#TheMoment, Part 2

In conversations about “returning to church,” one of the key questions that I think each church needs to reflect on is, “How has the church been changed by the pandemic?” It’s also an important question for followers of Christ to reflect on for our own spiritual growth.

When COVID Changed Me

In conversations about “returning to church,” one of the key questions that I think each church needs to reflect on is, “How has the church been changed by the pandemic?”  (In a forthcoming essay to be published in the Anabaptist World, I offer why I think this is a necessary question.)  

I also think it’s an important question for followers of Christ to reflect on for our own spiritual growth and formation over the last year.  Here are two personal takeaways from how the pandemic has changed me.

Losing Control / Needing to Surrender

One of the first things I and others came to grips with was just how little we could control. Facing the virus meant facing the façades we have built in Western civilization, namely that of individual power.

White folks especially don’t like losing control or recognizing the truth about how little we actually control.  We might be okay with losing control if we feel like we’re choosing it (playing into a martyr complex), but to choose to lose power is to still be in control.

Sadly, I have not escaped this malformation, either. 

But somewhere, in the midst of 2020, I felt a nudge to surrender.  To let trust develop, particularly in my relationship with God.  It was/is hard to relinquish a sense that “I’ve got this,” especially when I’m supposed to be leading a group of people. But the truth of the matter was I couldn’t do much. It was a wake-up call to my finitude and mortality.

It’s hard to surrender (the fallacy of) control, even in order to open oneself to the Divine within and around us. Letting go of controlling outcomes requires vulnerability, another thing white folks often feel a “right” to be shielded from (due to white privilege).

But a life of vulnerability and yieldedness (Gelassenheit) is actually at the heart of the gospel–a challenge that changed me in 2020 and changes me still.

Worship and Trauma

Webinars proliferated in the early months of the pandemic. Everyone and their mother was offering spaces to gather and process the pandemic’s effects. I signed up for a lot of these webinars—some better than others.  One, featuring my pastoral care professor from seminary, changed me.

He mentioned that in any given Sunday worship, a pastor should expect that about a third of the congregation is actively grieving something.  With COVID, though, he said that number was now a full 100%.  That was the first inkling I had that worship planning, and specifically preaching, needed to take our community’s grief and trauma into account more thoroughly.

With the murders of Breonna Turner and George Floyd, my attention turned to the trauma of white supremacy.  Reading My Grandmother’s Hands and Words That Heal: Preaching Hope to Wounded Souls, I started taking more care to craft sermons and services that attended to the unhealed trauma that nearly all of us carry around. I have been challenged to honor my own traumatic experiences and to confront the deeply embedded trauma of white supremacy within me.

One result of these two things: COVID has changed my sermon writing process.

Pre-COVID, I had a neat, day-by-day order of what I did when.* When COVID hit though, each day was full with a week’s worth of uncertainty and disorientation. I found myself having a lot more to emotionally process before I could start writing. Many weeks, I only felt ready to start writing a first draft on Saturday afternoon.

This was a shock to my careful (semi-perfectionistic) process. I had lost control of comfortable patterns and expectations about how sermons come together. Instead, I felt nudged (or sometimes forced) into relying on the Spirit’s presence in my writing. It felt dangerous. I felt vulnerable.

In its place, I experienced a heightened awareness of speaking carefully and gently to the wounded souls on my screen. I knew what weighed many of them down; we were hitting refresh on the same data dashboards and newsfeeds. The sermons probably weren’t “great” in a classical sense, which provided a necessary check on my ego. Yet, it surprised me every week that a sermon came together, and the process was still marked with joy.

As time has gone on, I’m closer to my original sermon prep process; I’m not changed to the point of always waiting until Saturday to write my sermons. (I do like doing other things on Saturdays other than work.) But my attitude toward sermon writing has changed. I pay more attention to centering in the Spirit before I start writing.** I’ve also mellowed a bit, having less to prove and more to care for. I’m hopeful that this will prove to be growth.

*I typically read all the lectionary texts a week in advance to familiarize myself with them. On the Monday before a service, I would muddle around the texts again and then hone in on one or two of the texts and formulate themes. (Parts of) Tuesday and Wednesday were spent in reflection, research, and perhaps writing an outline. Thursday was my writing day with the goal of getting a rough draft completed. Taking Friday off, I returned to my draft on Saturday morning to smooth the edges and clarify my main points. Sunday, I print it off, practice running through it a few times, and scribble changes in the margins.

**In a worship class in seminary, the professor taught us to have a prayer that we say each time we sit down to work on a service. I use the following prayer, which is adapted from Annie Heppenstall’s book, The Book of Uncommon Prayer. It is a prayer for the season of Epiphany.

Loving God, be a lamp to my feet,
the brightest star in my sky;
guide me to what is of true worth,
and give me courage and diligence to keep searching
until I find for myself
that which draws forth my delight and awe,
the revelation of your presence within me.

#TheMoment, Part 1

NPR’s All Things Considered is inviting listeners this week to reflect on when they “first realized COVID-19 would change their world.” While I didn’t submit a response, this one-year anniversary of stay-at-home orders and the recent glimmers of hope out of the CDC have me pondering both those early moments of the pandemic and the ways I/we have changed since.

