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”?
Semper Gumby, indeed (although my Latin teacher might argue for semper flexibile). Just a few weeks ago in July we were planning for a very different fall. Singing masks were purchased for our church choir, we were beginning to discuss ways to open our building up again for community events, and we thought the worst of the pandemic was behind us. And today, as I write this, there is an emergency field hospital unit set up in the parking lot at St. Claire Regional Medical Center to process patients as the medical facility is straining to care for patients.
The Returning to Worship committee made the difficult decision to resume virtual worship services beginning on August 15. At the time it seemed we were alone in this assessment. Although we know many congregations in our area are continuing to meet in person, the ecumenical guidelines on safely gathering indoors for worship services recommend a more cautious approach. Now other Disciples congregations in our region are also reverting to virtual worship services. We will continue to monitor the conditions in our county as we consider when we are meeting the benchmarks to offer in-person worship safely.
Whether we asked for it or not, the pandemic is offering opportunities for rethinking church, faith, and spiritual formation. We’ve always said the church was not limited to an hour on Sunday morning, now we are living out what that might look like in practice. This September we will again be celebrating the Season of Creation. Our worship services will provide inspiration for us to do more reflection on our own relationships with creation. I hope you will find ways to engage with the Season of Creation art exhibition, either on-line or in person. Together we can celebrate Creation not only in words, but also in deeds, putting into practice the spiritual wisdom of our faith tradition to care for the earth.
We tend to focus on the limitations of the moment—what’s not open, what’s not safe, what we have given up in this pandemic. In the spirit of flexibility, can we ask different questions?
What is opening up for you now?
What can you embrace in this time?
What doors are open now?
As you reflect on the possibilities of this time, stop to give thanks for the unexpected blessings you’ve discovered and for the previously overlooked gifts of the past 18 months. And remember—God is good. All the time.
Be well. Be kind.
And always be the church where you are.
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence.
As I write this column I am, like so many others, living in an in-between time. One vaccine shot—done. Now, I wait for my turn for the second shot. So close, but not quite there. It is becoming a common greeting: “Have you had your vaccine yet?” Photos of vaccination cards or even folks posing with big smiles while sporting a bandage on their arm are regular social media updates. When we gather on Zoom and folks share they’ve received a vaccination, the whole group cheers in celebration! In a recent update on March 29th our governor announced that 40% of Kentucky adults have been vaccinated, with approximately 70% of Kentuckians over the age of 70 vaccinated.
We are getting closer to the time when we can resume many of the activities we love to do. According to CDC guidelines once vaccinated, we can gather indoors with fully vaccinated people without wearing a mask. And a vaccinated person can gather indoors with unvaccinated people from one other household—which means for example, vaccinated grandparents can visit with grandchildren again. It has been a long wait.
The same day he announced 40% of Kentuckians had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, the governor also shared there were 11 new deaths in Kentucky. And new virus variants are on the rise in the state as well, which means we’re not out of this. We’re all still in that fuzzy and frustrating in-between time.
I believe in this moment we as Christians have an opportunity to live out Christ’s call to care for our neighbors as ourselves in powerful and tangible ways. There are strident voices in our world, those shouting freedom and rejecting masks as theater, but their understanding of freedom is truncated. Whether they are religious leaders, elected officials, or folks who live in our neighborhoods, theirs is a shallow freedom for the individual alone without regard for the common good. In contrast, Christians understand that Christ has set us free to live out true freedom, freedom which is lived out in love and service to one another. That’s the way of Jesus, not protesting public health measures. We are to exhibit the fruits of the Spirit for which Paul advocates,
“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” (Galatians 5:22-23)
Indeed, there is no law against such things.
Let’s take up Paul’s challenge. Let’s be people of great love. People who care for our neighbors. People who practice patience and kindness in our interactions. And yes, people who continue to wear face masks in public, not for ourselves, but for those we meet.
We’re so close. We can do this.
Let yourself be inert, wait until the incomprehensible power…
that has broken you restores you a little,
I say 'a little' because henceforth you will always keep something broken about you.
As I write this, the United States has just marked a staggering milestone—over 500,000 people have died because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Five hundred thousand individual lives ended, each one leaving behind many more loved ones who grieve their loss. If we had known the enormity of our nation’s loss when we entered into lockdown efforts a year ago, would things have unfolded differently? Could we have set aside differences and instead pledged ourselves to care for our neighbors as ourselves? What if we had been called to commit ourselves anew to the idea of E pluribus unum, could we have risen to the occasion?
It is too late, of course, to ask such questions. Half a million people have died; one hundred thousand lost since January. As I wrote that grim statistic, I found it unbelievable, so I stopped to check my facts. And yes, it’s real. On January 19th we marked 400,000 deaths from the pandemic, at a rate of one death from COVID-19 every 26 seconds. On February 22, the death toll reached 500,000, and although thankfully the rate has slowed, we continue to lose more lives each day.
I began this note to you with a line from a letter Marcel Proust wrote to his friend, Georges de Lauris, after the death of his friend’s mother in 1907. The letter is a gift, written from the heart of one who has carried the weight of grief himself. “You will always keep something broken about you,” Proust shares gently. We know this to be true from our own experiences of loss. Grief reveals the fragileness of our existence, of the relationships we cherish, and all those we take for granted.
