Anxious to return to “normal”

Why slowing down is important for our spirits

This COVID-19 pandemic has been interesting — and tiring. I haven’t been able to sleep these last several weeks. My heart races wildly whenever I close my eyes. My mom, trying to sound helpful while failing to mask her concern, says it could be panic attacks. She’s probably right. Anxious thoughts or not, I should see a doctor. 

Pussy willows gently sway in the cold spring breeze on one of Pastor Donna’s walks on the rail trail behind her home in Vermont — a reminder that God brings forth life in God’s time. No rushing — or anxiety — in God’s kingdom. All will be well.

I mentioned my anxiety to a friend the other day, lamenting how this virus infects every part of our lives — not just our bodies, but our spirits, souls, our very being. It’s running rampant, I said, because it has unleashed a slew of tough questions that were begging to be answered — or at least nudging to be acknowledged — for far too long. 

Questions of what is right and what is wrong that we have brushed aside because, well, because our lives were comfortable. Our investments were doing well and, praise God, there was toilet paper for everyone. When the real world dared to creep into our conscience with whispers about homelessness, food insecurity and how many Americans were teetering on the brink of poverty, we would give ourselves this wimpy reassurance: “Who am I to make a difference?” And on with our lives we would go. 

We are not in this together

The thing is, we can’t continue with our lives as they were because the pandemic is smacking us in the face with the question, “What is God asking of us?” Because no matter how much we would like to believe all those utopian Facebook messages that “we are in this together” the truth is, we are not. 

My husband is a truckdriver who shakes his head at all those sharing with me the struggle to work from home, noting that to do so is a privilege that blue collar workers like him do not have. He has to contend with the lack of safety precautions at his job — no hand sanitizer available, no gloves or masks either. While he comes home every night, he still drives long distances daily and has to risk stopping at gas stations to use restrooms. He can’t shelter in place. It’s not an option for him. A few weeks ago, he wondered out loud why five-star hotels in Vegas were not opening their luxury rooms to the homeless who were sleeping in the very parking lots of these hotels? 

“Why couldn’t empty rooms be filled with those who need a place to shelter in a time of sheltering?” he asked. Good question. 

Then then there was a friend who emailed me up in arms after reading about farmers dumping milk. Being I’m a rural pastor, she probably thought I had the answer to why that was being done rather than giving the milk to the hungry. My husband the truck driver, who by the way delivers feed to farmers in our rural area, explained to me that the situation was not that simple. There are many steps in the collection, processing and bottling of milk that need to be considered. Basically, the short answer is that you can’t get milk to others if there is a slow down or shut down in the supply chain. It seems our heighted state of anxiety has also shortened our tempers, leading us to judge quickly without gathering all the facts. I know I have been guilty of this one too many times these last few weeks. 

Still, the questions persist and no matter the topic, they all succeed at one thing. They make the line between the haves and have nots ever more visible. And I am finding myself overwhelmed by the daily torrent of hard questions. Questions needing immediate answers without the luxury of processing first and adjusting to the new world we are being hurled into — a world we are clueless about. 

Each day is uncertain. Each day is a struggle. And, on the days I feel my fear finally slipping away and see my faith peeking hesitantly around the dreaded COVID-19 corner, I get slammed with a new reality in this new world. The latest is the growing demand for things to get back to “normal.” People are insisting on it, fighting for it, protesting over it. Perhaps they want that line between the haves and have nots to fade from their sight. I don’t blame them. It’s not pretty when that line becomes clear. It’s even worse when you finally realize, it’s always been there. 

Yet I wonder what would happen if we allowed ourselves to really be changed by this pandemic? To not rush so quickly back to what was, but rather trust God’s what can be? To finally see the line that separates so many of us and to decide that, yes, you as one person, can make a difference? 

Perhaps then anxiety will give way to a creative hope that truly moves us into God’s new reality. 

And the steeple bell rang …

Frank, I really don’t think it’s a good idea to gather at the church. Yes, I know this is the holiest of weeks. You are correct. Easter is coming. Yes, I know you miss your church. Yes, I know you will take precautions. Oh, you have a mask. That’s good. And hand sanitizer? That’s great, but we need to keep our distance. Yes, I know you understand that. Yes, I heard you. I know it’s Holy Week. But to come to the church to ring the bell …

I was about to launch into my public service announcement about the need to stay home, especially as the COVID-19 virus began making itself known to our rural community, but I was interrupted.

“Pastor, I don’t think you understand,” Frank sighed. He sounded as exacerbated as I was with our phone conversation. “I need to hear our church bell ring.”

He was right. I didn’t understand about the bell. What I did understand was the seriousness of the virus coming to our rural community. While the cases being reported were still low in comparison to much more populated areas, they were inching upward. I knew behind the reports of cases would be the reports of deaths.

COVID-19 in rural communities

COVID-19 is just as challenging and deadly in rural America as it is in our cities — something city dwellers escaping to their country homes fail to recognize. Those who live in rural areas contend with the lack of medical care. Many rural hospitals have closed down over the years, leaving the closest medical facility an hour or so away. On top of that, America’s rural population falls in the COVID-19 vulnerable category — 65 and older and many with health concerns.
Frank is one of the vulnerable who is the sole caretaker for someone at home who is even more vulnerable. Yet he needed to ring the bell. What I lacked in understanding, I made up for in hearing, as I heeded the urgency in his voice. No matter how much I was against it, I felt compelled to concede to his wishes.

