Heavy Lies the Crown

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By Donna Frischknecht Jackson

It is said that the crown placed on Elizabeth II’s head at her coronation on June 2, 1953, in London’s Westminster Abbey, weighs about three pounds. The hefty weight of the St. Edward Crown, made in 1661, is not just because it is solid gold. It also has a lot of bling on it, most notably the 317-carat Cullinan II diamond, also known as the “Second Star of Africa.”

So heavy was the crown on such a petite frame that palace insiders revealed that Elizabeth had to practice walking gracefully in it. Standing tall and proud with such weight bearing down on one’s frame is always of the utmost importance for a monarch in the public eye. But the pressure to bear the weight with ease was even greater for young Elizabeth, as her coronation to the throne of England would be the first time the ancient and gallant ceremony would be televised. There would be no room for slouching, slipping or tripping.

Heavy lies the crown …

This saying has been on my mind a lot lately. No, I haven’t been literally walking around with a three-pound solid gold, gem-encrusted crown on my head these day (or any days, for that matter). The crown weighing on my head is a figurative one. It’s the heaviness that comes with caring for the people you have been entrusted to care for.

It’s the heaviness William Shakespeare was getting at when he penned the words in his play “Henry IV” — uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. What Shakespeare was calling his audience’s attention to was that there is great responsibility — and many sleepless nights — when tasked with leading a group of people. Over the years, Shakespeare’s eloquent words morphed into the modern version, “heavy lies the crown.” It is amazing to realize that so many of the sayings we take for granted come from the quill of just one man. Pure genius.

I am no queen. Far from it. But I am a pastor who often finds herself with sleepless nights as caring for God’s children is a responsibility not taken lightly. It is what I promised to do at my “coronation,” better known as “the ordination service.”

Rather than a crown of gold pressing down on my head, I had the tremendous weight of many hands bearing down on me during a time of prayer, asking for God’s strength and guidance upon me as a new shepherd of the flock. It’s interesting that “strength” and “guidance” were asked, for the pressure of current and retired pastors’ hands grew heavier as the prayer continued on.

It was a powerful moment, though, to feel the weight and to realize how this call would lead me to my knees crumbled in prayer. It was also powerful to not only feel the burdensome weight, but to realize I was not alone in this journey.

Heavy lies the crown …

My “crown” is giving me a headache lately as I find myself changing and growing as a pastor in this time of pandemic. I see a new vision for ministry. I want to be part of it, but I have the weight of those wanting the church to be as it was, to return to what is familiar, weighing me down. I also have the weight of being the voice of reason when it comes to what we can and cannot do in this time of COVID-19, especially when my voice of reason is spoken to a congregation that is the textbook example of being “vulnerable” to the virus.

No, we cannot sing hymns. No, you cannot take off your mask in the sanctuary. No, we really shouldn’t be in rush to get back into the sanctuary for worship. So, can you please tell me, theologically, what the rush is all about?

This past week the church’s beloved fish fry kept moving forward — but pastor, if we hold it outdoors, if we follow safety procedures, there’s no reason why we can’t have it — I kept being assured. The assurances didn’t help.

My sleep became more restless. One night I woke from a disturbing dream where people got sick after sharing a church meal together. I tried to brush it aside, praying that, as adults, those who might not feel safe participating in the fish fry would choose not to go.

My husband, while not falling into the definition of being vulnerable (although we are all vulnerable in one way or another), had already made the decision not to attend out of care and compassion for others. My soul, though, continued to be rattled. Then it came. My God moment.

A letter from a sister presbytery citing how a rural church, similar to the one I lead, had an outbreak of the virus. The letter was shared not to instill fear, but to serve as a cautionary tale. The church thought they were small enough for the virus not to happen to them. They also couldn’t justify cancelling their beloved event — a family fun day — for the very same reason the fish fry wasn’t aborted: It would be held outdoors. (It’s safe when an event is outdoors, right?) Fifteen people, all who attended the family fun day, became infected with COVID-19.

I shared the letter with my congregation. The reaction was not what I expected. There was anger, misunderstanding and a defensiveness that was not pretty. The fish fry was called off by the organizer, and several emails came to me slamming my role in it being called off.

Heavy lies the crown …

It’s been a tiring week complete with a rattled soul, sleepless nights, a disturbing dream, and many prayers to God asking for guidance. Then a sign, perhaps? A letter from another church sharing a cautionary tale that seemed too similar to the congregation I was responsible for. I felt my strength returning.

