Prayers for “New Church”

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This morning, as we have for several weeks now, we had on-line church at Rupert Methodist. It is fascinating how something that really didn’t exist two or three months ago has become such a part of our lives.

Rupert is a tiny little church in Southwestern Vermont. On a good Sunday, we have twenty-five or thirty folks. A lot of weeks we have half that. We love each other and work hard to be the church in the community. Our time together on Sundays is precious. It is not just a time to reconnect with God, but also a time for us to reconnect with each other.

On-Line church is working out. Each week there are new kinks to figure out. I have done video meetings for nearly two decades, so the basics are pretty familiar to me. But trying to orchestrate music in one location, and twenty-some odd folks, and the right mix of everyone on and some on and off has been a challenge. . I figure that by the time we can have sanctuary services again, I’ll be very fluent in Zoom.

Some of it is good. I like the fact that we are all there face to face. There is a certain intimacy in having a view of everyone in their homes as we talk and pray together. In a way, it is like having everyone on the front row (which never happens).

We start our service with a check-in. I go one by one and ask each person how they are holding up, what are their struggles and joys, and their prayer concerns. This is different than how we do it in sanctuary services. I always ask people what’s on their minds and hearts of course, but only a few respond.  And I am the only one who can see what is written on a person’s face when they speak.

By doing it one by one, Hollywood Squares style. Everyone sees everyone. Often there is cross-talk as members share their sympathy, right then and right there. Again, strange as it sounds when we are all huddled in our houses, there is an intimacy to it.

Last week we had twenty-one online. And a couple could not get on. So an average Sunday. Only, it was not, because easily half of those attending are not members of our church. They came from another church I used to pastor, or from friends all over the country. I think we had half a dozen states represented.

And that is a thing we could never do in sanctuary services, reach out so beyond our little towns of Rupert, Pawlet, Manchester, Dorset, and Granville. In the few weeks together, a bond has begun to grow, and these new people feel like our family now, as distant as we are.

There’s a downside, however. As I said, much of our congregation is older, and the technology is hard for them. That is not helped by living in rural Vermont where internet and cell service is often spotty.

So we can’t forget to reach out to those who don’t have the ability to log on each week. I am fortunate, because my congregation is small. I can spend a morning or afternoon (and sometimes both) and reach out and connect with everyone. Not every pastor has that privilege. If I had a larger church, it could be a challenge. But we’d find a way because so much of church, the people, not the building, is about connection.

And that leaves me wondering about what comes after? How do we stay connected with these new people who have joined our church family in the last month or two? We can’t do sanctuary services and on-line services. With a larger church, there might be a way to blend the two, but being as small as we are, the cost of the gear, and the internet (even if we can get internet fast enough to webcast) is beyond what we can do. There’s a challenge for us here.

Before all this, I think most of our folks would have rejected the idea of projection in the sanctuary as a regular part of services. We have a stunningly beautiful 19th Century Neo-Gothic sanctuary and the beauty of this sacred space means a lot to people. It is incredibly worshipful. But we’ve been using Power Point with our on-line services, and it’s been a good thing. People like having the scripture and key points up while I talk. I think it helps them take it in better.

So it is now something we might integrate into regular services. Again, money is an issue., particularly now when there is no money coming in. But there is a way to do it.

I floated the idea of doing an on-line bible study, using the same tools we use for on-line church. That looks like a go. A new opportunity for us. And maybe a way to extend our reach.

I have also been doing on-line office hours. Same tools again. And a few have taken advantage of it.

I don’t want us to get too comfortable with on-line church. I think there is too much opportunity for people to fall between the cracks. It is an uneven world we live in, between poverty, education, and age, there are too many barriers to technology already.

There is no substitute for presence. None. Presence of God in our lives and presence of community. IF we get too comfortable with technology, the physical presence of holy spaces and holy communion with each other can be lost. But we can’t ignore what technology offers us: New paths. New ways. To tell the old, old story of a God who loves us, and a Savior who transforms lives, always for the better.

I don’t often ask for prayers here. As a pastor, most people feel it’s my job to do the praying. But this sea change offers possibilities and perils, hope and danger. I do not think it is an “either/or thing”, but an “and” thing, and that has to be sorted out in the context of a part-time, bi-vocational ministry. I so want to make it work and it’s more than a learning curve. I need wisdom and I ask that you add your prayers to mine that I, and other pastors throughout Vermont and around the world, sort through this, seeking God’s will and direction to spread his love and message in this strange new world of ministry we live in.

Thank you. Be well,

Tom

PS: Anyone interested in our online services or Rupert Methodist can get the details on our site:  www.rupertumc.org

Strong (Easter Reflections)

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I am sitting in my studio writing. There is music playing. This morning it’s Amy Winehouse, her soulful voice reflecting off the walls and filling the space. There is no one else in the building to complain that perhaps I am playing the music a little too loud.

Most mornings when I leave the house to go to the studio, I kiss the woman I love. I have spent a lot of time being grateful for her in this time of quarantine. Among my many blessings is that I not only love her, but I like her and being together all this extra time has been a joy, not a burden. I almost feel guilty that it has been so easy for me.

I kiss her goodbye and generally tell her when I plan to be home. Today, as I left the house, I glanced across the room and into my office. There’s a set of wooden drawers on the wall, and on top of it are some books, a couple of Norman-arched antique clocks from my grandmother and great aunt’s homes. And the word “Strong”.

