I greet you with the words of our ancestor in faith, Paul, as he greeted the congregation at Philipi:
Philippians 1:3-7 a Common English Bible
I thank my God every time I mention you in my prayers. I’m thankful for all of you every time I pray, and it’s always a prayer full of joy. I’m glad because of the way you have been my partners in the ministry of the gospel from the time you first believed it until now. I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus. I have good reason to think this way about all of you because I keep you in my heart.
In many of Paul’s letters, this part of the greeting is his expression of gratitude for the conduct of the members of the congregations to whom he writes. In Philippians, however, Paul is thanking the people for their support for him and assuring them that Christ remains with them, even as they continue to make their way discovering what plans God has for them as they follow the way of Christ. Paul is clearly remembering this community of people to be committed to God and one another as well as their community. He also seems to remember them as unwavering partners in ministry from the first time he encountered them to the time of writing the letter. There is no admonition here; only gratitude and honor. These people have made an impression on Paul regarding the true work and spirit of the community of faith.
And the same is true for how you have shown this to me. Before, during, and I anticipate after this strange time, you have been examples of selfless love and devotion as well as the deep desire to grow in your knowledge and love of God and the world. I know many of you are sad and frustrated at the way we had to bring our life together to a screeching halt in March. Yet, you have found ways to stay connected to each other: over the backyard fence, in video calls for Sunday school classes, by calling and sending cards of encouragement to each other, by continuing to give financially to the church, and by tirelessly looking for ways to serve the community. I am not only grateful for you; I am also inspired by you.
Times are hard right now, and the end is not yet in sight. Physical distancing and social isolation make it a challenge for us to remain faithful to regulations for our safety and our commitment to being a part of the Body of Christ. Yet, you are doing it! Your faithfulness to Embry Hills UMC, to God, to each other, and even to the admonition to stay away from public gatherings is commendable…and it is wearing on you. I feel it, too.
My husband, Dave, and I have been talking quite a bit lately about what things may be like when everything truly re-opens and we are able to publically gather again. How will church be different? What precautions will we have to take in order to be together, and for how long? How will we change what we do in order to foster a good, communal experience of worship and fellowship? In pondering all of this over these past weeks, I have made some observations about where we are right now that I would like to share with you:
Many folks with internet access seem to like the option to click on church at our convenience. I don't think this will change.
Anything new and different is interesting and compelling...for a while.
We really do need each other, but in what setting and context, and ultimately for what? The depth of the answer to this question remains to be explored/seen.
Bad habits form after a while, no matter what we're doing. In the midst of sheltering in place, we may have noticed that our eating, sleeping, or communication patterns have changed, for example. Emergency provisions can easily slip into new habits before we realize it.
The words and practices of the past offer an assurance for the future: other people prayed these words, and things held together in some way for them. The same will be true for us.
But what will that "things held together in some way" look like this time around?
The day will come, friends, when we can gather again. We will do it carefully and thoughtfully. We are beginning to develop plans on how to best re-open our building for ministry, so stay tuned for more information on that. In the meantime, I continue to pray for you daily. I continue to be more grateful than I can express to be your pastor. I continue to have hope in the future of Embry Hills UMC, in whatever form we assume face-to-face life together again in the future because our virtual life together, though it is at times a struggle, has shown you to be deeply committed to your faith and to and each other. As the lyrics go in the closing number of the film Mary Poppins Returns, “There’s nowhere to go but up!”
Consider joining a virtual small group. Click this link to express your interest in joining a group and what kind of group you might like to join. You do not need a computer to do so; you can join a group that meets by conference telephone call. There is now a weekly Wednesday noon 15-minute prayer service online in which you are guided through scripture, song, and prayer aimed at helping you re-focus your mind and heart on God’s presence. Try connecting with God and one another through one or both of these opportunities.
I look forward to rejoicing with you again face-to-mask-covered-face in worship and all the other meaningful things we do as a community of faith. In the meantime, know that I keep you close in my heart.