Finding Joy in Exile

 
“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” -Psalm 137:1-3
 
 
How much have you wept since mid-March? I suspect many of us have had our own bouts of tears for various reasons. From distance learning to canceled sports to postponed events, Covid-19 has caused many of us to do our own crying and lamenting. The text above comes from Psalm 137 in the Old Testament.  It was a psalm written when people from Jerusalem were held captive in Babylon for 70 years. Scripture scholars refer to this as the Babylonian Exile and it took place nearly 600 years before the birth of Christ. For 70 years the Jewish captives could not gather in their temple, or celebrate their Seder meals, or worship and remember their Passover. They were apart from their brothers and sisters for 70 years! Let that sink in for a moment.  Our tears have not been shed alone.  And yet in the midst of their exile they were able to have hope. Hope sustains us especially in times of change, disruption and upheaval.
 
 
Our church family has been physically distant from one another for about 4 months now. Our quarantine has given us a small glimpse into the pain and longing of the Babylonian exile. I have heard the desire of some people from this congregation to gather and celebrate again, to re-open our church to worship, to celebrate and laugh together, to sing and to commune. We recently celebrated an outdoor service wearing masks and practicing physical distance.  We are planning a few more of these simple gatherings, signs of hope for us in these changing times.  However, I want to reiterate to you that we will be in exile for some time yet, and thus we will continue to refrain from gathering in-person in the building. The Church Council and our Covid-19 Response Safety Team is following the recommendations from Public Health Board in Wisconsin as well as the recommendations from the CDC, the Wisconsin Council of Churches and the advice from our Synod and the church wide office of the ELCA.  I have been part of conversations with other area ELCA Churches who are choosing to worship virtually. All of these resources are recommending extreme caution.  My own personal opinion and sense is that is in the best and safest interest to keep worshiping online for the near future.
 
 
I have heard the argument made: Why shouldn’t churches be allowed to worship at 25% capacity if the state and multiple counties allow restaurants, bars, gyms and retail stores to do so? My response is this: First of all, the mission of the church is different from the rest.  Our mission is to be Jesus for the world and to protect life.  We are most “the church” by loving one another and distancing ourselves as an act of love and life until we have a treatment or a vaccine for Covid-19. Secondly, what is legal to do is not necessarily the right thing to do. I have expressed my reservations to my colleagues in certain Evangelical and Catholic churches on their re-opening. Church at its best is about protecting all life not putting anyone in harm’s way. Ultimately, I have been called with being the pastor of this BLC faith community. Other churches can do as they please but I choose not to follow their example. As Martin Luther said: Here I stand. I can do no other.
 
 
Still, as a pastor and shepherd I feel deeply for the loneliness and, in some instances, loss of hope some members of our congregation might be experiencing these days. They are truly exiled, living in a strange and bitter land. The Council, besides myself, has been keeping in touch with all our parishioners and will continue to do so. Even in this time of weeping, I have seen how creative our community has been in connecting with one another (birthday and graduation parades, card showers, etc). We must re-double our efforts to ease the exile and remind folks we still are church together. When we do this, we keep HOPE ALIVE! Over the next few months I hope we can keep finding ways of doing just that. Perhaps it will be small gatherings in the parking lot at church, opening the church sanctuary for personal prayer (one or two at a time), continuing the outdoor services with distanced seating (outdoors) where we could see one another. This is how we will love one another.
 
 
I’d like to offer one final word about re-opening. Nearly every expert in the field of virus transmission admits that it may reach a point where it is safe for large groups to gather again, yet they caution it will likely be only for a short time. As I have consistently said, this virus will dictate to us what we do and when we do it.  Most epidemiologists say that we are now in the eye of the hurricane and the autumn will bring renewed spikes. I asked Dr. Jodi McGraw her thoughts about in-person worship and this was her response: “This is such a fluid situation that it is difficult to give an answer, but my best thought at this point in time is to continue to avoid indoor in-person worship. Some outdoor worship with social distancing and masks sounds reasonable for now.” Very recently after being part of a small prayer gathering I was contacted with the news someone present at the gathering had tested positive for Covid-19.  I immediately called my health care provider and arranged to get tested.  After some anxious days, the test results came back negative.  You can imagine the restlessness I felt as my thoughts and worries were intensely focused on Amy, the baby, Anna and Peter. What if I had infected them?  Folks, this is real.  It is not a hoax.  Keeping hope alive may mean doing things a little differently and that’s OKAY.  Our faith formation leaders are creatively thinking through what Holy Moly, Bridge and Confirmation will look like this year. I suspect it may begin online or be some type of hybrid experience. I ask for your patience, understanding and compassion. This “road” and time of exile will continue to be different for ALL OF US.  I understand there are as many opinions as there are parishioners in our church family.  Please reach out to Council Members, the Covid-19 Safety Team and myself if you like to share your thoughts.
 
