Wednesday, May 27, 2020

New Rules for a New Church...

Dear Friends,

You can’t go home again. I have so many wonderful memories of the neighborhood in which I grew up. In the 1950's, we lived on the outskirts of Los Angeles in a suburb that could have been the set for the “Leave It To Beaver” television show. Today, urban blight has transformed it into a ghetto. Many of us have so many treasured memories of our past that if we go back with the expectation that nothing will have changed, we may be shocked to find that the place is barely recognizable. It was novelist Thomas Wolfe who told us that “You can’t go home again” and today it’s the coronavirus that tells us “You can’t go back to church again.” Like returning to a once family home that has been gutted and completely remodeled, you may return to your church when it reopens, and experience disorientation as the reality of the “new normal” worship service and a radically different physical space collides with your memories of the recent past. Some AMEN Corner readers have expressed dissatisfaction when I’ve described this new normal coming to the church and prefer to believe that it will be exactly the same when they return. They may want to stop at this point.. or take a deep breath and continue reading.

There is an evolving hodgepodge of church guidelines with a Catholic Archdiocese releasing a 36 page document of very strict guidelines, a leading Evangelical organization with stringent guidelines and one of the nation’s largest Protestant mainline denominations (ELCA Lutheran) publishing a modest seven page guideline that’s a little vague and far more permissive. But a May 25th California Health Order usurps these denominational guidelines and State and Local Health Orders will need to be followed once a country lifts its own lock-down on churches and other places of public assembly.

In past AMEN Corners, we've been making informed guesses about what the church might look like. With the new California Health Order, we now know what it must look like. For now, a church must limit attendance to 25% of the worship space capacity or a maximum of 100 people. That makes it impossible for a large or megachurch to open. Grace Baptist in Santa Clarita – a church of 2500 – would have to have 25 services on a Sunday! 

Churches are advised to use an online reservation system to prevent people from being turned away at the door. They will be sent “eTickets” that will admit them to the service. County guidelines require that the reservation system obtain the person's name, phone number and email which will facilitate tracking should a person in attendance be later determined to be COVID-19 positive. 

Body temperatures using an infrared thermometer must be taken at the door by an usher wearing PPE, including safety goggles and gloves. Hand sanitizer stations must be at the church entrance and used by every person entering. Face coverings will be required for admittance. 

A strict six foot distance must be maintained between families or individuals. No more than one “family unit” per pew and every other pew roped off. Everything touched must be disinfected after each individual use so no cloth covered chairs (can’t be disinfected). 

Removal of all paper handouts, contribution envelopes, brochures, devotionals etc. No handing out service bulletins. No Bibles or hymnals. 

No singing (more on that next week). No reciting prayers or creeds out loud. No passing a collection plate. No “passing of the peace.” Shorten services as much as possible to reduce exposure times. 

No gatherings in kitchen areas and prevent walking in or through smaller rooms or narrow hallways. Close off all smaller rooms outside the worship space. Only one person at a time in a small restroom. Close off every other space in the parking lot. 

The State, Catholic, Lutheran, and other church guidelines discourage, restrict or prohibit Holy Communion until the churches are in the final phase of opening which may be months away or next year. When churches are once again permitted to distribute Communion, the restrictions will change forever the way we have participated in this sacrament. 

At the end of the service, the pastor must not greet the attendees at the door and no food or drink are to be served after the service. 

Some of you may be hoping that your pastor will look the other way when you gather with your friends in the kitchen or that he or she will continue to allow singing in the service. But for the health and safety of the people and for the protection of the church itself, all pastors and church leaders must follow the guidelines. A local Lutheran Bishop has warned his pastors that, according to their insurance companies, failure to conform to public health orders could make churches liable for the consequences of any infection that occurs in their public worship service. A wrongful death lawsuit would permanently close most churches.

The most critical decision for the church to make is what to do with the “vulnerable” church member. Some churches who have fought to stay open have become super-spreaders and people have died. As all churches gradually reopen, if guidelines loosen up, or are not followed, infections will increase and many more church members will die. That’s why Lutheran and other denominational guidelines call for vulnerable church members to not attend services, but to participate in online services. The vulnerable church members are those older than 55 and those of all ages with medical conditions (heart, lungs, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, cancer etc.) The difficulty with these decisions is that the vulnerable church member is the core of our church – in many, these members are the vast majority. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) 78% of everyone in the United States over the age of 55 has at least one of the medical conditions that would make them vulnerable to complications from COVID-19. From the age of 55 to 65 (what we might not consider as “old”), 70% of those in that age group have at least one of those medical conditions. Younger is only a little safer. Of all adults in America, 45% have one or more medical conditions that put them at an elevated risk if they become infected with this coronavirus. That’s why many churches and denominations are not willing to open until a vaccine is being distributed which could be many months away or not until sometime next year.

