a document called “Reimagining Life Together” to the UM churches
of Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. This document provides guidelines to local churches as they develop plans for re-opening for in-person worship.
Don’t get excited yet. We’re not having worship service in the sanctuary next Sunday. But it is time for our church to start talking about how and when we are going to have worship services in person again.
Our Church Council has received copies of this document (if you would like a copy of it you can call the church office, or find it on-line at greaternw.org), and has begun the process =of developing our re-opening plan by creating a committee (we are Methodist, after all). The committee will work
through the 26 page document and put together a plan for what we need to do now, and in the future, to prepare to move through the phases toward re-opening. Much like the Washington State plan, the church will be going through 4 phases of re-opening. We are currently in Phase 1, which is what we’ve been doing since March—the church building is closed for use, church staff can access it only to collect mail, pay bills, take care of the building, etc. Phase 2 allows up to 10 people to gather at church, but with strict distancing, sanitizing, and facemasks, and not for worship. Phase 3 allows up to 50 people to be at church, still with distancing, sanitizing, and facemasks. Worship, weddings, and funerals may occur. Phase 4 has no group size limit, still requires sanitizing spaces after use, but does not require facemasks or distancing.
Our plan will need to show how we will prepare for each phase, and what we will do in each phase. We will need to work with our district superintendent to get our plan approved. We will move from one phase to the next when the governor & bishop have moved the state into the next phase, and when our district superintendent approves our plan for Prosser UMC to do so as well. There is a lot for us to do to prepare for re-opening, and some difficult decisions to make. For example, while it looks like we could re-open for worship in Phase 3 of the process, the guidelines restrict those who can attend to those not in the “High Risk” categories. This means people over 65, people who live in nursing homes or long-term care facilities, and people with underlying medical
conditions would not be able to attend worship. The question the Church Council will have to deal with is “Should we start up worship again if most of our congregation can’t be there? Another restriction that will be a BIG change for all of us is that we will not be able to sing in any of these phases. No sung hymns, prayer responses, benediction. No choir. The reason for this is that studies show singing projects our breath, and anything in it (coronavirus), up to 26 feet. It is not practical for us to gather for worship and stand 26 feet apart from each other.
We will miss those things we have always done, but at least we will be together and safe. The re-opening committee, and our worship leaders, may find new ways we can celebrate and worship God together.
Ultimately though, it is God’s grace, and God’s love, that sustain us as we move forward in faith.
May seems to be our transition from indoor to outdoor life. “April showers bring May flowers.” We celebrate those flowers on May Day, with dances around the Maypole. We share flowers with our moms on Mother’s Day. We honor those who have died with flowers on Memorial Day. Memorial Day also completes our transition into the season of barbecues, picnics, boating on the river, hot summer days, and vacations.
Or perhaps I should say, this is what May is usually like. This year, May will be a bit different. There won’t be gatherings around Maypoles. Many will not be traveling to see their moms or children. There will probably be fewer at the grave sites, at the barques, out camping in the forests. Life is different for us. Life is different for the non-humans in the world too. There have been reports of deer and elk walking on roads, ducks nesting in parking lots, more birds singing in the trees. The rest of the world is noticing the absence of us humans, and our cars, our noise, even our trash. I’ve never seen the streets of New York City so clean as in the pictures of them these past few weeks. There have been comments about how clean the air is in Los Angeles, Paris, Rome, New Delhi, and Beijing.
Undoubtedly, as we begin to return to our “normal” lives, the cars will get back on the roads, litter will return to the streets, the noise level will increase, and the particulates from our activities will again fill the air. It is the way we live. But wouldn’t it be nice if, right now, while we have this time of quiet, of staying at home, of not being preoccupied with our work, we were instead to take time to listen, and to reflect on what nature is telling us? Could there be a mes-sage for us in the sound of birdsong, the sight of animals on our roads, the smell and sight of clear blue sky?
One thing I hear is a reminder that we are not apart from nature, as we seem to act most of the time, but are rather a part of nature. We push nature back with our houses, yards, fences, parking lots and roads, but when we retreat inside our homes, or abandon neighborhoods, nature grows back in. Our presence is never permanent. Nature always counters our actions (how many times do I have to cut down those mulberry shoots before the roots will die?). Perhaps there’s no greater example right now of our being subject to nature than our forced re-treat into our homes before a natural virus. Had we not done so, how many more would have died, or become gravely ill? Corona virus is a part of nature we cannot yet control with our technology.
