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Questions around reopening, mission, and my grief

. 7 min read

Sisters and
brothers: Thank you. In this difficult and painful time, as we have responded
to COVID-19 and as both my father and my wife have died from cancer, you have
upheld and carried me in your prayers, encouragement, and personal support.
Many of you have said that you do not know what to say, that you do not have
words. I often find myself wordless. That acknowledgement itself is a gift.
Some of you have apologized for crying with us. At times in this process, we
have run out of tears, so it is a gift for someone else to shed some tears for
us. I know what we really desire is the power to make everything different and
right. It is an expression of our deepest longings for what is good and whole
and holy – our longing for God. And it reminds me that our God chose to save
through weakness, chose to embrace fully our human weakness and to invest it
with glory. As much as I have witnessed it in this season, it remains a
mystery. I am thankful.
I do want to
take time to address three important questions that I hear from you, either
directly or implied, and I list them in the order in which I address them in
this letter:
  • ·      
    What are the
    church’s plans to reopen?
  • ·      
    What opportunity
    is hidden in this pandemic crisis?
  • ·      
    How are you
    doing, JP, with your double griefs?

What are
the church’s plans to reopen?
Frankly, we
haven’t made those plans yet. I am grateful that our governor always included
churches on the “essential business” list. I am grateful that the stay-at-home
order is lifted. I am anxious to be able to greet everyone with a hug, but I
know that I still need to be careful for the most vulnerable among us
(including my mother-in-law).
Your council
(our governing board) and staff have been doing research. We are reading the
guidelines of the CDC and the Pennsylvania Department of Health, reviewing the
recommendations that come from the office of our Bishop, and studying best
practices and the reopening experiences of other churches in other parts of the
country.
In our
discernment process, we are keeping the following values in mind:
  • ·      
    We remember
    Jesus’ commitment to care for the “least of these” and are profoundly concerned
    for those who are most vulnerable to this virus.
  • ·      
    We are committed
    to John Wesley’s first rule: “Do no harm.” Public safety is important. We do
    not want to contribute to the ongoing spread of this pandemic. It is our goal
    that there are no deaths and no new cases caused by our actions or inactions.
  • ·      
    We are called to
    nurture and build our community. Our building has been closed, but the building
    is not the church. The church is the people – you and me, both gathered
    and scattered, mobile and homebound, old and young, poor and rich, male and
    female. We are most certainly “open.” We are doing our work, witnessing to the
    presence of Jesus and the grace of God that saves and heals body and soul.

From the
recommendations, best practices, and reopening experience of other churches,
there are several things that we need to keep in mind as we imagine what
reopening could look like for us. Please note that we have not made any
final decisions on these matters. I am just sharing the kinds of things we are
learning in our study.
  • ·      
    We have already
    removed and cleaned all hymnals, Bibles, and friendship pads to minimize
    sharing potentially contaminated surfaces once we reopen. We have obtained individually
    packaged communion elements. Offering plates cannot be passed. Masks must be
    worn.
  • ·      
    It is recommended
    that we avoid congregational singing and choirs, because singing produces more
    droplets and they spread a greater distance when we sing than when we speak.
  • ·      
    Socially
    distanced worship will greatly limit interaction, require reduced attendance
    particularly for our 10:45 service, and typically means that children’s
    programming such as nursery and Sunday School is not open.
  • ·      
    Reopening plans
    need to include a way to notify everyone who attends a service if someone in
    that service later tests positive for the virus.
  • ·      
    Some churches
    control attendance limits and prepare for notification processes by means of
    requiring worship reservations in advance.
  • ·      
    Given the
    difficult changes involved, some large reopened churches have in-person
    attendance below 15% of the prior attendance averages. Every place is
    different, but the lesson these churches share is that despite the deep desire
    to gather in person, there remains significant concern about doing so.

Whatever we
end up doing, two things are clear:
  • ·      
    In-person worship
    will not be a return to “normal.”
  • ·      
    Online worship,
    and other forms of online community, will grow in significance.

