I Miss Church!

Where is the church in these quarantine days? It’s everywhere, and that’s a good thing. We certainly miss being together though. Let me start with where the church staff is. We miss everybody and being together. Zoom meetings are nice, but still not the same. We’re steady at work, maybe more than ever, just in a different way. Everybody needs a pat on the back every now and then, and this crew has earned it, so thanks for all the notes of encouragement. Every two weeks I have been writing reports for our Staff-Parish Committee so that I can affirm what each staff member is doing during quarantine. Each person has gone above and beyond! We don’t know when we will be back together, but we’re certainly doing ministry in the meantime.

You are doing ministry, too! It may not feel like it sometimes, but you are. This church is all about the mission of Christ. You’re doing ministry wherever you are, and your cards, calls, Facebook posts, emails, texts, and continued giving are a witness to it. The church is deployed, not unemployed. During COVID-19 we may not be physically in the church building, but let me tell you that the church, staff and congregation alike, is busy. Satan may think he’s won by closing churches down, but we’re not closed. We’ve just left the building! We’re meeting by Zoom, phone calls, texts, mail, Facebook Live, and last, but not least, by prayer. We’re having church in people’s houses and rooms, and all sorts of places. We’re proving the fact that the church is not a steeple, it’s the people.

This doesn’t mean that 104 Newberry Street isn’t important, or that we don’t miss it. While we’re doing church offsite we also want our facilities to be in their best shape when we get back. We’ve discovered that this is a great time to catch up on some repairs. It is also a great time for us to disinfect the whole building. We want to make sure that St. John’s is the safest place in Aiken when we’re able to come back together.

 There’s already been one complete top-to-bottom disinfecting done to our huge facility. We will do it again before we return. Yesterday our Trustees voted to purchase 3 motorized disinfecting atomizers and 100 gallons of a liquid virucide that can be sprayed on every surface, and kill coronavirus and every other germ in five minutes. These machines can do 5,000 square feet in 15 minutes, and our buildings are about 25,000 square feet.

The reason why we’re doing this is quite apparent. The church building itself is a physical, emotional, and spiritual sanctuary for all of us. For instance, we call the most used worship space a sanctuary – a sacred safe place! There are towns that have bird and squirrel sanctuaries. Well, the church is our people sanctuary. Maybe you’ve noticed the ceiling in the sanctuary, and how it is shaped like the interior hull of a ship. It’s meant to look like that. For centuries, churches ceilings have been reminders that the sanctuary is like Noah’s ark that saves us from life’s floods by floating us to safety.

Every part of the church, from the Faith Center’s Cross and Fronds sculpture to the outdoor signs, carries spiritual meaning and encouragement. As a side note, I’ve seen some hilarious, helpful, and pointed church signs during the pandemic: “Give us clean hands, O Lord, and a Purell heart,” “Services cancelled. God is now making House Calls,” “Jesus rode an Ass into Jerusalem. Keep yours at home!” and “6 Feet Apart is better than 6 Feet Under.” Well, sorry if these may have been a bit over the top, but, while most of our bodies are at home, we want our signs, ceilings, and symbols to communicate that Jesus is Lord, and that He will defeat COVID-19.

Church members and staff are deployed beyond the walls, with most of us working from home. As we think about getting back to worshiping together, we all need to get prepared: What can we do to disinfect our lives, and clean up our individual temples of the Holy Spirit? The church has left the building, and that is always a good thing, but what kind of shape will the church building be in when we come back? How about us? I think we’re finding out that the church is the people and the steeple. It’s both/and nor either/or. Thanks for who you are, St. John’s [insert your church’s name]!

 

King Jesus versus the Pandemic

The pessimist may be right in the long run, but the optimist has a better time during the trip! Who will do better in the COVID-19 pandemic: the person who sees the glass half-full, or half-empty? Think about our faith and Christian optimism. Isn’t the empty tomb the basis of our faith? The disciples weren’t behind just closed doors. They were locked! Being locked up is the story of our cooped up lives lately. The disciples were scared, and so are we. Where’s our optimism?

It’s in Jesus! Easter forever reminds us that Jesus was, is and will be triumphant. Certainly Jesus had moments of pessimism when dealing with the religious leaders, and even his disciples, but he never wavered in his trust of God. Even when he began his recitation of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he knew the rest of the psalm, and how it ends in victorious optimism. Please take the time to read the whole thing, and see the dramatic swing from a woeful attitude to the crescendo of faith. It ends with an exclamatory, “He has done it!”

Put that phrase into the context of Jesus on the Cross when he said, “It is finished,” and it makes what sounds like a sad surrender become a spike-the-football moment. “He has done it!” Wow! No matter what our trials, He has done it! He has done it before, and he can do it again! God’s got this! Do we believe it?