It doesn’t matter if you are royalty or a country pastor. It’s not easy leading people. Perhaps that is why the crown placed on a royal’s head is literally so heavy, reminding them at how uncomfortable and great the responsibility bearing down on them is.

Perhaps that is why pastors have the heavy weight of many people pressing down on them during the ordination prayer — a reminder of the pressures for caring for God’s children. And a reminder that those very hands pushing us down are the very hands capable of helping us back up again — only by God’s grace.

Yes, heavy lies the crown.

Popping the Church Bubble

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by Donna Frischknecht Jackson 

“Our bubble is popped” was how one news outlet put it as it broke the news that COVID-19 has hit close to where I call home.

I’ll admit I was living in a bubble here in southern Vermont, still feeling relatively safe from what my parents in northern New Jersey and my sister in Florida were experiencing. But now the loud pop has echoed throughout the Green Mountains and has made me face some really hard questions. How are we living? What does the future hold? And, as a pastor, perhaps the hardest question of all: Why do the faithful keep insisting on returning to their sanctuaries? VTD-Northshire-Covid-19-3-610x457

Have we not learned in the brief time of lock-down that my flock experienced that being a vital church doesn’t mean being together in a building on a Sunday morning?

The congregation I serve returned to the sanctuary in June after a little more than a two -month hiatus from traditional Sunday morning worship. We returned wearing face masks and sitting in designated pews to ensure at least six-feet social distance from one another. We returned in spite of my warning that there could be a very real possibility that COVID-19 cases could rise in the summer months, especially as out-of-towners returned to their summer homes on the lake.

Guess what? More COVID-19 cases are being reported in the county where the church is located. Have we closed the sanctuary yet? No.

Some news reports say the spike now seen in my backyard of Manchester, Vermont, began around the Fourth of July holiday. It makes sense as I noticed that weekend more cars in the area with out-of-state plates. I also noticed grocery store parking lots were fuller as were the parks and picnic areas. But the cases aren’t just increasing in Vermont. It’s happening in other rural areas as well.

According to Daily Yonder, an email news outlet reporting on life outside of the cities and burbs, the daily rate of new infections in rural America climbed 150% in June. A list of the rural counties with the highest rates of new cases included many with prisons and meatpacking plants. Other counties with high infection rates were those with a high proportion of non-whites.

Spikes in COVID-19 are not just happening in the United States, but worldwide. I remember a celebratory article a month or two ago on how Spain reopened its country to tourism. Today’s news: Madrid has seen a spike in cases.

I don’t want to sound all doom and gloom because it is not all doom and gloom. The time we are living in simply calls for everyone to do their part — be aware and be smart. Take the virus seriously and be patient. Better yet, don’t be patient. Be flexible. Adapt. Accept the reality that precautions need to be heeded.

It is time to put on that face mask and begin processing that we are not returning to the old ways that we know and are comfortable with. Wash those hands well and, as the water hits your skin, think about the waters of baptism that hit your face so long ago (or recently) — the water full of promise, inviting you into a new way of living claimed as God’s beloved.

You see, I believe in God who breaks forth from heaven and makes all things new. But that can only happen when we finally stop insisting on returning to our old lives and established routines.

Personally, as a pastor, returning to old routines is not only putting lives at risk, it is putting our faith at risk. I don’t know about you but returning to the old way of being the church has been a drain on my faith and creativity.

I was not called to sustain a dying institution. I was called to point all who lament about yesterday being gone to the present moment where Jesus, in all of his resurrected glory, stands before us with his hand stretched out saying, “This is a new day. There is a new way. Come and FINALLY follow me.”

I believe in resurrection with all my heart, but we don’t get to experience new life till we finally decide to stop clinging to what can no longer be sustained.

There is this rushed insistence to reopen churches and get back to what we want without giving time for God to reveal what God wants. Is it really that hard to wait patiently for God to reveal the next steps?

What I see emerging in this time of pandemic are so many needs that provide the church its moment to finally rise up and be the church.

What if we stop worrying about reopening our church buildings — and how to meet church budgets when giving might be down — and focus instead on how can we use our resources to be a beacon of hope or respite for families who are tired of home schooling their children? Or how can advocate for better rural internet to help those who are cut off from the ever-growing need for high-speed and reliable technology? What about access to better healthcare in our rural areas? Hunger? Poverty? What about the fight against opioid usage that hasn’t subsided because of the coronavirus? A disturbing report came through my newsfeed recently saying that those government stimulus checks have been linked to an increase in drug overdoses in Vermont and New Hampshire, as residents already struggling with addiction are feeling even more hopeless in a time of pandemic.