I know this is hard to read. It grieves me greatly as it does you. But you and I can't ignore the new normal in our church. I’m a realist and my own mental health depends on my having reasonable expectations for the church of the future. I can’t go back to “church” again. But I can look forward to the church of tomorrow because what’s important about my faith will never change. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. Hebrews 13:8


Wednesday, May 20, 2020

A Ministry of Now...

Dear Friends,

In Spanish, “Mañana” literally means “tomorrow” but its common usage is to indicate procrastination. Something indefinite in the future. I’ll get to it mañana. I excelled in the art of mañana until Jackie, Burt and Alan all happened. And then it was as if God was shaking me by the shoulders and telling me to wake up. I worked at the City with Jackie. She was in another department and I didn’t know her well but we’d talked a few times. She knew I was a pastor and I knew she didn’t go to church, was a former Christian believer and now considered herself to be “New Age.” She was off work for an long-term illness and I found out she had Hepatitis C that had damaged her liver. She was hospitalized and then finally came back to work. I prayed for her a few times and then forgot about her. Many months later, I had a dream one night where I saw her face floating in front of mine and she said, “Please help me.” I woke up convinced that God was telling me through that dream that I needed to talk with her about her faith. But it was budget time. I was very busy at work. I put off calling her until it was more convenient. There was no rush. I had plenty of time. I put on my calendar to meet with her the next month. Then I got the email telling us that she had suddenly died...

Burt loved Dave’s BBQ and we were taking him there for his 77th birthday. We’d spent the last seven birthdays with him and looked forward to this night of celebration. Burt was full of life and we anticipated many more birthdays together. I knew he was lonely out in Palmdale and there were many times that I’d thought about going out to have lunch with him or to just spend time with him and then I’d get busy. But there was no rush. I had plenty of time. There was mañana. If only I’d known that Burt was going to die in his sleep just nine days before that 77th birthday...

Alan attended the Lutheran church we were renting from. His pastor told me that Alan was a loner, withdrawn and had difficulty opening up to others. She told me that he didn't seem to want to talk with her. But at a Lenten church supper, Alan and I talked and he opened up to reveal some very personal things. He gave me his phone number and I sensed an urgent need to follow up and spend some time with him. But I ignored that sense of urgency. I wasn’t his pastor, someone else was and I didn't want to upset the one who was. Besides, I was busy enough with my own church. I knew that at some point I would call him but there was certainly no rush. If only I’d known that Alan would die during an emergency surgery for a brain tumor just thirty six days after he reached out to me for my help...

Jackie, Burt and then Alan all died within three months of each other. Alan’s death hit me hard. He reached out to me and I was too busy. That’s when God told me that my “Ministry of Mañana” needed to be a “Ministry of Now.” Because the problem with mañana is that sometimes tomorrow never comes. Sometimes we only have today.

We celebrated Burt’s birthdays because we loved him and enjoyed being with him. But it bothered me that his family would usually ignore him on his birthday and the only celebration he had was with us – his two friends. After he was dead, his whole family showed up to celebrate his life at the memorial service. If only Burt could have been there to see how much he was loved...

Alan was lonely, struggled with self-worth issues and felt unappreciated. Alan was not married, had no real friends and he felt that he had no one in his life who loved and cared for him. But after he died, over eighty people came to church to celebrate his life and to tell each other how much they loved and appreciated him. If only Alan could have been there to see how much he was loved...

Many of us have also had the Jackies, Burts and Alans in our own life and when it’s too late – when they can no longer hear our voice – that’s when we wish we had said the things they had so needed to hear from us. 

The thought of losing a loved one to death is just too terrifying to think about, but what would we do differently if we faced the reality of just how fragile our lives really are? James 4:14 What if you knew that a friend or loved one had only thirty-six days to live? Or two weeks? Or only one day? Would you tell and show them how much you love them? Would you ask for their forgiveness for something you had done or would you forgive them for something they had done to you? Would you be kinder to them? Nicer to them? Would you tell them those things they have needed to hear that you’ve never said? But of course, there’s no reason to rush things. We’re too busy today. There’s always mañana. We have plenty of time... 

For many of us, the most shocking thing about COVID-19 is that it demolished our arrogant assurance that we know what our tomorrow will look like. We have been jolted out of our belief that we are in sole control of our destiny and are now nervously preparing ourselves for the uncertainty of tomorrow. That’s why the New Testament is filled with a sense of urgency, for no one knows what our future will bring. We need to prepare for tomorrow filled with faith in God and love for God and love for one another and living each day as if it’s our last. Proverbs 27:1 And when we are living our lives and responding to people as if there is no earthly tomorrow, we are engaging in the “Ministry of Now.”