One can hear the echoes of optimism through the lives of the faithful over the centuries. Just focus on St. Paul and his life, and that’s inspiring enough. In prison in Acts 16:23-34, Paul and Silas were beaten with rods, severely flogged, stripped naked, thrown into prison, their feet locked into stocks, but at midnight, instead of crying, they started praising God while singing hymns. This is the same Paul who said in Romans 8:37-39 that we are more than conquerors through Jesus. So much so that, “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor ANYTHING in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Amen. Take that COVID-19!

It’s a rough world, to be sure, but Jesus is Lord of Lords and King of Kings. Oh, how we have an opportunity during these quarantine days to sing hymns at midnight, to be people of joy, to be overcomers that are more than conquerors! What good does it do your spirit to be a whiner? Nothing. We all know it’s tough, some more than others. There are things that can keep us awake with worry every night, but remember the words of Isaiah 26:3, “He will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are stayed on Him.”

What are our minds focused on? Three people were visiting the Grand Canyon: an artist, a pastor, and a cowboy. As they stood on the edge of the huge gash in the landscape, each one responded with surprise. The artist said, “Ah, what a beautiful scene to paint!” The minister cried out, “What a wonderful example of the handiwork of God!” The cowboy said, “What a terrible place to lose a cow!”

Can’t we look on the bright side and choose joy instead of woe and worry? Joy isn’t the absence of suffering, it is the presence of God. As someone said, “An optimist may see a light where there is none, but why must the pessimist always run to blow it out?” As people of faith, we know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it is not an oncoming train. It is the light of the glory of God seen in the face of Christ. The devil isn’t going to have the last word, and neither is this pandemic. God has got this! He has done it! God has got this! Jesus is King! He has done it! Jesus Christ is King!

The Wisdom in Waiting During Quarantine

A man had just had his annual physical and was waiting for the doctor’s initial report. After a few minutes the doctor came in and said these fateful words: “There’s no reason why you can’t live a completely normal life as long as you don’t try to enjoy it.” Man, that is exactly how I feel today in quarantine. God bless those individuals who have already been experiencing social distancing because of treatment regimens or due to physical and other limitations. I have not had enough sympathy, and I’m sorry. This quarantine thing is harder work than I thought.

The first few weeks were filled with catch-up items from lists of things that have been lingering around for quite some time. Now they’re caught up, and as a “Do-it-right-now” kind of person, I’m about to go bonkers or slip into a Dr. Seuss-like Oh, The Places You Will Go “Waiting Place.” To be sure, there’s still work and ministry taking place, more than ever, but done so differently that it’s almost like running in place. I’m talking with parishioners every day; just got off two back-to-back Zoom meetings; have done research, written sermons, planned programs, talked budgets, and prayed and prayed ad infinitum, but it’s weird, isn’t it? Time seems out of joint.

Many of us have spent time in the hospital and know that there are some common experiences that everybody shares. One that comes to mind in these days of quarantine is losing track of time. If you’re in the hospital even for a short stay, pretty soon your days and nights are all mixed up. You wonder what day it is. Normal routines are out the window.

That’s what’s on my mind today. Is it Monday or Tuesday, whatever, and forget about what date it is. Is this what retirement will be like? That sounds pretty good at first glance, but here I am whatever the number of weeks we’re into this isolation, and sometimes I don’t know what to do with myself. One thing I know is that I need to wear a mask, not to help me avoid the virus, but to keep me from eating more than I should. I do read and pray, and have already Netflixed through every episode of some shows I had never heard of before.

In reading the Bible, the pastoral epistles of I and II Timothy, and Titus were great, but I felt quite un-pastoral without a tangible, huggable, handshaking flock to enjoy. Then came I & II Thessalonians, the Gospel of Mark, but things took a sharp turn down a dark alley this morning when I felt led to read Ecclesiastes. I should have never done that! Talk about depressing? It’s called “wisdom literature,” and it very much is, but Ecclesiastes calls into question much of what I/we valued before COVID-19, and it seems the most often repeated word in it is “meaningless.” It’s a downer, except that it’s true. Just like these quarantined days, it makes me question my values, purpose, and destiny.

Before you promise NOT to read it, let me implore you to do it. It strips away pretense and gets to the heart of what’s important in our lives. I won’t tell you how it ends except to say that it ends well. It is the most accurate assessment that I have encountered about my life in a long time. It may speak to you in a different way, but that is the wonder and power of the Bible. Even if we reread a passage, The Holy Spirit can bring forth new wisdom at just the right time.

The Byrds’ song “Turn, Turn, Turn,” that is straight from Ecclesiastes 3, says that there are seasons, juxtaposed and seemingly opposite, but to be embraced because when these vastly different things are combined we encounter real life – not some sham, not seen through rose-colored glasses, but REAL life. Maybe that’s what I’m feeling today – the depth and richness, not of busyness, but of the interplay of my inner thoughts, even God’s Spirit dwelling within, closer than my closest breath.