Have these questions been part of churches’ online meetings? Or have those meetings been about giving and online worship trends and when to reopen the building?

My bubble popped today. COVID-19 has hit home here in southern Vermont. But as I process what this all means, I can’t help but to wonder: When will the church bubble finally pop? Because the church needs to face the reality that the world is changing. There’s no going back to our pre-COVID-19 existence.

 

 

Tuning Out the World

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By Donna Frischknecht Jackson
I’ve tried taking a sabbatical from the noise in this world. I’ve tried, but I’m failing.

Deep in my soul, I know I need to tune out the opinions and debates, truths and fallacies, the right and left ideologies. I know better than to be suckered by the sensational headlines that writers are crafting just to make sure innocent readers take the bait and click to the article.

There’s a term for that. It’s called “clickbait.” It’s designed to boost the number of hits an article receives because, sadly, a writer’s worth is no longer in beautifully crafted prose that has the power to enter into a hidden room of a reader’s soul and move them to think differently or act boldly. Now, a writer’s worth is measured by how many “clicks” a story has gotten.

I’m trying to take a sabbatical from the noise of the world, but I’m failing. I try lessening the sting of failure by telling myself I am writer, I am a pastor, I am a communicator with a passion for telling the story of who we are, especially who we are as children of God. In my defense, I need to know what the world is chattering about. Maybe. Then again, maybe not.

I think back to my life as a communicator before the internet created an avalanche of words to sort through. The news of the world reached me in manageable, bite-sized pieces. I was able to chew, savor and digest. But now our news intake is like a Golden Corral buffet (that was when buffets were still a thing pre-COVID-19) — a disgusting abundance of subpar food that we inhale with abandon and then wonder why we feel sick? If too much of good thing isn’t good for you, then too much of a bad thing is deadly.

I have a few friends who are brave souls and have taken sabbaticals from the noise of the world, shutting down social media accounts or at least being strong enough not to reach for their devices first thing in the morning to see how the sky has fallen just a bit more. (By the way, did you know that the bubonic plague has returned? Not that I want to be the bearer of bad news, but that was yesterday’s headline that greeted me as I cut into my grapefruit.)

I am a bit envious of those friends that have had the strength to turn their backs on the world so that they can achieve a peaceful state of being. Then again, perhaps they struggled at first, too?

Perhaps a state of being where God is at the forefront of every thought, every decision, every question, every interaction, every tweet, every FB post, every email, only comes when we finally get sick and tired of being sick and tired of our current situation and really want what God is offering.

Like the healing stories of Jesus, those seeking to be healed had to really want it. They had to fight their way through crowds (the woman who hemorrhaged for years) and overcome obstacles (the friends who cut a hole in a roof to lower their sick friend down to where Jesus was).

They had to reach deep into themselves and honestly ask if they really wanted to change. Just like the man who kept waiting for others to take him to the healing waters — only to be told by Jesus to get up, grab his own mat and walk toward healing — I, too, need to find the strength and the resolve to get up and take hold of the peace I need in this world.

I can still be a writer. I can still be a pastor. I can still be a communicator who loves to tell the story of Jesus and his love. I can still be all that I am called to be — perhaps even more — because I will be listening more clearly to God rather than to the disparaging and disheartening chatter of this world. And it is God’s Word that will ultimately bring me the peaceful state of being I seek.

 

A new revolution

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By Donna Frischknecht Jackson

I’ve been obsessively counting the days this week till the debut of the “Hamilton” movie. I don’t live in Manhattan anymore, nor do I now live in an area with easy access to the arts of any kind. I am a resident of rural America, meaning any culture in my life takes a lot of planning and travel. Sure, there are museums and way, way, way off Broadway productions that do their best to light up small stages within driving distance, but the distance is a deterrent most of the time.

And so, when I heard “Hamilton” would be in front of my very eyes on my computer screen — no driving two hours or so — I jumped for joy. Broadway at its best and with a dose of 18th century history for this 18th century history lover.

 

Hamilton An American Musical on Broadway (2015) Daveed Diggs (Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson), Okieriete Onaodowan (Hercules Mulligan/James Madison), Anthony Ramos (John Laurens/Philip Hamilton), and Lin-Manuel Miranda (Alexander Hamilton) CR: Joan Marcus


What more could I ask for than a show about Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the country?