The Apostle Paul tells us to meet the urgent needs of others. Titus 3:14 Who do you urgently need to reach out to today? Who do you need to love and hug and affirm and edify and forgive and encourage today? What if tomorrow never came? What would you do if you only had today..?

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

For Whom The Bell Tolls

Dear Friends,

There are two designated COVID-19 hospitals in Los Angeles one in the south and the other in the North that’s right across the street from me. Their once overflowing parking lot has been empty since the start of the virus in our City. No “normal” patients, surgeries or visitors. Olive View Medical Center now only handles the coronavirus cases and all day long there’s a never-ending procession of county and private ambulances making the “deliveries” of COVID-19 patients who are being transferred from other hospitals. Then there are also the vehicles I see driving from the hospital that are doing the patient “pickups.” The black Lincoln Navigators that look like normal SUV’s except that they have the windows completely blacked out and are driven by mortuary attendants.

My weekly grocery shopping is at our local Smart and Final. I take advantage of the “old folks” hours at 6 am and the parking lot just has a few cars in it. I get out of my car. Stop. Look to the south and pray. Just on the other side of an adobe-colored block wall that’s a few hundred feet away is a post-acute nursing home called The Grove. Currently forty-three residents in this sixty-eight bed home are suffering with COVID-19 and seventeen of their staff members test positive. In our community of Sylmar, fifteen people have died of the virus – twelve here at The Grove and the other three deaths at different nursing homes. My heart grieves for these residents. We had been asked to do Sunday church services at The Grove but we didn’t have the resources to do so and we were already committed to holding services at Abbey Road, the residential care facility that’s the next door neighbor to The Grove. I check every day and I’m thankful that no one at Abbey Road has the virus. We are overwhelmed with the reality of death. Since the pandemic started, it seems like the L.A. Times has published a daily story about someone’s loved one dying from the virus. The media has smothered us with COVID stories. Those of us who turned daily to the latest sports stats now turn to the daily death stats in our community.

For too many months I’ve been reminded daily about the fragility of life and the inevitability of death. Some of us went to an Ash Wednesday service where the pastor smudged a cross of ashes on our forehead and reminded us of our coming death by saying, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We go home, wash our forehead, and turn on the television. Death is not something any of us want to dwell on. But now it seems as though this Biblical-like plague has imposed a cross of ashes on our forehead that can’t be washed off and we are reminded daily of suffering and death.

We read of both the young and old dying within a few days of receiving a positive diagnosis and wonder if that could happen to us. On a personal note, I was compelled to finally acknowledge that if I were to die, while thanks be to God all would be well with my soul, perhaps not so much with my property and finances. I’ve always felt that a Last Will and Testament was for older people to worry about but, even though I’m only seventy, I decided I should have one anyway despite my youth and good health. We hear and read about many, like myself, who have used this time when our normal world is on pause to acknowledge our mortality, reevaluate our lives and then to discover what is important for us as we continue to dwell in this our temporary earthly home. I know those whose careers and jobs were the most important thing in their life – now their children are. And what we pastors have been seeing is that as people have become fearful and vulnerable, they are now more open and receptive to God. A poll last week showed that 24% of all Americans said that their faith has grown stronger and is helping them get through the pandemic, and among church-goers, 68% reported that their faith has grown and is greatly helping them at this time.

A church has been starting out its online service with a close up of their bell ringing and a man’s voice intoning, “Ask not for whom the (death) bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” In the middle of our fears, it might seem inappropriately grim to start a church service by implying that we are next to die, but when we listen to the context of what is being read, we realize that’s not what it means. The phrase refers to funeral bells and comes from a Christian devotional written by John Donne who lived in England in the 1600's. Donne wrote “No man is an island.. any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind” saying in essence that we are all part of the same family of God and what affects one affects us all. When the death bell tolls for the young man dying in the ICU or the woman in the nursing home, it tolls for the little part of us that has also died. 

Some live in a world where we narcissistically demand it be our way and we see that reflected in the recent protests against sheltering at home. We are outraged to find that we do not have a constitutional right to a haircut. We have no need for a mask – our green kale smoothies, daily supplements and our yoga keep us healthy. And yet it’s the social distancing and our annoying mask that keep others safe from us. If we’ve contracted the virus, we can infect others with it up to two days before we manifest the symptoms. John Doone’s devotional reminds us that in the Kingdom of God, those strangers are our family. It’s not just about us.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

What's Scaring Your Pastor?