Nathaniel Hawthorne has been called “a dark romantic.” This is what he said about these kind of days when we ponder the meaning of life: “Happiness is a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” May this week take you to a new place of self-reflection and discovery, even happiness? God bless and protect you and us all. Amen.

Patient Endurance in the Pandemic

It has often seemed puzzling that people in the hospital are called, “patients,” when it’s so difficult to have any. Patience is hard to come by, but one thing that COVID-19 has taught us is sometimes we have to wait. The whole world has turned into a hospital of sorts, and we’re getting impatient! Many people’s patience is running thin: Presidents, governors, politicians and all kinds of people are going stir crazy to get “normal” life going again. Our quarantine situation reminds me of Revelation 14:12 when the early Christians were being persecuted. They were encouraged by these words, “This calls for patient endurance on the part of God’s saints…”

Patient endurance, determination, and hope are so needed right now! Many of us feel somewhat helpless and powerless in the changing landscape of our lives. Tornadoes and storms have added more on top of what most can bear. Our spirits are downcast, and it feels like Easter didn’t last near long enough. But, if Easter means anything, it means that Jesus’ resurrection gives us victory, not just over death, but also over the coronavirus, and everything else. Easter gives us hope that lasts well beyond Holy Week. It is eternal!

Easter is what gives God’s saints “patient endurance.” Easter hope inspires us to hang in there, to keep praying and not give up. Faith that only flourishes when times are good is fickle and transitory. Just two days ago the echo was heard: “The Lord is risen!” “He is risen indeed!” If it is my profession of faith that Jesus is alive, then I need to get my act together. Easter changes much more than COVID-19 ever will. It’s up to us to act like it!  Patient endurance is more than a hopeful fantasy if Jesus is really king. The hurting world around us and the Lord Christ above us deserve better than half-hearted Hallelujahs that last only a few days.

There’s a good story that captures this sentiment. There was a band of minstrels who traveled from town to town playing music to make a living. Times were hard, like now, and they were getting depressed and dejected because fewer and fewer people showed up to listen. Early one evening when they usually set up to start playing, their situation spilled over into their conversation. All but the oldest suggested that they not perform. “What difference would it make?” one asked. Another said, “Last night we performed for only a handful. Fewer will come tonight.” Yet another said, “How can anyone do his best for so few?” The youngest threw in the towel saying, “Let’s not even perform tonight. It won’t matter if we cancel the concert.”

The oldest minstrel wisely said, “I know we are all discouraged, but we have a responsibility to those who might come. It’s not their fault that others don’t show up. We will go on, and we will do the very best that we can do.” Encouraged by the words of their eldest member, they went ahead with the show. They never performed better!

When the show was over and the small crowd was gone, the oldest called his troupe to him. In his hand was a note that had been handed to him by one of the people who had been in the audience. The old man read it to himself, and then exclaimed, “Listen to this, my friends!” Something electrifying in his tone of voice made them all turn to him in anticipation. Slowly the old man read: “Thank you for a beautiful performance.” It was signed very simply – “Your King.”

God our King is watching our performance in these strange days. Our “patient endurance” will be rewarded with, “Well done, good and faithful servants.” It is not the time to give in or give up. It is time for us to be at our very best, and honor King Jesus in all things. We have an audience of friends and neighbors who desperately need us to be the Church. Mainly we have an audience of One!

The Virus Didn’t Steal Easter

How the Virus Stole Easter

By Kristi Bothur, With a nod to Dr. Seuss

Twas late in ‘19 when the virus began

Bringing chaos and fear to all people, each land.

People were sick, hospitals full,

Doctors overwhelmed, no one in school.

As winter gave way to the promise of spring,

The virus raged on, touching peasant and king.

People hid in their homes from the enemy unseen.

They YouTubed and Zoomed, social-distanced, and cleaned.

April approached and churches were closed.

“There won’t be an Easter,” the world supposed.

“There won’t be church services, and egg hunts are out.

No reason for new dresses when we can’t go about.”

Holy Week started, as bleak as the rest.

The world was focused on masks and on tests.

“Easter can’t happen this year,” it proclaimed.

“Online and at home, it just won’t be the same.”

Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the days came and went.

The virus pressed on; it just would not relent.

The world woke Sunday and nothing had changed.

The virus still menaced, the people, estranged.

“Pooh pooh to the saints,” the world was grumbling.

“They’re finding out now that no Easter is coming.

“They’re just waking up! We know just what they’ll do!

Their mouths will hang open a minute or two,

And then all the saints will all cry boo-hoo.

