The Worship Safely Committee (Return to in person worship committee) met on Sunday, July 31, for a discussion about our in-person practices. The meeting was prompted by the ever-increasing number of COVID cases in our community and the upcoming return of Morehead State University and Rowan County students to the classroom. As we have seen this past month with both our pastor and our music director going through COVID, the virus is not negligible and causes a serious lack of productivity through sickness and the need to quarantine even when it is not severe enough for a hospital stay.
The cognitive dissonance many of us are experiencing due to COVID fatigue is understandable. The current CDC recommendations are: "If you are in an area with a high COVID-19 Community Level and are ages 2 or older, wear a well-fitting mask indoors in public." We know this is right and true, but most of us are not currently masking when we go out of our house. We're tired of it. Again, understandably so.
However, if we, as a congregation, are going to follow the CDC guidelines, which we committed to doing last year when this committee was formed. And, if we are going to try our darndest to love our neighbors as ourselves and protect them to the best of our ability, then we need to follow these guidelines. Even if it means that we're the only place in Morehead that is doing so. Even if it means we're irritated by it. Even if it means that we're a little uncomfortable in a hot mask in the dog days of summer.
The committee is asking that you please wear a mask at church when we are there as a group on Sundays for worship starting on August 7 and continuing as long as Rowan County is in the red and cases are trending upwards.
Thank you for your patience and your understanding as we continue to navigate this annoying, dangerous, and stubborn virus.
Genny Jenkins, chairperson
Nancy Gowler, minister
Once upon a time, it seems, we knew how to be ill. Now we have lost the art. Everyone, everywhere disapproves of being ill. Being ill is just not useful. The newspapers create a climate of guilt around it because of the time it takes away from useful, productive work….The stories make one feel that when ill you are somehow letting the side down, losing the nation money. Being ill is unpatriotic and terribly inconvenient to the work culture….It makes us feel guilty.
—Tom Hodgkinson, How to Be Idle: A Loafer’s Manifesto
I enjoy convalescence. It is the part that makes the illness worthwhile.
—George Bernard Shaw
It started with a tickle in the back of my throat and a stuffiness in my head. Perhaps summer allergies, I thought. Then the news came from a friend that they had tested positive for COVID, and we had visited with one another outside a few days earlier. My first at-home COVID-19 test was negative. Soon Ben was experiencing symptoms, too. Eventually home tests revealed what we’d already feared, after more than two years of avoiding COVID, vaccinated and with one booster, we were both sick. And unfortunately we were not alone. The newest variant of the virus has proved to be a potent strain, with numbers of infections on the rise in Rowan county and across the entire country.
We chose to isolate until we had negative rapid tests, which took over a week. Luckily we were able to stay home and rest, treating our symptoms with over the counter medication. Even though we were isolating, we were not alone! Groceries were left on my front step. Care packages arrived on my back porch. Messages of support and prayers came from near and far. Genny Jenkins stepped in to help find folks to fill in for me in worship that first Sunday. Bob Pryor kindly agreed to preach and Alana Scott served at the communion table. In the office Barbara Marsh ably fielded extra duties, too. I am so very grateful to everyone who pitched in and for all the many kindnesses shared with us.
Showing kindness to oneself often is a challenge in our society which prizes productivity and looks askance at idleness. Being ill is inconvenient. Just last week the president tested positive for COVID. Immediately videos, tweets, and announcements proclaimed we shouldn’t worry, he was hard at work. Powering through illness is often viewed as a virtue. Now that we’ve lived through 2 1/2 years of a global pandemic, I hope we’ve learned the hard lesson that when we’ve encouraged pushing through sickness often we’ve unwittingly exposed others to risk of disease as well.
