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?
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.