“That noise,” said the world, “will be something to hear.”

So it paused and the world put a hand to its ear.

And it did hear a sound coming through all the skies.

It started down low, then it started to rise.

But the sound wasn’t depressed.

Why, this sound was triumphant!

It couldn’t be so!

But it grew with abundance!

The world stared around, popping its eyes.

Then it shook! What it saw was a shocking surprise!

Every saint in every nation, the tall and the small,

Was celebrating Jesus in spite of it all!

It hadn’t stopped Easter from coming! It came!

Somehow or other, it came just the same!

And the world with its life quite stuck in quarantine

Stood puzzling and puzzling.

“Just how can it be?”

“It came without bonnets, it came without bunnies,

It came without egg hunts, cantatas, or money.”

Then the world thought of something it hadn’t before.

“Maybe Easter,” it thought, “doesn’t come from a store.

Maybe Easter, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

And what happened then?

Well….the story’s not done.

What will YOU do?

Will you share with that one

Or two or more people needing hope in this night?

Will you share the source of your life in this fight?

The churches are empty – but so is the tomb,

And Jesus is victor over death, doom, and gloom.

So this year at Easter, let this be our prayer,

As the virus still rages all around, everywhere.

May the world see hope when it looks at God’s people.

May the world see the church is not a building or steeple.

May the world find Faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection,

May the world find Joy in a time of dejection.

May 2020 be known as the year of survival,

But not only that –

Let it start a revival.

Holy Week Isolation

A theme for Holy Week 2020 for me is isolation. We’re all doing our best to keep others safe by isolating from one another. It protects us, too, and we sincerely pray that it stops or at least slows down the COVID-19 spread. That first Holy Week created an overwhelming sense of isolation for Jesus. It shows up throughout the week. It is showing up across the world right now, too.

Isolation is something that weighs heavily on all of us today. Some of you have already known it because of treatments or immune-deficiency conditions. COVID-19 has made it real for everyone. Residents of care facilities cannot see their families, funerals are graveside only, hospitals have necessarily strict visitation limitations for every patient, and churches have gone virtual at a time when we really need a hug. God made us in God’s own image, and a huge part of that is being social. If God exists in the community that we call the Trinity, how much more do we want and need to be with each another.

“Non-essential” small business owners are especially feeling isolated. God bless each category of person or business in this period of isolation. God bless all our healthcare workers, first responders, SRS employees, grocery store and pharmacy workers, and all the others that have to come home every day in fear of contaminating their loved ones. Then there’s another kind of isolation felt by the teachers that are  at home, but are still producing lesson plans for their students. Another isolation is the “cabin fever” that separates children from their friends, neighbors, and classmates. Plus, there are the students that will not have a prom or a graduation ceremony this year. God bless every person who is feeling isolated and alone.

This is exactly why Holy Week 2020 will be especially poignant and helpful. If we wrap our minds around the fact that God in Christ knows our difficulties and pain, it lets us know we’re never truly alone. Jesus literally knows what each one of us is going through and desires to redeem it (Romans 8:28-39). That is the promise of Holy Week every year. We have a God that has skin; mysteriously truly divine and utterly human – One who is able to empathize with our every weakness (Hebrews 4:14-16).

It wasn’t long after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday that he experienced a distancing between himself, the authorities and even his friends. Judas, the group’s treasurer, betrayed him with a kiss. Peter who was usually brash and brave cowered in fear in the courtyard of the High Priest’s home, and denied ever knowing Jesus three times. When the temple soldiers came to arrest Jesus, all of his disciples fled. Jesus was totally isolated.

One can really “feel” his isolation when it came to his late-night prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane. He ventured into the darkness with only three of his disciples with him. He asked Peter, James, and John to offer their nearby prayer support while he went further into the darkness and prayed alone. The Scripture says that he agonized so much in his praying that it was like he perspired “great drops of blood” (Luke 22:44). He went back to his three closest disciples over and over again and each time found them sleeping.

His horrible isolation on the Cross is so evident. In one of his last statements, Jesus said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This was isolation within himself, being both fully God and fully human. Some of us have felt that kind of turning on oneself when we cannot see past our own hands. Good Friday was only good for us, not at all for Jesus. One can feel his emotional, spiritual and physical heaviness as his body sagged on the Cross.

Holy Week 2020 is a unique time for us to see what Jesus went through with a fresh albeit difficult perspective. It may be the closest we have been to it ourselves in our lifetimes. May our sense of isolation help us grasp the depth of sympathy God has for each of us, and also take hold of hope because it may be Friday, but Sunday is coming. We are not quite yet to Easter yet in our fight against COVID-19, but it will not be long. Until then, we travel our own via dolorosa (Way of Suffering), but, like Christ, we will win. There is a resurrection!