Funny that I asked that, because “Hamilton” gave me more than I was prepared for. As I counted down the days to the show, I discovered that “Hamilton” wasn’t just going to be a much-needed escape from my crazy world filled with deadlines and church duties. The production was going to open my eyes. It was going to get me thinking. It was going to make me want to jump up and cry out for a new revolution.

You see, as the media blitz leading to the July 3 movie release picked up speed, I took moments to stop my own writing and editing to listen to several Zoom interviews with cast members who, being men and women of color, were providing a startling and unique stage setting for white America’s history. George Washington, Aaron Burr, Eliza Hamilton, the list goes on — played by actors of color. I found it profound and I began feeling something stirring inside of me.

It was then I heard Daveed Diggs, who played Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette, speak about his experience performing in “Hamilton.” He talked about how telling the story of the birth of this country has been an awakening leading many to realize that we are in another moment of awakening.

“A lot of people are feeling very passionate about not allowing business as usual to continue, in terms of how we govern ourselves, how we police ourselves, all of these things,” said Diggs in an interview. He continued to say, “I’ve been Black my whole life, so this feeling is not a new one to me. ‘Hamilton’ has an opportunity to help the conversation continue further…”

Maybe some of you remember the “Hamilton” controversy in 2016, when during the curtain call, the cast welcomed in-coming vice president, Mike Pence, with a message that was not mean spirited or condescending but stating a heart-felt fact. The actor who played Aaron Burr that night, Brandon Victor Dixon, said, “We truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. All of us. Again, we truly thank you truly for seeing this show, this wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men and women of different colors, creeds and orientations.”

If the opening shot at the Battle of Concord in 1775 was hailed as “the shot heard around the world” which started a revolution, perhaps that brutally honest welcome from Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre was to be another proverbial shot?

That’s when I began pondering. If the patriots of the American Revolution were heavily influenced by a time in history known as the Enlightenment — a time where policies, new ideas, fresh possibilities were entertained, debated and, yes, fought for — then could it be we are entering a second enlightenment? A time to entertain, debate, forge ahead and even fight for new ideas and fresh possibilities so that truly Americans live up to the constitutional stance that “all men are created equal.” Riddle me this. Where has that equality been these last 233 years since that document was penned in 1787?

The Fourth of July holiday is upon us and I have not been feeling patriotic in quite some time. This was just going to be another day for me. No flag flying. No barbeques. No fireworks. But thanks to this production of “Hamilton,” I am feeling a new patriotism rising up, a new revolution underway with changes being called for and demanded of our society.

Before you argue with me, stop and think about it. A people once stood up and fought for their chance at “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This holiday is not to sit contently with luxuries achieved because the harsh truth is there are still Americans who are fighting for those same luxurious many of us assume are our God-given rights. History is not some archaic lesson in which dates are simply memorized for the sake of memorization — and perhaps impressing friends with some trivia. History is a living lesson reminding us of the brave men and women who dared to think differently and stand up and challenge systems.

As I get ready to finally kick up my feet, pour myself a glass of Madeira — a sweet wine popular in 18th century America, which I thought would be appropriate for this occasion — and watch “Hamilton,” I find myself no longer praying for my rural internet to not buffer or freeze up while watching the show. I sip my wine and find myself praying that I myself don’t freeze up or beginning buffering as I play my part in the new America emerging.

Hey yo, I’m just like my country,
I’m young, scrappy, and hungry,
And I’m not throwing away my shot …
– Alexander Hamilton from the “Hamilton” movie

Bellowing cows and closed gates

by Donna Frischknecht Jackson

My neighbor’s cows were bellowing the other morning. Curious as to what was causing the ruckus, I went out to the porch and, looking over at the field bordering my pasture, I discovered the problem.

My neighbor’s cows stopped their bellowing once they were allowed into the field that they wanted to be in. Little did they know that where they already were was a place filled with fresh grass and meadow buttercup.

There was a cow pile up on the grassy highway — a country folk’s version of those big city morning traffic jams. The exit ramp — or in this case — the exit gate leading to a scrumptious buffet of red clover — was closed. The cows were not happy. They wanted to get to that field. No other field would do.

In their effort to get where they wanted to be, they began nudging one another — politely, at first. It didn’t take long, though, for the polite nudging to turn into full-fledge field rage. It wasn’t pretty, and as I watched I found myself wishing I was among the more genteel breed known as the “New Jersey driver.”