 
Here’s an important point to remember: even if we were to gather for worship, it would NOT resemble what we experienced before all this happened. There would be no gathering/conversation, no congregational singing, preaching would be shortened, communion would be very different, and certainly no fellowship afterward. Until there is treatment or a cure this is our new reality. I miss you. I miss celebrating with you. I miss worshiping the way we are used to worshiping. Yet this is how we will be the Body of Christ for the world and one another and keep HOPE ALIVE– by protecting each other and not risking life unnecessarily. After reading, praying and talking with others, here’s my final point: One day we will journey on this road out of exile to be together again – ALL OF US – not just the young, not only the healthy, not only those who are not physically compromised, not merely 25% – One day all of us will gather again. Remember how we conclude our worship at BLC: Let’s go be church after church. These simple words now take on a whole new meaning on this road we find ourselves. I find incredible hope in that and I pray you do too.
 

Jesus gathered people (especially around tables), but he also scattered them. Early in the Gospels, Jesus sent his newly recruited disciples out to heal and cast out demons. They didn’t have much in the way of supplies, and in two accounts, they’re sent not in pairs, but entirely alone. Start looking, and you’ll see roads all over the Bible. These solitary travelers journeyed in situations of great uncertainty, much like our own. Their destinations may have been clear, but their futures were less so. Somewhere along the way, however, they always encountered something unexpected: the astonishing presence of the sacred.’

 

Perhaps there’s something about being jolted away from our rituals and routines for a time that helps us see their value in new ways. No one was anticipating or planning to walk this path that we were all thrust into back in March. And I would argue it’s given us a shock of clarity. At once, we are suddenly unemployed, attempting to both parent and work full time, hesitating about this fall’s college plans, or fearful of illness.  Nothing seems for certain anymore.

 
This chart from the Texas Medical Association shows what risks may be involved as we participate in different activities. Educate yourself. The greater the numbers, the greater the risk. As we walk this road of exile, let’s boldly love and be beacons of hope for this community we call home.  Dear Church, I want to encourage you to stay CONNECTED to this family of faith.  Now more than ever, we need each other.  Join in our virtual worship, whether live on Sundays at 9:00am or later in the day when it works for you.  Read the weekly emails and the monthly newsletters. Call, email, write or text your fellow parishioners. Our ministry is continuing albeit in somewhat different ways than before.  All of us have in our own way have wept these past few months. But we are not the first to undergo an exile. Our God is with us…and we need to be supportive, kind and compassionate with each other.  When we remember God is with us, we can know, feel, see and experience JOY once again.  Here on the road in our exile between the old life and new one, we have an opportunity to be remade. One way of being remade is to just love one another- and one way you can simply do this is by wearing a mask.  Practice physical distancing.  Be safe. Avoid large gatherings.  Virtually connect to BLC and our ministry of sharing Christ’s Light. Those first exiles eventually got to get back on the road and return home.  In due time, we will too, and in doing so find joy and hope in exile.
 
 
 
If nothing else, even in our weeping, let us be confident of our God who hears our prayers, worries and anxieties. That’s hope. Would you please pray these words with me:
 

Dear Lord, 

As the coronavirus (COVID-19) affects our world, we continue to pray.

We invite you into our hearts, Lord — hearts that have so much on them right now.

Amidst our fear, disappointment, confusion, uncertainty, grief, anger, frustration and more…

We invite you in, Lord. 

We know you are bigger.

May we be given a peace and understanding of cancellations and physical distancing rules.

May we act with humility to not just preserve our own safety and health, but to look beyond ourselves and think of how our actions will affect others.

May we be alert to the ways we may help those around us, and give us the grace to step forward without hesitation to be men and women for and with others, for Your greater glory.

Come to our aid and help us, Lord.

Open our ears to hear your voice in these troubled times, may we listen and be prudent and may we draw ever closer to you. Remind us in this exile to have hope in You.

Amen.

 

~PJ

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