In his little book Recovery: The Lost Art of Convalescence, Dr. Gavin Francis shares wisdom he has learned over his years as a doctor treating patients on four continents. The word convalescence emerged in the 15th century, rooted in the Latin, meaning “to grow strong together.” Rather than “pushing through” symptoms, Dr. Francis argues that individuals recovering from prolonged symptoms embrace the concept of “pacing.” A healthy recovery involves developing the skills to recognize what our bodies are telling us, to “begin to slow down and stop an activity before they begin to exhaust their energies.” An April 2022 National Geographic article quotes Alba Miranda Azola, co-director of Johns Hopkins Post-Acute COVID-19 Program, “We have found that patients with post-viral fatigue that push through and enter a crash cycle have overall functional decline.” Indeed, the emerging advice for recovery reflects this reality: Stop, Rest, Pace.
As I’m continuing my own recovery, I’m wondering if there is wisdom in the practice of convalescence for our congregations, too? After all, this pandemic has not only affected individuals but also changed our most beloved institutions. Rather than return to old habits and practices, can we learn the new skills of listening to our common life together? What is Spirit asking of us in this moment? What would it mean for us to “Stop, Rest, Pace”?
I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between church and State.
in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, Connecticut
As we approach July 4 with its celebration of the Declaration of Independence and the birth of our country, it’s fitting for Christians to reflect upon the role of religious liberty in our nation’s history and in our current day. The living out of the ideals of religious liberty has always been complicated and messy, as our country has wrestled with adjudicating among competing interests. Democracy is hard work, after all. Despite protests to the contrary in certain vocal Christian circles, the idea of the separation of church and state does not sideline people of faith. The first amendment offers protection for religious communities from interference from the secular state, regardless of their position of influence in our larger society. The flip side of that protection is equally vital—religious communities are restrained from imposing particular religious views onto society at large. When one particular religious institution aligns itself with government power in order to legislate its particular worldview onto others, our rights to religious liberty are diminished.
One of the rallying mottos long embraced by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” The maxim predates our founding as a denomination, first appearing in Lutheran and German Reformed churches in the 17th century. While not unique to Disciples the motto has been a distinctive of our religious identity, affirming together that “Jesus is the Christ,” and also embracing individual discernment of matters of faith and morality. Disciples recognize that people of faith will have varying views on ethical issues, and we have long struggled to live out that commitment to diversity of belief while maintaining a welcoming faith community and living out our understanding of God’s call to justice.
Among several recent troubling rulings from the Supreme Court is the opinion in Kennedy v. Bremerton, which upends protections for public school students from teacher-led religious practices. A Christian high school football coach regularly offered prayer in the middle of the football field immediately following games and also gave Christianity-laced motivational talks in the locker room. Apprised of his actions the school administration told the coach he could pray privately, but he could not lead students in prayer while he was on the job. They offered accommodations so that the coach might continue his private prayers in a less conspicuous place. Let me be clear: the coach could have prayed on the sidelines, privately in the press box, in his car on the way home, and in any number of other places. Instead, after finding legal backers who were looking for a Supreme Court fight, the coach resumed praying on the field at the 50 yard line. He was subsequently fired.
At issue was not the coach’s freedom to practice his faith through personal prayer at his place of employment, but rather his performance of a religious act in such a way that students, players, or staff might feel pressured into participation. This Supreme Court decision seriously weakens the rights of families to raise their children according to their own religious or secular traditions. As people of faith who hold to the idea of personal liberty with respect to religious practices, this decision by the court should trouble us.
Alexander Campbell would write in his memoirs that the United States was “a country happily exempted from the baneful influence of a civil establishment of any peculiar form of Christianity, and from under the direct influence of an anti-Christian hierarchy." I fear we have entered a time in which such dedication to religious liberty for all no longer holds sway.
Inspired by love and anger, disturbed by need and pain,
informed of God’s own bias, we ask him once again,
“How long must some folk suffer? How long can few folk mind?
How long dare vain self-int’rest turn prayer and pity blind?”