Dear Friends,

According to pastors throughout our Country, what disturbs their sleep and keeps them awake are the night terrors of the “new normal” in their church. What we pastors and priests love about our church are the practices, the rituals, the traditions – the unchanging sameness – and the fear is that church will never be the same again. We trust in God that the church will survive but we are being told to be prepared for a new normal that may change nearly everything that a pastor loves about his/her church. Some government and denominational guidelines are even eliminating singing in church because it’s been proven that’s a particularly effective and deadly way to spread the virus. I know my description last week of the church service of the future is hard to believe, but a few days ago the state of Texas issued an executive order with church guidelines so stringent that some pastors believe that it may be easier to just keep their church closed until COVID-19 goes away. Here are some of the challenges your church is facing...

To achieve the required social distancing, new guidelines are specifying a seating area of 500 square feet (about the size of a two car garage) to accommodate ten people and most of our denominational churches in our area have a seating area of about 1,000 square feet. That limits each service to twenty people. A very small church of twenty will be just fine. But the church of thirty will now need to have two services. The church of 100 will need to have five services instead of just the one and that creates impossible logistics if they rent space for their services. And any church that must split up into multiple services on Sunday will find that most people just don't want to go to church at three in the afternoon. But the worst news for pastors is that Texas guidelines, expected to be adopted by other states, also specify that no one over the age of 65 or who has underlying medical conditions (obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart or lung conditions) should attend an in-person service. The CDC guidelines for churches also state that age 65+ and those medically vulnerable not attend services even in Phase 3, when the churches are opened to the public with social distancing in place. Ironically that directive makes it easier for churches to achieve social distancing because it just eliminated over half of nearly every church congregation in our Nation. Once you see these challenges through the eyes of the pastors, it’s easy to understand why they are losing sleep at night.

What is being encouraged by government and denominational guidelines is continuing online services but that’s not working out well for many churches. The main reasons we attend the church that we do are the location, the friends we enjoying seeing on Sunday, and because it’s the denomination or the tradition with which we are most familiar and comfortable. We put up with Sally’s screechy solos and our pastor’s rambling sermons because Sally is a friend and we’re fond of Pastor Dave. But online services have changed the dynamic. Location doesn’t matter and we don’t see our friends on Sundays anymore. We’ve been interested in that church across town and their services are now a mouse click away. People who would have never considered checking out another church are now doing so online. Our warm feelings for Pastor Dave have not changed, it’s just that we now prefer to hear Pastor Megan or Joel Osteen on Sunday morning. Megachurches are reporting huge increases in viewership while our smaller churches are losing viewers every week. When pastors wake up in the middle of the night and try “counting sheep” to fall back asleep, they are finding fewer sheep to count.

Some states, including California, have said that churches will not be allowed to reopen until Stage 3 which may be many months from now or may not even be until next year. Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop of the ELCA (Lutheran) church said that her denomination is not ready to reopen. She said, “Many churchgoers are elderly, which puts them at risk and nearly 42% of ELCA clergy, too, are at least 60 years old.” She said “The body of Christ is right now COVID-19 positive. So inviting more of the body of Christ to put itself in harm's way – with the possibility of becoming infected or taking the infection home to someone else, spreading it further – that is just not faithful.” She said that her churches will follow CDC guidelines for physical distancing and wearing masks when they do open and said that, “We'll certainly not be having potlucks any time soon!” For many people, church has simply become what we do on a Sunday and it’s been more of a lifestyle habit than a religious commitment. As the closures continue, church leaders fear that for those without a strong spiritual connection to their church, habits will change and people will find other things fulfilling to do on a Sunday morning. This is what’s causing your pastor to have those stress-filled and sleepless nights.

If you believe that God is leading you to change churches for the right reasons -- read Should I Leave My Church -- then perhaps this really is your opportunity to do your online church shopping. 

But if you believe that God is calling you to a renewed commitment to your church and your pastor, this is an opportunity to support and encourage him or her and I’m not talking about ten seconds to send a text with a thumbs-up emoji. Please consider spending some time to hand-write a note or a card and mail it to them – or at the very least, perhaps send an email. Let them know of your commitment to the church and that they can count on you to be there when it reopens. Let them know what it is that you appreciate about them. A friend of mine just wrote to the pastor of his church and told him he had a wonderful smile and how it makes everyone feel good to see it! Let your pastor know what you appreciate about your church. Be specific about what is meaningful to you during the church service and what it is that brings you closer to God. When you’re at the grocery store, consider buying a gift card to enclose with your note or card and bless your pastor with your thoughtfulness. In the best of times, most pastors rarely or never hear anything complimentary and pastors today report they have never been more discouraged than they are right now. This is the time for you to step up and be an encourager! Help him or her to sleep well at night! Amen?

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Note: The last paragraph might be viewed as "self-serving" if I was the current pastor of those who read this AMEN Corner. I'm not. Our church service is held in a retirement home. The pastor I would like to see you lift up and encourage during this unsettling time in the church is your pastor!