Going forward our nation will carry with us something broken, too. The question before us now is what will we do with this brokenness? We may have missed the moment to change direction last year, but now that it is past, now that so many people must gather up the broken pieces of their lives, what might we do differently?
As we hold these questions in our hearts, the church has entered into the season of Lent. We marked the season with the sign of the cross in ashes. In the weeks ahead we will walk alongside Jesus as he journeys to the cross, and we will hear his haunting invitation to take up our own cross and follow. The shadow of the cross looms over these days; the grim realities of death and human betrayal are never far from the story. Lent moves us to acknowledge the brokenness in our own lives and in the world around us.
It’s only when we are honest with ourselves and one another that we may truly grasp the promise of Lent that those who want to save their lives, must lose them. It is in this paradox we discover the hope of the season. As Leonard Cohen so aptly put it, “There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” The brokenness of our lives, of our nation, of the world holds within it the possibility of renewal. The choice is before us: God offers us life, abundant life, overflowing with grace and wonder. Can we receive that gift and change direction?
Proust ends his touching letter this way, “Tell yourself this, too, for it is a kind of pleasure to know that you will never love less, that you will never be consoled, that you will constantly remember more and more." Let this be our prayer going forward, may we “constantly remember more and more.” May those memories be a blessing, a blessing which leads us to create a future shaped by compassion and to commit ourselves to the flourishing of our world.
Take a plane to London.
From King's Cross take the direct train to York.
—Joseph Stroud, “Directions”
(Of This World, © 2009 Copper Canyon Press)
Almost a year ago this month I flew across the country, blissfully boarding a packed airplane before masks and hand sanitizers became necessary in every public space. My plane landed late at night at the Bluegrass Airport in Lexington, where the ever smiling Genny Jenkins was waiting to greet me. During that stay I met many of you in person, listened to your stories and your dreams for this congregation and community. We worshiped together in the sanctuary, and after you voted to call me as your next pastor, we shared a wonderfully traditional potluck in the fellowship hall. That Sunday afternoon I drove back to Lexington, got back on another crowded plane, and headed back to the Northwest to prepare for my move to Kentucky.
For many of you that’s the last time we saw one another face to face. The story of 2020 unfolded unlike anything we might have imagined that February Sunday. So much has changed, and we have too. We’ve learned to be flexible and nimble in our common life together. We’ve extended more grace to others and to ourselves. We’ve learned to laugh when we forget to unmute ourselves on Zoom. We’ve learned prayer, study, and community aren’t limited by the space in which we gather, be it in a building or online. And we’ve discovered just how much our relationships to one another matters to us.
As we enter into another season of Lent which will still be shaped by COVID-19, this time we have the gift of intentionality in our living through the season. Even as some of us begin to receive vaccines, we know we must still practice physical distancing to keep one another safe. I invite you to receive the opportunities we’re creating for Lenten spiritual practices, finding what may speak to you in this time and make it your own.
Joseph Stroud’s poem Directions, in the first half sounds much like simple directions to get to a pub in the north of England and to set out on a walking trail in the Yorkshire region. And then the poem turns, and it suddenly dawns on the reader that this is a walk of memory and imagination, Stroud continues:
You'll walk the freshness
back into your life. This is true. You can do this.
Even now, sitting at your desk, worrying, troubled,
you can gaze across Middlesmoor to Ramsgill,
the copses, the abbeys of slanting light, the fells….
We can do this. Sitting at our desks, worrying or troubled, we can find refreshment and hope in these days. This weaving together of memory, tradition, and spiritual imagination is not some weak substitute for worship and community, it is another way of being in a faithful community together, as we make our way, “step by step, into grace.”
Through the looking glass,
down the rabbit hole,
into the wardrobe and out
into the enchanted forest
where animals talk
and danger lurks and nothing
works quite the way it did before,
you have fallen into a new story.
--Lynn Unger, “On the Other Side”
As I write to you our governor has just announced new measures to help our state stop the rising number of COVID-19 cases. The trend lines in our state are disturbing. We may feel insulated here in Rowan County, but our numbers have been increasing in July, and we are only a short drive away from areas with rising rates.
Our recent survey of the congregation included questions about COVID-19 and how it affects our worship practices. From the responses to the survey nearly 50% indicated they had an underlying risk which would prevent them from worshiping in-person in our sanctuary. Last week the elders discussed the pandemic, the results of our survey, the recommendations of our region and national Disciples leaders, and our own concerns. We talked about the struggles local businesses, the school district, and Morehead State University are having as they attempt to create safe environments for opening back up this fall.
Through it all we remain committed to the ministries of our congregation and our call to be a voice for hope and inclusion in our community. The elders and I recommended to the board that we continue with on-line only worship through November 2020. As we enter the fall, we will have a better understanding of how the unique dynamics of our county are responding to the pandemic, and we will reassess our worship practices going forward into 2021.