—John L. Bell (listen to the hymn)
These are difficult days to find hope. Our news is filled with stories of war and aggression with millions of refugees fleeing their homelands. We’ve been shocked by mass shootings in which young children are murdered in their classrooms and grandmothers and fathers are gunned down in grocery store aisles. In conversation after conversation I’ve had over the past two weeks, common threads of anger and hopelessness are woven together along with a profound sense of helplessness. We’ve been here before. As the years go by, more of us have tragic stories to tell. I was living in Oregon in 1998 when a 15 year old boy murdered his parents and then went to his high school cafeteria in our community and shot 50 rounds of ammunition, wounding 24 and killing two students. This was one year before the shocking attack at Columbine High School in Colorado.
How do we respond to these days in faithfulness and with hope?
Let us not lose heart. The gift of life is precious, fragile, and holy. Let us tend to the sacred in our world with hope and courage.
As long as we live, there is never enough singing.
One of the gifts of returning to in-person worship has been the return of the choir in our sanctuary. I grew up in a singing congregation, with children, youth, men’s, and chancel choirs. We were a singing bunch! The congregation in Centralia, Illinois, had two morning worship services. The chancel choir sang in the second service, and there was no special music in the first service held at 8:15am. Imagine then how important music was to our high school youth group, that for two years on our own we organized and offered special music for that early service—teenagers practicing during the week and then getting up early on Sunday mornings to sing!
Research on choral music groups suggests that singing together has positive impacts on an individual, finding improvements in mood, reduced stress and anxiety, and greater subjective well-being. While the exact connections between choral singing and individual well-being are not known, I do know that the experience of creating music together with others is an exhilarating one. Something amazing happens when disparate voices come together, listening to one another, balancing and blending together, making wonderful harmonies. Drop by the sanctuary on Wednesday evenings and you will find our choir practicing with intention and with a healthy dose of good humor. Yes, laughter is an integral part of our rehearsals!
As our choirs heads into their final weeks before summer break, I want to offer my heartfelt thanks to all of the wonderful musicians who have brought their gifts to our worship. Our music director, Genny Jenkins, is a vibrant and passionate leader, who brings out the best in singers and musicians. Our musical interns from MSU have been such a joy to work with. A huge shout-out and thank you to Caleb Fouts, Anna Grayson, Maura McCoy, Everett Quiggins, and Katie Webb. We’ve been blessed by their musical talents and by their active participation in our congregational life.
And I want to offer a word of thanks to our keyboardist Isaiah Florence. He has such a beautiful style of playing the piano, and if you’re in the sanctuary before worship you may have heard his jazz improvisations, too. While church music is a new area for him, we are grateful for his talents. I’m also so very grateful for our congregational members who make up our chancel choir and our bell choir. It’s an act of love and dedication to attend weekly rehearsals and to offer musical leadership in worship on Sundays—I hope you’ll join me in offering your word of thanks to members of our choirs.
Sometimes it happens that seemingly random events or experiences have within them a common thread which suddenly shimmers and calls for you to pay attention. I like to think of those linked moments as the whisperings of Spirit in our lives.
Last week one of those Spirit whispers began for me with the emotional words of a U.S. senator who said in a hearing, “I’m not letting anybody...steal my joy.” His speech brought tears to my eyes, for he spoke of a hard won joy, a resilient joy which could not be stopped even when the road was difficult.
The thread appeared again when I opened a devotional book by Sister Wendy Beckett, The Art of Lent, which I’ve been using as my personal meditation guide. In it the fourth week of Lent began with Psalm 30:5, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” Here in these long hard days of Lent, Sister Wendy chose to focus her attention upon joy, with each day of this week offering a meditation on embracing joy.
You may have seen a bit of this thread of joy, too. In our Full to the Brim devotional books one of the works of art is a paper laced cut-out by Hannah Garrity entitled Inexplicable Joy. Reflecting on the unconditional welcome of the father in the parable of the prodigal she writes of joy as “an act of resistance.” The father embraces the younger son and invites the entire household into a moment of joyful celebration.