The word is made out of… well I don’t know what it is made out of. Maybe plastic. It’s modern, with some glossy holographic covering. When you walk past it, it changes color in the light. It’s dramatically different than my office full of old furniture and prints. All it says is “Strong”.

My wife, the woman I love, bought it for me a while back, as I recovered from my cancer treatment and surgery. She bought it because, she said, I had been strong through the whole process, and as a reminder that I was strong.

I don’t feel strong. I didn’t then and I don’t now.

So I need the reminder now and again.

I’ve never been strong in the classic sense. As a kid, a teenager, and in college, I was woefully thin. I wore boys’ clothes until I was 28 years old and finally filled in enough to wear actual men’s clothing.  A friend of mine in college once drew a picture of me sideways, representing my body with a zipper and my hair and beard as the only 3D part of my whole body.

But I was wiry. Deceptive. Once, when I about sixteen and sailing with my parents and a couple of their friends, one of the friends fell off the boat and into the river, which was filled with seasonal jellyfish. I reached down and took his hand and lifted him right back up on the boat. Even accounting for adrenaline, it was improbable. My life was full of improbable, from winning fights I had no reason to win, to running track with my skinny legs.

I felt strong then. In fact, I felt strong until maybe 15 or twenty years ago. That is about when my depression began to creep in. I didn’t even know I had depression then. I had to go pretty far down that rabbit hole before I, with the help of a good pastor and a wonderful therapist, had the obvious pointed out to me.

I’ve muddled through the normal array of things breaking bad in my life.  I’ve been laid off. I have gone through a divorce. I’ve fought that aforementioned black, black, crippling depression. I’ve lost parents and had a bout or few of dangerously bad health. And now this time of coronavirus.

Ah, the virus. It sits at the forefront of all of our minds these days. I may or may not have had it. It was early on in the time of quarantine. I had the symptoms: trouble breathing, fever, diarrhea. But it was early. There were no tests available, and too, I have a history of lung issues. It could have been that. I told myself, knowing better.

And if I didn’t have it, I sure didn’t want to go to the doctors in that condition.  So I muddled through, stayed home, got better. I did a telemedicine session or two.  If I did have it, it was mild. If not, I was sick enough they wanted me home. I have a bunch of the things that make the virus worse, they reminded me. I am 64. I have diabetes. I have a raft of lung issues. I just had surgery, weakening me further.

As if I needed to be weaker.

People who know me would tell you I am strong. I don’t ever feel like that is the case. What I am is stoic. I raised by my mother to “never let ’em see you sweat.” I have learned over time that things work out, so just because things are awful now, does not mean they will always be awful. Life runs in cycles.

My depression, when it is not the black hole it was once, actually helps. I don’t feel the same as people who are not depressed. It’s like a damper on my emotions. I don’t get the emotional highs I once did. But too, because  my baseline is pretty low, I never get the terrible lows I once did. My medication and my head work have done their job.

I have a lifelong faith as well. Mine is Christian, but from what I know of other faiths, they too offer hope in different ways. Having lived in faith most all of my life, even in my darkest times, has helped me see how we come through the black places. How there is always a “better” just beyond our sight. God, it appears to me, is as faithful as he promises to be even if he has a maddening habit of ignoring our timelines in the process.

Here’s what I have learned: I don’t have to be strong. God will do that for me, when I allow him to.  When things seem out of control to me, he is out there somewhere, slowly bringing the pieces together. If I have the patience to wait in my weakness, he will get me through. I rarely have a clue how he pulls this off, but he does.

And weak as I am, he has had to do it for me alone, a bunch of times. He likely has a whole brigade of angels dedicated to me and my mishaps. I am grateful for each and every one of them. Assuming I make I to heaven, I will likely spend eternity tracking them all down and thanking them.

I think about this a lot at Easter. How it all must have seemed to have gone wrong. How the promise of Palm Sunday had turned into betrayal and punishment and death and fear. How the disciples were huddled, afraid of what might happen to them. Jesus had been their strength, and now, he was gone. They likely had never felt weaker, huddled in the upper room.

Not unlike us.

Afraid. Uncertain. Not sure what was happening, or what would happen to them, or how long they would be there, or what might come after.

I am not feeling strong in this time. I will tell you that. I have had friends tell me of their crying, unable to get out, to share love and life with their family and friends, unable to even go to church, where they have always felt a sense of sanctuary.  Many of us have lost our jobs. Others are working in unfamiliar ways. We all feel useless and trapped and anything but strong.

But on that first Easter, the disciples would find something out. That even when we are not strong, God is. Jesus is. Strong even to the point of defying death.

They would find out, and they would rejoice. And in time, because of Jesus’ resurrection, they too would become strong, allowing themselves to be filled with his spirit and turning the tragedy of his death become triumph. a triumph that would allow them to become something they had not been before,

Strong,

So this Easter, rejoice in the resurrection. Do not worry if you are frightened or feel weak and uncertain. That’s OK, That’s….. human. God knows our fear. And he knows our weakness, and he gave his son, the give us strength.

To remind us that even in the darkest moments, light prevails.

Celebrate this today. Carry this in your heads and hearts in the weeks ahead. Our God is with us. Jesus is with us. Easter is the proof, and we can be certain he will give us strength, even when we feel we have none.

This, I believe.

Tom

A Psalm of Trust.

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Often when we think of Psalm 23, we think of funerals, because so often it is read at funerals. But there’s a lot more to it than that. Psalm 23 was written as a Psalm of Trust, reminding us that in times like this, we can still trust God.

Tom