When COVID Changed My World

NPR’s All Things Considered is inviting listeners this week to reflect on when they “first realized COVID-19 would change their world.”  While I didn’t submit a response, this one-year anniversary of stay-at-home orders and the recent glimmers of hope out of the CDC have me pondering both those early moments of the pandemic and the ways I/we have changed since.

I had traveled east in late February/early March 2020 to visit family. Making my way through various airports, I noticed a handful of passengers wearing face masks. 

My last indoor Showalter family gathering, Feb. 2020.

I remember one curious, unmasked person called out to another who was masked, “Do you have the virus or just playing it safe?”  The person responded, “Wearing it just in case.”  I washed my hands a lot on that journey, the primary advice I remember hearing in those days. 

A few days later, I was meeting with the pastoral team from Orchard Ridge UCC, the church Madison Mennonite rents from. It was Tuesday, March 10, 2020. We were navigating what to do about their Sunday service that week, where I was slated to guest preach.  My sermon was titled, “Singing Our Faith: Songs of Liberation, Lament, and Praise.”

(How little we knew, then, about singing and COVID.) 

One of the pastors, away on vacation, called in.  She had spoken with the executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, who, having spoken with state-level health officials, had said we should expect March 15 to be the last Sunday of in-person worship, at least until Easter. 

(How little we knew, then, about how long this would last.)

On Thursday afternoon of that week, I met with the worship leader for the Madison Mennonite service. We had planned to meet at a coffeehouse, where they had stopped letting people bring in travel mugs.  You were supposed to ask for any drink accoutrements when ordering; there was no longer a self-serve area.

The worship leader and I sat and talked for a little while about what the emerging news about COVID meant for our Sunday service. A state of emergency had been declared, and uncertainty was growing very quickly. After a little while, I said, “I think the safest thing we can do, based on what we know, is to meet online.”  Maybe it would be a blip. Maybe it was overkill.  But we knew we could gather with absolutely no viral risk. 

(How little we knew, then, what it meant to plan virtual worship.)

Thursday night, I had a conference call with our church board and I relayed the discernment from my afternoon meeting. We were, somewhat surprisingly, in full accord with one another to move worship online and to cancel all other in-person activities. My guest preaching gig was soon canceled as well. 

(How little we knew, then, how much would be canceled.)

In the weeks that followed, I was thirsty for wisdom on how to be the church online in the midst of a global pandemic. I was fazed less by the technological side of gathering as the Body of Christ, and more by a general loss of control as speculation about time frames and viral transmission shifted hour-by-hour and day-by-day.  In a now-forgotten NPR story, probably mid-April, I heard about the likelihood that vaccines would be the way out of the pandemic, meaning we were looking at a year or more until some semblance of “normal” returned. This was my first “a-ha” moment—where the uncertainty about “Are we going to be worshipping in-person by Pentecost?” turned to “What does it look like to be in this space for a year?”

When I mentioned my shift in thinking to colleagues, saying that I thought it was possible that we wouldn’t worship in-person until Fall 2021, they looked at me quizzically.  “Do you mean Fall 2020?”  No, sadly, I had meant what I said.

That was a second “a-ha” moment.  We were all thinking about this in a dozen different ways.  The politicization of the pandemic was leaking into our churches.  It was changing us.  

(How little we knew, then, that we were already changed.) 

Our set-up for the Maundy Thursday Love Feast with Madison Mennonites.

#TheMoment, Part 2: When COVID Changed Me will be published tomorrow.

Prayer of Remembrance

For a Year of Distanced Worship

Today at Madison Mennonite, we round out a full year of worshipping distanced–a sobering, disappointing, and often discouraging reality…while also a testament to the Spirit’s faithfulness in all circumstances.

We are taking some time today and in our Koinonia Groups next week to hold the tension, grief, and anxiety of the last year. It feels important–necessary, even–to mourn the pain that the pandemic has caused: bodily, relational, emotional, economic, spiritual pain.

Then there are the divisions that have emerged or grown more obvious: cracks within familial relationships, extreme othering within political discourse, racial inequity.

Yet I think it’s important, as the church, to recognize that some of the divisions, like physical distancing, have emerged for the sake of community and the love of neighbor.  This purposeful distancing is counter-intuitive for Christ-followers, and yet it aligns with the call to think bigger, beyond ourselves, from what’s good for a few to what’s good for the collective.

These are complicated, contradicting, and disorienting realities.  I am hoping that our world grows a little gentler this week, as we hold space for ourselves and for one another. So many are dealing with pandemic-inflicted wounds that are still tender to the touch. I pray for God’s grace to abound.

A Congregational Prayer of Remembrance
Eternal Presence,
This has been a strange year.
Disorienting and isolating for some, 
liberating and full of opportunity for others,
our experiences are disparate.

As we look back on this year, O God,
help us be gentle with ourselves and with one another.
Draw us together in curiosity and compassion.
Unite us in our common commitments,
to loving our neighbors,
extending the tables piled high with grace,
as we continue to seek your reign in our midst.

We give you thanks, Abiding Spirit,
for journeying with us,
renewing our spirits
through the generosity of this Beloved Community.
In Christ’s holy name we pray. Amen.