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After church on Sunday, the post-worship conversation turned to how we’re all holding up and adapting through the first fortnight of these pandemic days. It was good to check in and be checked in on. One member lamented the disappointment and stress of having to cancel her son’s wedding. I shared the psychological weight I feel with the closing of the U.S / Canadian border, knowing that I could not physically get to my mother or my in-laws should the need arise. We also voiced “silver linings.”  One couple returned from Mexico to two-weeks of mandatory quarantine to find their fridge already stocked by family and friends. Another member commented on the change in the political tone: the usual partisan rancour giving way to a more civil discourse stemming from a growing realisation that, no matter our positions or convictions, we really are all in this together.

It was good conversation, the type of conversation that helps make church church.

We then waved goodbye until next Sunday. But instead of rounding up my kids, collecting my coat, and tracking down my travel mug, I simply clicked “End Meeting” and made my way back upstairs to the kitchen to refill my coffee cup.

Like other pastors across North America and around the world, my staff and I have devoted much of our time and energy in recent days to figuring out how to move Sunday morning from the sanctuary into cyberspace. That will be our exclusive gathering place and worship space for the coming weeks (perhaps months). It’s not a new frontier, exactly, in 2020; but it is uncharted territory nonetheless. For churches like ours who have not webcast their services prior to now, culturally we’re having to make a quantum leap from the late 1980s into the 21st century.

One of the shiniest “silver linings” I see in this forced adaptation is that, as a pastor and a leader, I’ve been thinking more intentionally about connection than about programming or sermon craft. A chunk of that deliberation has come in the form of figuring out online platforms and camera positions and lighting angles; but all of it has been in service of the question: how do we continue to be in fellowship as the body of Christ across the divides of social-distancing and self-isolation? In short, how do we stay connected? This is the fundamental question of this moment in time for the Church.

In truth, questions of connection are foundational for the Church at all times. Connection is what the church’s best, truest self has at its core: a bond, a mission, an identity born from and built upon love of God and love of neighbour. We are a body, after all, Paul declares – Christ’s body, in fact: the gospel incarnate in our particular time and place. We are many members who belong to Christ and thus belong to one another in the name of Christ. If this pandemic helps us to  recover that, it will prove a washed-up treasure that will enrich us and sustain us after the storm passes.

There’s a real irony in all of this, of course. Loneliness has been growing within Western societies to such an extent that the United States and Britain now recognise it as a public health concern. The same economic, political, and technological evolutions that have enabled me to read newspaper articles from New Zealand on my laptop from the comfort of my couch have separated me from the folks who likewise sit on their couches glued to their screens across the street. That social distancing did not begin with the Coronavirus.  Perhaps, however, this pandemic will prove disruptive enough to start bringing us back together. Perhaps it’ll jog our memories: togetherness doesn’t just happen. We have to work at it.

The post worship conversation, the chat box banter during the service – the connection – turned out to be the real gift of our first real online worship experience: to see and be seen, to hear and be heard, human face to human face, human voice to human voice, even if we needed a screen and a mic to facilitate. The content delivered by the lighting angles and the camera positions through the online platform wasn’t bad, either, and will continue to matter as it does on any given Sunday. But in the coming weeks (perhaps months) the connection we help to cultivate with each other, and to God through each other, will be what really helps us to ride out this storm.

So, fellow pastors, as another week begins and we debrief and continue to experiment with camera positions and lighting angles for Sunday worship, let’s devote at least as much time figuring out how to take coffee hours, game nights, and life groups into cyberspace – all the things beyond liturgy and sermons and music that make church church. They’re foundational, and we’re going to need them.

Active and Ongoing

Here in Canada, yesterday was Monday – a Monday like any other Monday with the exception that the elementary school teachers in Toronto were on strike. It was a fitting demonstration for the spirit of the third Monday in January as I know it.  It still feels strange to me not to have Martin Luther King, Jr., Day on the calendar as a holiday.  Yet, its absence also serves to underscore its importance for me as an American, a Christian, and a clergyman.

For all intents and purposes, the third Monday of January is still just another Monday for many in the United States, too, even if they do have the day off. And even for those for whom it is a special and intentional day of service, the observance of MLK Day can distract from the urgency of the daily, ongoing struggle for equality.  Too many constitutional freedoms and inalienable rights are still denied far too many Americans – and Canadians, for that matter. A day of service once a year won’t remedy that.

I am reminded daily of Dr. King. In the centre of a wall in my church office hangs a photograph of the Civil Rights icon sharing a table in the cafeteria of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with my friend and former preaching professor, Dr. John Claypool, who in 1961 was the young pastor of Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. Dr. Claypool had helped to organise the Louisville chapter of the NAACP and was asked to host Dr. King’s visit to the seminary campus.  A press photographer spotted the pair sipping coffee and chatting about the particulars of the upcoming chapel service where Dr. King would speak. When the photo appeared in the local newspaper the next day, it ignited a firestorm that almost cost Dr. Claypool his job.   The back-draft from his church and his community was swift and hot.  In 1961, Louisville, Kentucky, wasn’t a place where black men and white men shared tables.

1961 wasn’t all that long ago.

Memories fade.  Intentions falter.  New challenges emerge.  Society moves on.  Yesterday’s hard-won progress becomes today’s taken-for-granted routine.  The fact that many of us cannot fathom separate water fountains or store entrances for black and white is a sign that ground has been gained.  However, the forces of inequality have hardly surrendered.  They’re not even in retreat.

That is why remembering the struggle is as important as remembering the icon.  Civil Rights would not be what it was without Dr. King.  But the cause of civil rights would never have advanced without his courage coupled with the gumption of many other activists and preachers, professors and maids, cab drivers and school children, college students and sanitation workers who were willing to walk to work, to march in the streets, to sit down at lunch counters and cafeteria tables, and to absorb the verbal and physical flak of the resistance – day after day, week after week, month after month.  “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” ¹

That’s why that photograph hangs in my office with my various academic degrees in orbit around it.  That photo reminds me every day why MLK Day is needed, and why it is never enough. It reminds me every day of the prophetic call of the gospel – to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind; to let the oppressed go free, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour – that is the reason why I set out to earn all those degrees; why I have an office in a church; why I entered the ministry in the first place. It reminds me every day to ask myself, “With whom do I stand (or sit) and to what end?” It reminds me every day that the good fight is an active and ongoing campaign – not a past victory to honour and celebrate one day out of the year.

 

¹ Read the full manuscript of Rev. Dr.  Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” here.

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