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.
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.”