Joy seems an odd theme for Lent. After all our worship together is focused on the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem and to the cross. It is a profound time when the shadow of the cross looming throughout the season and invites us to dive deeply into our lives as followers of Jesus. And yet, even in the solemness of Lent we may find a thread of joy, in the extravagant celebration of the father in the prodigal parable and overflowing in the loving generosity of Mary who anoints the feet of Jesus with a jar of perfume.
The world is filled with so much pain, it can seem that experiencing joy is inappropriate. How can I feel joy when war is raging in far away places? After two years of living through a pandemic, with over 6 million deaths from COVID-19, joy may seem wrong. Is it right to feel joy when laws are being passed which discriminate against our trans siblings? So much of life is hard, the news filled with the horrors of the world.
In a recent conversation with Brené Brown on the podcast, “Unlocking Us,” writer Karen Walrond exclaimed, “If we feel guilt about the joy, then the bad guys win….We can’t let them win...and joy is how we develop resiliency.” As she said this, I felt a weight lift. Yes, we will burn out if all we do is focus on the worst of humanity. But we know there is so much more to the world than the evil which grabs the headlines. I know I’ve heard joy in recent days—in the gift of music performed by Rowan County School District students in Seussical the Musical and by the Cave Run Symphony at their Fairy Tales concert. I’ve seen joy, too—in the beauty of daffodils and dogwood tree blossoms. And I’ve tasted joy in a bite of homemade carrot cake shared by a friend.
May we be met with joy, my friends, even in troubled times. And may we be freed by the Spirit to embrace the joy life brings us.
As I write these words war has been waging in Ukraine for several days. We see images of civilians huddling in transit stations, bombed out streets, and lines of refugees stretching for miles. My heart aches for the needless suffering we are witnessing.
As our newsfeeds and television screens are constantly announcing “Breaking News,” it can be tempting to fill our hours with the latest updates. I confess I have spent many hours doom scrolling on Twitter, refreshing my screen in a never ending search for the latest news. Our access to instant communication, to livestreams on social media and correspondent updates on the news while connecting us in radically new ways can also paralyze us.
This topic came up in a recent episode of a favorite podcast of mine, Mid-faith Crisis, co-hosted by a UK Baptist minister, Joe Davis and writer Nick Page. The two discussed their own feelings of powerlessness with respect to the news. Should we stop watching the news altogether to protect our mental health? We do have a responsibility to the world and to other human beings to be aware, and yet can we do so without fixating on things we cannot change? My takeaway from the podcast conversation was a personal intention of setting limits on the amount of time I spend consuming news, including turning off phone notifications. In a way this is learning to practice that powerful line from Reinhold Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
In our Lent at Home kits you will find a reflective assessment tool, utilizing a wellness wheel. I invite you to use this assessment as we enter into Lent. We have additional copies available at the church office. I’ve been working my way through the wheel in February, and I’ve found the process enlightening. May this season of Lent a time of expansive living, as we welcome God’s dreams for ourselves and for the world.
….As if St. Brigid once more
Had rigged up a ray of sun
Like the one she’d strung on air
To dry her own cloak on
(Hard-pressed Brigid, so
Unstoppably on the go)-
The damp and slump and unfair
Drag of the workday
Made light of and got through
As usual, brilliantly.
—Seamus Heaney, “Clothes Shrine”
(listen to Seamus Heaney read the entire poem here.)
The first of February is the feast day of St. Brigid, 5th century Celtic saint and Abbess of Kildare. Her origins are wrapped in mythology and legend, with stories most likely woven from pre-Christian traditions of the sun goddess Brigid. The stories surrounding her celebrate generosity and kindness, with common themes of strength and determination, perhaps even a bit of holy stubbornness! As the saying goes, many of the stories surrounding St. Brigid are true, and some of them actually happened.
