Last week my family and I enjoyed a camping trip through North Georgia and into North Carolina. We started at Vogel State Park and then went to Amicolola State Park where we hiked to the Hike Inn and stayed for a couple of nights. While there we hiked up Springer Mountain. Next, we headed to Black Rock Mountain State Park, and from there we went to Deer Creek Campground in the Smoky Mountain National Park. We saw the beauty of Creation--from the bright colors of wildflowers along our hikes to the breathtaking sunrise looking North from the Hike Inn toward Dahlonega. We heard about wildlife, though we did not see any close up (thank goodness!). We built campfires, made s'mores, played card games, and waved at neighbors in nearby campsites. For a few days, life felt normal again. We felt normal again. We took masks with us and wore them whenever we walked into a park office or grocery store, but mostly we moved around our campsites or through the woods without seeing or coming into contact with many people other than each other. It took no time at all to fall back into the old way of being without worrying about a dangerous virus or the evils of the world around us.
Then we checked the news. We didn't read our emails or use social media while we were away, but we did check the news every day or so, just to be sure we knew it if something else catastrophic happened. About halfway through the week, Dave looked at me and said, "There's a spike in Georgia." I didn't even have to ask for clarification; I knew what he was talking about. We continued our trip and still found ways to enjoy being together. But in the back of both our minds, the information sat there like an elephant taking a nap in the neighbor's tiny house. We no longer felt like we'd gone "back to normal." It was like another mourning, another angry spell, another moment of despair. How long, O Lord? What will it take to get this under control? When can we regain our sense of normalcy and freedom to go out and do what we choose when and how we choose to do it?
At the risk of pessimism, which is not my normal mode of operation, I believe we won't ever regain the sense of normalcy we once had. And if I am telling the truth, I hope we don't. Any close examination of "the good old days" shows us that no time in the past was inherently better than our present circumstance. There is always something we have learned or changed that has made our individual and collective lives better. Advances in medicine, the de-stigmatization of therapy, giving women the right to vote (I mention that as we approach the 100th birthday of the 19th amendment on August 18, 1920), opening public schools to both boys and girls and the later (far too much later) to people of all races: to look back at any time in our nation's history and wish things could return to that "normal" is to be short-sighted and so disengaged from the present that we cannot see the gift of progress. So, I do not wish to go back to the past. Instead, I wish for a better future.
In fact, I pray for a better future. I pray for the next cycle of history to move past ugly politics, the growing chasm between rich and poor, and any group of people having to fight for an equal voice and vote in the political, social, church, or any other public arena. And I pray for fresh and new understandings of God's presence and will for us and the world, taking into account all the gifts of wisdom and work we have received to improve our lives and the lives of people in our community.
That being said, I realize that I must also act a new way of life into being. So, when you see me in public (which you probably won't unless it's at the grocery store or post office for the next few weeks), I will be wearing a mask to keep you and me safe. If I don't have it on, please ask me why. I may share my thoughts on social media about the hard work of anti-racism. If what I say causes you to want to ask me a question or challenge me, please do, but please do it respectfully. Our anxiety is high. People we know are being infected by COVID-19 and affected by racism, and no one knows exactly what to do to stop either one quickly. But progress always takes time. The 19th amendment wasn't written and adopted overnight. The work of de-stigmatizing therapy is neither short-lived nor over. Our public schools continue to struggle because we have a hard time prioritizing the good of the many over the good of individuals. So I hope we do not move backward as a community, as a society, or even as a church.
There are still hard days ahead, my friends. I pray we can commit to each other and to God that we will weather the storms that face us, listening to each other, and our varied values and opinions. I pray we will come to put great value on difference, recognizing that same-ness is not progress. I pray we will come to understand why we need to take such drastic measures not to keep ourselves and each other safe in the midst of a global pandemic that to-date is not going but, in fact, is getting worse and harder to contain. I pray we will have patience with each other when we disagree and will be committed to making sure that disagreements don't undo us.
We continue to work on a plan for opening our building and re-gathering for worship. I had hoped we would be able to do that sooner rather than later, but we must not take any risks that outweigh the benefit of being physically together. I encourage you to think of ways you can reach out and gather virtually or (SAFELY) in person with a few other people to foster that feeling of community we are all missing. I encourage you to keep up with the news from several sources to get a fuller picture of what is really happening. And I encourage you to keep your faith intact through prayer, reading scripture, using devotional materials (I can help you find some if needed), and reaching out to others to talk, pray, and engage in the spiritual practice of community. The church is NOT closed. We are deployed. What is your new assignment?