Perhaps also the cleaner air we’ve seen could tell us that it is possible to reverse some of the negative effects of our activities on earth. We’re not going to give up driving cars altogether, but we could be inspired by the clean air to develop and use affordable electric vehi-cles, and to build the infrastructure to support their use. There are ways of moving forward in the areas of transportation, food production, ranching, manufacturing, that help us be more efficient and better stewards of the world God has created. We’ve found these ways in the past, and we can continue to find them in the future.
It is May, and it is our season of transition, hopefully in more ways than one. While we do so, we can continue to enjoy the beauty and inspiration of the natural world around us that God called “very good.”
As our times now are far different than any we’ve shared in the past, I want to do something different with my blog this month.
First, I’d like to invite you to get a Bible and sit in a comfortable chair. Then read Psalm 130.
Next, read the following quote from one of our United Methodist bishops, published in 2002:
“As Christians we live by faith in God, and we carry within us the notorious hope that a life of faithfulness is indeed the best way to live. Our hope is that fidelity and faithfulness will result in a holy life and the comforting companionship of Jesus Christ. The rewards of peace and assurance of continued companionship with God in the life to come belong to every faithful Christian.
“We hope for that which we do not see. The reward of holy living today is merely a hope for tomorrow. The rewards of peace and assurance may be ours today, but they are only a hope for tomorrow. The companionship of Jesus Christ is experienced today but is only a hope for tomorrow. The promise that this ordinary life can be invested in the extraordinary reign of God today and tomorrow is the hope that encourages us to do what we can where we are to make God’s will known and real.
“When disease, disaster, death, or triumph strike, we are filled with hope because our ultimate trust is in God. Our worlds and wealth may crumble; disease and disaster may lay hold on what and whom we value; but followers of the Christian way continue to be hopeful. We hold on to hope because we are filled with faith that God is able to consummate the promise made to redeem and transform all who turn their lives toward God.” (Rueben P. Job, A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God, p.155)
Now go back to your Bible and read the story of Jesus and his friends, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, in John 11:1-45.
As you consider these readings, what are the stories of hope you hear or see in these times? Where is God’s promise of hope being fulfilled by those doing what they can “to make God’s will known and real.” Share those stories with the people in your household, or call someone who you know lives alone and talk with him or her about it. Share the hope you see.
The first of this month, the first Sunday of Advent, December 1, we begin our church cycle of seasons again. Yet, as we wait, expectantly, through these four Sundays for Christ’s Mass to arrive, to celebrate the birth of Jesus, our hope will be assailed by the world around us.
We have leaders in our country who seem to feel their most important job is being right, and to label the people in the other political party as wrong. As unhelpful to the concerns of our nation, and the world, as that may seem, at least we don’t have leaders who think it’s ok to use chemical weapons on their own people, or who send those who disagree with them to re-programming camps. Meanwhile, in our country and around the world, we have people using social media to create biased perceptions and opinions. We have racial, religious, and gender discrimination and violence on the rise. We have rising levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, which will lead to global warming and ever more extreme climate changes. We have droughts and famine, where thousands of people die each day, and millions are seeking to migrate to places where they can at least survive. Almost every day, there are senseless acts of terror, of shootings, bombings, IED’s, and genocide.
How do we maintain hope in this season of Advent with all this, and more, going on around us? How do we keep from growing apathetic towards others, immunized to the deep needs and cries for help in our world? How do we avoid creating a bubble around our lives as we go about decorating our homes, shopping for gifts, cooking those holiday treats, and humming carols under our breath?
We do so by remembering that Jesus was born into this same violent world, with self-serving leaders in the government and the church; that he grew up in a poor family, knowing people who were struggling to survive; and that he never gave up hope, or became apathetic, about God’s kingdom, here on earth, and on the final day.
As followers of Christ, we maintain our hope, we grow our hope, we rejoice in our hope, and we act through our hope. This time of year I try to keep change in my pocket or wallet, even though I almost always use my debit card, because those Salvation Army ringers are everywhere. They are part of the holiday season for me. We can each act in ways to help others this time of year. Sign up at Jubilee
Food bank to help make or hand out holiday food boxes (see article on page 1). If you get a new sweater for Christmas, give your old one (in good condition) to the Red Door thrift store. These may seem like small things, compared to the world’s problems, but these small things help us orient our lives to God’s kingdom. Spend some time this Advent, as you wait expectantly to celebrate Jesus’ birth, to reflect on how you can be an agent of God’s kingdom in a world, country, and community that badly needs more of such people.