One legend tells that Brigid was the child of a pagan chieftain and his slave wife, Broicsech, who was a Christian. Her mother worked with the dairy cows of the chief, and at dawn on February 1 as she was stepping across the doorway threshold into the barn, she gave birth to Brigid. Thresholds become an important part of traditions surrounding Brigid, including the placing of a woven cross at the entrance to the home.
Raised in the Christian faith of her mother, her generosity became stuff of legend. She would give food or milk to any poor person who came to her door. Her tendency to give so extravagantly angered her father so much he tried to put an end to her charity. One day she was cooking bacon , a hungry dog stuck its head inside the door. Of course the soft-hearted Brigid gave the poor hound pieces of the bacon to eat. Worried about what her father would say, she prayed over the bacon still in the pan. And when the group was being served, there was more bacon than before, enough for everyone.
Eventually her father hoped to have the young Brigid married off, ridding his household of the girl who kept giving so much of his possessions away to the poor. Brigid had other ideas, and eventually he relented. Brigid left home to follow the religious life.
She would found the Abbey of Kildare, (Abbey of the Oak) a double monastery for nuns and monks. The story goes that when the bishop came to ordain her as Abbess, he was so “intoxicated with the grace of God” he instead prayed the prayer of blessing for a bishop over her. The abbey also contained a school of art, for metal work and for manuscript illumination.
I stumbled across stories of St. Brigid as I was learning about the histories of Celtic Christianity. She is an intriguing bridge figure between the ancient indigenous traditions of Ireland and the growing Christian presence on the island. She is the patron saint of many traditions—of midwives (there’s a marvelous legend of angels carrying her back to Bethlehem to attend to Mary at the birth of Jesus); of artists; and yes, of brewers. There are several stories of Brigid performing miracles with water, milk, and even ale. The story goes that she supplied ale out of her barrel to eighteen churches in the area, enough to carry the churches through from Maundy Thursday to the end of Easter. One 10th century song to Brigid imagines her gift to God in heaven to be a lake of beer with all the faithful gathered round:
“I'd sit with the men, the women and God, there by the lake of beer. We'd be drinking good health forever, and every drop would be a prayer.”
From the stories of St. Brigid we find inspiration for generous living, for an attention to the presence of the sacred in the everyday-ness of our lives, and a joyous embrace of living in the ways of Jesus. Seamus Heaney’s lovely poem “Clothes Shrine” elevates the ordinariness of hanging up laundry with an awareness of the Holy in the mundane. On this February 1, may the welcoming ways of St. Brigid be an inspiration to us.
and always be the church where you are.
The things of this world do not seem
to be going according to plan.
For one thing, the altar’s on fire.
The pastor hasn’t notice, thinks
the audience is unusually moved by his words...
—Marci Johnson, “O That with Yonder Sacred Throng”
(in Basic Disaster Supplies Kit, 2016)
I think it’s safe to say that 2021 did not go according to plan. In January of 2021 most of us were anxiously awaiting our turn to be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine shot. Now here we are, one year later, and less than 55% of individuals in Rowan County have received at least one dose of the vaccine. We’ve lived through the Delta surge of late summer and fall and watched in disbelief as the National Guard stepped into to assist our local hospital as the hospitalization numbers pushed our medical facilities to their limits. The Omicron variant is now overtaking the numbers of infected and we’re still learning more about its severity. The number of COVID-19 deaths reported in Rowan county between September and December was more than double the total number of deaths in all of 2020 and the first half of 2021 combined. And yet, everywhere you go, it’s apparent—people are tired of it all. Mask wearing has waned greatly, even though it is one tool to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and is recommended by health professionals when in public places.
How do we respond when things don’t go according to plan? I suspect some of us may be in Eeyore’s camp, saying ““End of the road. Nothing to do and no hope of things getting better.” And then there are others who don’t seemed phased a bit, as they set about constructing lemonade stands and making lemonade. Most of us are probably somewhere in between the two.