(I know. I can’t even believe I wrote such a sentence. But these cows were getting ugly and made the New Jersey traffic jams I remember from my life in the Garden State seem like a walk in the park.)

One frisky girl, who wanted to be first in line at the gate, bucked an older lady with a bummed back leg out of the way. Another deceivingly docile bovine revealed her dark side, sneaking up behind her frisky friend and sideswiping her with her sturdy broad back.

The young ones looked on with big brown eyes, taking note of the nudging, bucking and side swiping techniques being displayed. It was then a calf darted from her friends and galloped with great glee into the mayhem, not realizing how fast she was going and when to start slowing down. A fender bender involving a cow’s butt ensued, creating more bellowing echoing throughout the valley.

My neighbor finally came and opened the gate, almost getting stampeded in the process. The cows were finally where they wanted to be and soon settled down to a morning of lackadaisical grazing.

What they failed to realize was the field where they were seemingly stuck in was actually a place of opportunity and abundance. In their stubbornness to get where they wanted to be — in a familiar field offering the same menu items as the day before — they weren’t noticing they were trampling on fresh grass nor that the blanket of meadow buttercup beneath their hoofs would have satisfied their hunger.

Back to a familiar field
Our sanctuary has opened for traditional Sunday worship. We opened mid-June — earlier than most of my friend’s churches that I know of. Many of my friends — clergy and non-clergy alike — are surprised that I have to report to the building on a Sunday morning.

Some concerned colleagues have even asked me if the decision was made carefully? Was there a detailed risk assessment done? Was medical data and case reports from the local municipality weighed carefully? I have answered the best I could, praying that we have done our due diligence.

So far, those 65 and older worshipers have been sitting six feet apart and have been dutifully wearing masks. But I can see the resolve to be safe slipping already. It’s been suggested to me that perhaps we can reintroduce responsive prayers and maybe a unison prayer of confession. Bulletins can return along with pew Bibles, right?

A request has even come in for a fish fry to be held later this summer, with dinner being enjoyed seated at tables elbow to elbow. (That is not going to happen, trust me.) And, at a recent socially distanced session meeting, two elders, masks removed from their face, leaned into one another, deep in conversation. I think my blood pressure went up a notch or two as I reminded them to sit six feet apart and put their masks back on.

A revealing question 

It is in these situations that a question asked of a friend comes to mind. It doesn’t take much for this question to gnaw at me. It has taken up prime real estate in my head since I heard it. It’s a question that goes beyond the daunting health concerns of COVID-19 and reveals a sickness of the soul that no one seems to view just as deadly as any coronavirus. It is a seemingly innocent question that can reveal what we are not ready to have revealed.

Why do you want to be in a sanctuary on a Sunday morning?

Because virtual worship is not really church. Because the sanctuary is just so pretty to sit in. Because I miss talking to my friends. Because I need to be with other people on a Sunday morning. These are answers I have heard. But I wonder, how would you answer? Why do you want to be in a sanctuary for worship on a Sunday morning? I am not saying that this is not a holy place to be in nor that we don’t need such a worship service.

All I am asking is for us to really search our hearts for an honest answer, so that that honest answer might reveal where our hearts truly lie when it comes to completely serving God and God alone.

And so, let me poke a bit further and ask you to answer that question not from the perspective of what you want, but from the perspective of what God wants? Don’t rush to answer. Don’t get defensive and begin defending traditional Sunday worship. Let those defensives down. Explore how this question makes you feel and ask why you are feeling what you are feeling?

Juggling and struggling

I am now juggling traditional Sunday worship in the sanctuary on top of a growing virtual worship community. My Saturdays used to have a bit more “me” time, but not anymore. In addition to sermon prep for traditional worship, I now spend a full day working on worship videos. Saturday nights used to be an early night for me to pray and prepare for Sunday in-person worship. Saturday nights now go beyond midnight as I put finishing touches on videos and finalize Sunday worship. This schedule is not sustainable. I know that.

But where do I go from here? What is my answer to wanting to maintain traditional worship in the sanctuary?

I wrestle with the questions and so badly want to find the answers, but the cows are bellowing. They want the gate to the familiar field opened. They want to graze on the tasty delights that satisfy their hunger — not the hunger of the world. And in their bellowing, they cannot see what I can see. The very place they are bellowing to be free of is in fact blessed with opportunities and abundance. There is fresh green grass and a beautiful blanket of meadow buttercup waiting for the church to graze upon.

This article appears on Pastor Donna’s blog for Presbyterians Today, “Barn Boots and Blessings.”