October brings us into the heart of Fall, with World Communion Sunday at the beginning of the month, and Reformation Sunday/All-Hallow’s Eve at the end of the month. This year we also have our All-Church Conference October 6, beginning with a potluck (appropriately Methodist!) at 6:30 PM. The early morning air is brisk to walk in, and the afternoon sun warms the air, providing beautiful Fall sunsets.
The people of Israel celebrated this time of year, when the final harvests were brought in, and the outdoor work was completed. The Festival of Booths, or Sukkoth, is the time when thanks were given to God for the abundance that had been received from the earth that God created. Certainly, we can give thanks to God at
It is good to be back! It is good to see you all on Sunday mornings again and at evening meetings. It is good to be out and about in the community, and in the office during the week.
Donna Barr has done an excellent job in the office while I was gone, keeping the administration of this church going. Damage from water leaking through a roof, and ice pulling off a gutter, is in the process of being re-paired, with the first insurance check already in our account. People have been settling into the new space downstairs, and figuring out what it needs to complete the look, and the sound, of it. Sunday morning attendance was up for March and April, as was income. As I’ve joked with some of you, perhaps I should stay away more often. I greatly appreciate Rev. Mark Williams filling the pulpit, and providing pastoral care and administrative guidance while I was on leave. I’m glad that you all have had the chance to get to know him, and his wife Lisa. They are friends as well as colleagues, and good people. I knew the church was in good, and very capable, hands during my absence.
Those were not the only capable hands either. Many others stepped up and pitched in as well to meet the needs of our church, newcomers and long-term members alike. While some people (particularly pastors) feel that the pastor is the most important person in the church, the past few months at Prosser UMC show that it is the energized and active lay people in the pews who are most important to the vitality and life of a faith community. This life and vitality have been evident even before these past few months. Over the past 2 years you have raised more than twice your annual budget so that you could pay for most of the remodel work downstairs as well as the programs and operation of the church. And while the conference statistician notes in this year’s pre-Annual Conference Handbook that an average weekly attendance of 100 or more “is generally accepted as the attendance level [necessary] to sustain a full time or-dained pastor,” you all have been doing that for the last 25 years with an average worship attendance of 40. There are no more capable hands than the faithful hands of God’s people. It is good to be back amongst you.
A Word from Pastor
Mark WilliamsIt was a privilege to worship and pray with you these past weeks while Pastor Bo was on leave. You made Lisa and me feel most welcome in the house of worship at Prosser United Methodist Church. Your ability to make us feel at home is one of the great gifts you have to offer as
the people of God. In celebration of our time together, I want to share three words regarding house and home. The first I share is an illuminated prayer which hung in my parent’s home. It read: “God Bless this house and all who go in and out.” That prayer remains engraved in my memory. It has always shaped my life and my understanding of ministry. I almost always pray those words when visit someone in their home. I fervently pray these words in a hospital room when I pray with a patient. I pray these words on a Sunday as I enter the church. And for four weeks as your pastor and preacher I prayed God’s blessing on the Prosser United Methodist Church and all who came and went. It is my hope that you will continue offering up such a prayer. Not because it’s your house, but because it is God’s house. And in God’s house everyone who enters
deserves such a blessing.
Lisa often reminds me to think of the church as God’s house. She quotes a member of a church in Africa who welcomed her with the word, “Please feel most welcome in your Father’s house.” Lisa was deeply moved by that word and the thought that such a welcome applied (or should apply) to every house of worship. I am confident that if every visitor at Prosser is made to feel welcome and at home in the house of worship, then they will be greatly blessed, and you will be blessed to be part of a growing family of faith.
A final word comes from a family whom I once stayed. I was expressing my gratitude for their hospitality when the hostess interrupted me. “ We want to thank you because you have made our house a good home. A house with not vistors is a bad home. By visiting us you have made you house a good home.” Since that conversation with a humble homeowner who provided generous hospitality, I have always sought to invite others to my home and into God’s house. I hope you will always do the same. The church, God’s house, the place that welcomes visitors and gives them a blessing, is truly the church only when we invite others to come in. Only then does our Father’s house become a good home. God has given you a good and blessed church home. I invite you to be generous in sharing it with others. And may God richly bless you to be a blessing.
Grace and Peace,