We recognize how disappointing this decision is. We are keenly aware of the longings many of us have to come back together in person, to worship side by side with one another, and to share in communion in one place. We do not come to this conclusion lightly, but through much prayer and reflection. It is our intention to focus on our current worship offerings and to provide the best possible worship experiences we can. Our worship will continue to be streamed live on Facebook every Sunday, and we will gather on Thursday night for Vespers services on Zoom.
I continue to trust that this unsettled time can be a gift to the church. I know it’s frustrating; I know we are all exhausted. Nothing is easy as we are navigating these changes. Trust me, the learning curve for online technology can be daunting! Nonetheless, in many ways this crisis has forced the church to acknowledge we have been slow to recognize the massive cultural, technological, and generational changes that have already been shifting the world around us. A recent Barna survey on Christianity in the U.S. found only 25% of Americans are practicing Christians down from 45% in 2000 (State of the Church 2020, Barna Group, March 2020). That decline has occurred in every age demographic. What we’ve been doing hasn’t been effective, and simply starting back up things just like we were doing before the pandemic won’t change that.
Why do I see this time as a gift? Because we follow a God who is constantly at work to bring life into the world, who is always innovating, never satisfied with the status quo. The prophet Isaiah gives voice to God, writing,
Do not recall the first things, and what came before do not consider.
I am about to do a new thing,
now it will spring forth and you shall know it. (Isaiah 43:18-19)
We Christians tend only to hear these words during the season of Advent, as we prepare for Christmas. When we read it through the lens of Advent, we know what the “new thing” is—Jesus. But God continues doing new things throughout history, and today is no exception. The hard part sometimes is tearing our eyes away from the past so that we are able to catch a glimpse of the Spirit at work in our world right now.
The Scottish hymnwriter John Bell composes many of my favorite contemporary music for congregational worship. In one of his short songs for worship, rooted in words from 2 Corinthians and Revelation, he gives us these reassuring words of faith,
"Behold, behold I make all things new,
beginning with you and starting from today.
Behold, behold I make all things new,
my promise is true for I am Christ the way."
We are a new creation in Christ, even amid a pandemic, perhaps especially now. We have fallen into a new story, a new story which God is writing with us. Now is not the time to despair. For this is the day we have been given. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!
Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.
Little did we know three months ago when congregations across the country began suspending in-person worship services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that in July we would still be worshipping online, rather than gathering in our sanctuaries. Weeks have turned into months, and even with summer now here, predicting what our worship practices will be like this fall is difficult. What started as a temporary emergency response has now become our new normal.
In May I closed out my pastoral ministry in Puyallup, Washington with a taped video message, a surprise congregational parade outside my home, and an awkward Zoom meeting filled with goodbyes.
Nothing in my seminary training prepared me for such a transition!
And now, after a six-day road trip through eight states, I’m here in Morehead, Kentucky. My heart is hopeful. However, just like my goodbyes in Washington, seminary never offered a practicum on starting a new ministry amidst a pandemic. The usual first steps of shaking hands, sharing conversations over coffee or a meal, visiting with folks in their homes or in my office are not advisable. These next few months will be a challenge as you and I find new ways to get to know one another.
One of the unforeseen effects of our adaptations to living through this pandemic is that we as church have learned we can try new things—lots of new things. We’ve adapted church meetings, bible studies, worship services to share over Zoom calls. People have tuned into Facebook Live prayer services. Churches who never imagined having a YouTube channel have been uploaded worship service videos for months now. It has been such a joy to join in worship services around the world—to pray with the Taize’ Community in France, to join in prayer with friends in Alabama, Indiana, Montana, California, Colorado, and beyond. Our General Minister and President Rev. Teri Hord Owens led congregations around the country in worship on Easter Sunday. And last weekend the Poor People’s Campaign had more than 1.2 million viewers for its online demonstration. God’s Spirit is moving even in the middle of a pandemic!
It’s easy to want to focus on the future, intent on when things will get back to the way they were before the word coronavirus entered our vocabulary. That would be a mistake. God isn’t waiting for case numbers to go down or a vaccine to be developed, God’s Spirit is moving in our world now, always seeking the best in every situation, even in a pandemic.
I believe this time has given the church freedom to explore new venues, to dip our toes into social media in ways we might never have tried before, to reflect on our purpose and calling, and to hear voices which have not been heard. It’s also underscored the power of traditional ways of maintaining connections with others—cards, phone calls, and front porch visits are all important, too. Through all of this I’m hopeful the church will remain open to experimentation and creativity in our common life together. God is always doing a new thing in our world, and too often the church lags behind. My prayer during these past several months has been for courage to step out in faith and for the gift of vision to see the possibilities Spirit is offering us in these unsettled days.
I am glad to be in Morehead with you! You have already done so much to make me feel at home. I’m deeply grateful for the generous gifts filling my pantry shelves and for so many other kindnesses folks have shown me. Thank you especially to the members of the search committee, the executive board and others who are helping me get my bearings in this new place. Streets are starting to become more familiar to me. I’m slowly matching names and faces. And I am thoroughly enjoying the nightly firefly dance held in my backyard each night!
Today and every day is a holy gift. May God grant us eyes to see and a wise heart. For this is the day we are given. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!
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.