What about
Mountaintop Kids in the COVID-19 crisis?
One of the things that attracted us to this new partner is
that they had obtained a waiver to continue to operate under phase red to serve
essential workers. They prepared many extra measures to protect their staff and
the children and families they serve. So, once the building is ready (and you
should see the makeover it is getting!), they will be opening and following the
recommendations of the CDC and state agencies.
What are our
next steps?
  • ·      
    Develop plans for
    select smaller groups to gather in our space.
  • ·      
    Expand
    interactivity and discipleship in our online space.
  • ·      
    Experiment with
    technology to enable gathering over the phone for those without internet
    access.
  • ·      
    Take advantage of
    the opportunity hidden in this crisis to relocate discipleship and evangelism
    to our homes and other personal spaces.

What
opportunity is hidden in this pandemic crisis?
Most of us
have a small circle of “safe” persons with whom we gather privately. They may
be our extended family, our best friends, our caregivers, or next-door
neighbors. This provides us with an opportunity to “do church” in small
gatherings, no matter the affiliation of the persons involved. Just as this
unique crisis forced us to take some big steps forward into the online world,
accelerating a trend that was already at work in our culture, so this crisis
provides us the opportunity to gather to share Jesus together in settings that
tend to be much more effective for discipleship – our homes, our personal
spaces. The ancient church’s meeting places were primarily in homes around
dinner tables. In Jerusalem, large groups gathered in the temple. In Ephesus,
Paul used a lecture hall. In Philippi, Paul met people at a riverside prayer
meeting. But the essential gathering unit was in homes. While things have
changed over the centuries, that original model has never lost its
effectiveness.
It is my
hope to equip us to be church even though we are mostly scattered, to be church
in our homes and other personal spaces. Perhaps this opportunity calls to you,
and you think about gathering your circle of “safe” persons to explore faith in
Jesus and share in dinner together. If so, please let me know.
How are
you doing as you deal with your double grief?
Jesse and I
watched the Avenger’s Endgame movie together. It’s fun. (Spoilers
ahead!) At the end, Tony Stark, aka Ironman, dies. I don’t care about his
death. I thought he died at the end of the prior movie! But when Pepper Potts
told him, “We’ll be okay,” she echoed the conversations that we had with Robin
over her last days. Robin wanted to hear us say that, with confidence. And she
wanted us to know that she had confidence in us to find our way through our
grief in a way that honors the grace of God in which she lived and died and yet
lives. So, I found myself crying as Pepper Potts assures Tony Stark. And Jesse
apologized for picking a movie that made me cry.
How am I
doing? My standard response is that I think I’m doing well, but I really don’t
have any comparison data. I have never been through anything like this before.
It is painful. I miss Robin dearly. At the same time, I am here to live.
That is what Robin and I have always chosen, even in the most difficult and
painful things we have had to face. A friend of mine, Curvin, who was our
congregational care leader in the last church I served, lost his wife around
the same time as I lost Robin. He can’t do many of the things he used to do,
but he guesses that God has left him here to do stuff and have some fun. While
I am sleeping more, and I struggle at times with focus and memory, I am finding
fun, cherishing memory, and working toward some new rhythms.
What am I
doing? All along, I have maintained my practice of daily Scripture reading and
prayer, though I have gotten a bit behind on my reading schedule. I am
beginning to return to other practices that nourish my soul and structure my
life – exercise, time alone in the woods with Zoe. I am also creating space to
do things that I simply enjoy – gardening, cooking, music, writing,
conversation with friends, time with family. I plan to coach soccer again this
fall. And, I am tending to the legal and financial transitions involved in both
deaths and working through stuff in the house.
I have
posted several pieces to our church website that give you a glimpse into my
grief:
·      
Song of the
Scriptures, sung in honor of Dad
·      
Weep with Me, a sung
lament
·      
I Can Only
Imagine, a dance requested by Robin
·      
Remembering
Robin, which I shared at the graveside
·      
Remembering Dad,
built off of what I shared at his graveside (which we actually had to hold in
another cemetery because of COVID-19)
How am I
doing? To the extent that I am doing “good,” that’s grace. I don’t feel
particularly strong and resilient, and neither I nor Robin ever signed up for
being inspirational. It’s all Jesus. In my gratitude for all that God has
given, even in this painful time, I remember you in particular. There is
no way I could thank you enough or thank you all personally. The prayers, the
cards, the “honor guard,” the meals, the friendships. I am blessed, richly
blessed. Thank you.
  
Stepping out
together with you on new adventures with Jesus,
 
JP Bohanan,
Pastor