I made the hour’s drive to unlock the doors of the little church I serve nestled in New York’s Adirondacks on the border of Vermont. When I pulled into the parking lot, I saw not just Frank’s car. There were others as well. Word got out that Frank was going to ring the bells and people came to hear. I feared what would happen next. They would get out of their cars intending to keep a safe distance from one another, and we all know how well that goes. Six feet quickly becomes a foot when the joy of seeing another takes hold.

As Frank made his way into the church, I jumped out of my car to control the “crowd.” It’s funny how four people constitutes a crowd these days. I remained as loving and as pastoral as I could as I reminded them to stay by their own cars.

Social gatherings part of rural fabric

For those who think rural America has it easier when it comes to social distancing, think again. Sure, we have wide open fields and mountain trails to roam. Our houses aren’t on top of one another and we can run to the farm up the road that has a fridge filled with goat cheese, fresh eggs and milk for sale.

The problem, though, with social distancing in rural America is not that we lack the physical space to spread out. The problem is that social distancing is not in our vocabulary. Rural America is a place where coming together isn’t an optional activity. It is a necessity. Coming together, being there in person for one another, holding a benefit dinner at the church, a bake sale at the school, a card game at the Grange or a good old-fashioned talent show at the old jailhouse that’s now a community center, is what rural living is all about. We don’t pull down the shade and turn off the lights when someone drops by unexpectedly. We just assume they will give quick tap on the door as they open it and walk in before being officially invited.

We don’t make excuses to get out of a dinner engagement. We find excuses for reasons to gather at the table to eat together.

Change is hard 

And church? Church is where most of my tiny, older congregation go to find respite and connect. They are not into Zoom meetings. Some are trying. They are not too keen on Facebook live streaming for worship. I have wanted to try it, but with so few on Facebook, I hesitate. It’s not a great ego booster having two people viewing you when your clergy friends have 150 or more tuning in. I know. God doesn’t like ego and having two people watching me lead worship shouldn’t matter, even if one of them is your mom. Thanks, Mom.

I have to admit a bit of envy when I hear my colleagues having success with digital church, but I still deal with lagging internet here in the sticks. I have to admit I feel a bit of peer pressure to get the cameras rolling to worship — lagging internet or not — not wanting to be left out of this new wave of evangelism that has been long overdue.

And dare I whisper out loud what I think many rural pastors want to say — I feel overlooked by the larger church who yet again doesn’t understand that ministry in rural America is different. I want to hear someone say that it’s okay to snail mail the worship bulletin. I want to read stories about how powerful the antiquated phone tree can be to connect with the congregation.

I just don’t want everyone to assume that rural America is keeping up with how the pandemic is changing church as we know it. Because for my congregation, church at this moment still means finding peace and solace in a sanctuary that has been home for generations. It is familiar. It is comforting. And they deeply miss being able to congregate there. They are grieving in so many ways.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote that “bells were the voice of the church.” Pastor Donna discovered just how true that was when her rural church rang the bells at the start of Holy Week.

Social distancing in rural America isn’t easy. It’s like herding cats, I mused, as I waited for the bell to chime. I guess I was so absorbed by the thought of herding cats that I didn’t notice what was happening in the parking lot. The chatter among the folks gathered was joyous and when I looked up from my own grim thoughts, I noticed smiles on the faces of those still adhering to my stern “stay by your own car” warning.

And when the bell finally rang … and rang … and rang, the chatter stopped. All eyes looked up to the steeple. With each peal, smiles grew. I swear I saw eyes gaze beyond the weathered steeple, searching the heavens — for what I’m not sure of? An answer from God? A sign all will be well? A cry for help tucked inside a heart that has never been let out till now.

Bells are the voice of the church

For centuries, church bells have played a prominent role in communities serving as timekeepers, marking the hour for work, prayer or for coming together. Hearing church bells can make us stop what we are doing, cease the talking, and lead us into a much-needed space to reflect, to become prayerful.

As Frank rang the bell, a cloud of prayerfulness descended upon the parking lot and for a moment it felt as if we were in this divine group hug — all four of us still standing six feet away from one another.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote that “bells are the voice of the church.”

Could it be that our bell that rang was a voice telling not only us, but our surrounding community, that our church was alive and well? Could it be that the bell was a voice we needed to hear during Holy Week, pealing with hope and promise? Could it be that while our little church wasn’t Zooming or Facebooking or streaming online, we still had the ability to witness to God’s glory through our bell?

The ringing stopped. All that was left was a reverberating in my body. Folks got into their cars. Motors started up and one by one they went back home to shelter in place. I lingered, staring into the sky beyond the steeple. I never thought ringing the church bell could be so healing nor did I ever think that it would be a wonderful way to connect the congregation and the community.

Frank needed to hear the church bell ring. Those in the congregation needed to hear the “voice” of the church chime with its message of life and vitality. Frank was right. I didn’t understand. I do now.

Donna Frischknecht Jackson is editor of Presbyterians Today magazine. A former New York City editor, she now lives in Vermont where she is a part-time pastor of a church in Putnam, New York. When not trying to “herd cats” she shoots devotional videos at her home she calls “Old Stone Well Farm.” This article was featured on the Presbyterians Today’s blog.