When considering human responses to adversity, Psychologists speak of resilience, of an individual’s ability to adapt to situations of tragedy, trauma, or significant stress. We have been living through an extended time of stress, which has both tested our resiliency and been an opportunity to increasing our capacity for resilience. Experts suggest there are four core areas which contribute to our levels of resilience, and that we can develop our resilience by focusing on those areas: connections, wellness, healthy thinking, and meaning. (see Building Your Resilience)
Connections: Try focusing on relationships which are life-giving and affirming or joining groups which are supportive and cultivate our sense of purpose.
Wellness: In times of stress we often forget about our physical health. Paying attention to healthy eating habits, developing good sleeping patterns, moving our bodies regularly—all of these aspects of physical health can help our responses to stress. Practice mindfulness—through prayer, meditation, or journaling.
Healthy thinking: Cut out sources of negativity—try taking a break from social media. Practice gratitude—reflecting on our day or our past and identifying positive experiences can help break thought patterns of negativity.
Meaning: It may sound simple, but helping others gives us purpose and pulls us from an unhealthy focus on ourselves. Reflecting on how we have changed from an adverse experience, identifying points of growth and development, can also build our capacity for resilience.
Being part of a healthy faith community is one way to build on these four components of resilience. I invite you to take some time and reflect on this past year: In what ways have you cultivated resilience?
Who has been a part of that growth?
How has our faith community contributed to your capacity for resilience?
Is there a core component of resilience in which you’d like to focus on this year? How can we as a congregation support one another in the practice of resilience?
We’ve made it this far together, let’s see what the new year holds for us.
For this is the day we have been given; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Be well. Be kind.
And always be the church where you are.
For lack of attention a thousand forms of loveliness elude us every day.
— Evelyn Underhill
As I write this column, we have just entered the season of Advent. After three months of livestreaming worship only, our first Sunday with many back in the sanctuary was a joyful coming home celebration. Yes, we were all wearing our masks and doing our best to maintain physical distancing. Even so, the sparkle in the eyes of those gathered in the sanctuary was an indication of many smiles behind the masks.
The reduced strain on the ICU in our hospital, the availability of booster shots, and the expansion of eligibility of vaccines to include children ages 5 and up allows us to return to in person worship carefully. We recognize that some individuals continue to need to exercise special caution because of their particular health situations, and we encourage you to make the best choices for yourself and your loved ones. We’ll continue to provide livestreams of our worship services on Facebook and YouTube. In addition we’ve learned the value of virtual gathering spaces, so we’ll keep finding ways to connect with one another on Zoom.
This year we have Advent at Home kits available for households. These kits include Advent calendars, daily devotions, candles for creating an Advent wreath, craft ideas, and more. The kits are available during church office hours this week. If you need one delivered to you, contact the office.
I encourage you to use the Advent kits to create your own spiritual practices for Advent. We’ve added one of my favorites practices this year, the Advent Photo-a-Day devotions. There is one word for each day of Advent. Hold the word in your thoughts throughout the day. When you see something that connects to that word, snap a photo. You can share those photos on your social media or you can keep them for yourself. Sharing them with others may spark more folks to take up the practice, and you may find inspiration in the posts others share.
I looked back in my photos, and the first time I participated in an Advent Photo-a-Day practice was in 2013. I'm including a few of those photos here.
The daily practice of reflecting on one word and taking a photo relating to it is a way to help us pay attention. We are learning to look with an openness for what is around us, to find meaning in the everyday. If you haven’t tried it before, I encourage you to take a look at the Advent words for this year. See what you may discover about yourself, the world, and the Sacred which surrounds us every day.
I’d love to see what captures your attention. If you do share your photos on social media, use the hashtags #fccmky, #fccmorehead, #advent2021, #closetohome.
May this Advent season be a time of waiting, expectant waiting, for the Holy One to be revealed.
Be well. Be kind.
And always be the church where you are.
A native of Illinois, Rev. Nancy Gowler lived for 26 years in the Pacific Northwest. She joined the ministry of First Christian Church in Morehead, KY, in July of 2020.