What does it mean to be the church at this time in history? It is certainly a bit unusual. We have had a full month of in person worship and it has been unlike any other. Masks are not typical worship attire, yet some have been wearing a mask. We typically gather in order to sit close to one another, but some are physical distancing. We usually hand out bulletins, pass an offering plate, and often pass the peace. But instead we have set up additional stations for hand sanitizing. We have been back several weeks now but there are some we are used to seeing in worship who are not yet comfortable gathering. We just keep telling everyone, both those who have started to attend and those who continue to shelter in place, we are one body. It is an unusual time for the church, but we are still one.
We are making history. It may not feel like it, but it is true. This period of time will be much more than a footnote in future history books. COVID-19 will leave a lasting impression at least for a short period of time and in some parts of the world. But right now, it feels like we are driving with a blindfold on.
At the time I am writing this we have not met for five straight Sundays and have cancelled a sixth. It feels weird. We did not gather Palm Sunday, we did not gather during Holy Week, we did not gather Easter morning. Weird. Gathering for worship is a big part of who we are, to miss it is to miss something that defines part of us. And yet, this particular period of time allows us to explore other layers of our identity.
We can be sure this isn’t the first time the church has not been able to gather regularly. It is possible this is not the first time due to a virus. But, as before, the church doesn’t stop being the church on account of misfortune. While I am certainly not glad about the coronavirus, I do think that our experience of being the church in a less convenient situation is helping us to become stronger.
How do we continue the mission of the church during such a time? The truth is, we are learning on the fly. What we know for sure is that church is more than a Hillsong cover band followed by a Ted Talk. The current situation forces us to become more creative in our efforts to communicate our message and serve our neighbors. We are learning in a very unexpected way that we cannot function alone. Even our times of quarantine and sheltering in place are done for others.
This pandemic may end up helping us to see more clearly. It may help us to push back against the narrative of individualism. It may help us to recognize how we all depend on others. It may help us to become more cognizant about the needs of others. It may help us understand our mission more clearly. It may help us to see who we really are.
When March began I was pretty sure that our walk through the season of Lent would include several discussions during our Wednesday Evening Study that would challenge common notions of what it means to follow Jesus. I was pretty sure it would include a variety of people reading for us during Sunday Worship. I was pretty sure it would include listening to the Gospels as they offer us words with more substance than what we tend to hear from the voices of culture.
Instead we have found ourselves in unknown territory. We are living in the age of COVID-19. The church in the United States is not used to things like quarantine and concerns about new disease. It is not new for the church, but unprecedented for the American Church in this generation.
To be honest, this has been incredibly inconvenient. I am used to stopping on my way to the office to drink iced tea and use someone’s Wi-Fi. I am used to listening to people share stories and concerns in person. I am used to gathering with others to sing, pray, give, and read Scripture together. Yet, here I am getting used to a changing schedule. And we are all learning to be the church differently.
I am thinking this is good for us. I am thinking it may be good to be shaken out of our routine. It is good to be reminded that we are not in control. The natural response to cancellations and quarantine are about how difficult it becomes for us. Our experience has prepared us to become anxious or resistant. It is more difficult to think about what we can learn and how we can grow during this period in time.
And yet, the Bible was written for a church that clawed and fought to encourage one another in any way possible. A church that wasn’t always able to gather but found ways to support one another in community. A church that knew there is a real possibility for people to feel isolated during difficult times. That is where we find ourselves at Christ Reformed Church. We recognize that we are a distributed people. We are seeking for new and even unorthodox ways to connect and serve. Our identity is not based on a virus but on a great God. We will continue to follow that God as we walk toward the next chapter. Whatever else is going on right now, I am convinced we are learning to be a better church.
This Sunday, we will hold a reception before worship. We have done this often enough that I know we will share baked goods and prepared foods and beverages. I know we will greet one another in an informal setting and do some catching up. I know we will get caught up in the fellowship and straggle into worship a little late. I love these times. Truth is, I don’t always eat during the reception. Instead, I move about and listen. I listen as others engage in conversation. I watch as others look out for one another.
Hospitality is an important ministry of our congregation. I am elated for those who have been participating in this ministry. I appreciate those who make plans to be more intentional about how to show hospitality and those who go out of their way to make others feel welcome. This is not an assignment we want to hand to specific individuals as much as it is a culture we want to find throughout the congregation.
As naturally as hospitality appears to happen during these receptions, I know this does not just happen. This is God making us and shaping us and calling us to be a hospitable people. We hold receptions because, among other things, together we are a welcome committee. We welcome people into the kingdom of God. I love these times because this short time of fellowship is an excellent demonstration of who we are becoming.
We started the week with bread and cup and ended it by handing out food to local residents who sign up for the food bank. These two things are more connected than one might expect. We worship and we serve. We gather and we send. We received the bread and cup in a warm sanctuary on padded pews and we carried food out into the cold weather for recipients. We want to be identified for both of these activities. We want to be known as people who have a thing for the bread and cup and as people who show up on a cold Saturday morning to bag and carry groceries for others.
When honest, there is a lot we do that involves food. Two weeks from now we are holding a soup feast (we call it the Souper Bowl). Three weeks later we plan on having a reception prior to worship. Eating together is part of our DNA. We gather for a lot of reasons. We like each other. We like one another’s recipes. We believe our gatherings around the table are hints of things to come.
Undoubtedly, there is more going on at the table than any of us realize. When Jesus first blessed the bread and cup and told us to remember, no one knew what that might mean for us so many years later. We still don’t know all the implications. But we continue to gather, share bread and cup with one another and with others. There is something valuable going on here, something more than vitamins and minerals and nutrients, more than proteins and carbohydrates and antioxidants. Gathering at table around food is a bigger event than we know.
In the middle of the week, in between receiving the bread and cup and handing out food for our neighbors, we lost our friend Bill. We will miss Bill’s humor, his smile, his cynical ways, his love for songs, his love for people. There is much we will miss about Bill. But we believe Bill is a more recent part of a story that includes people like Abraham, Sarah, Samson, David, Daniel, Mary, Peter and Paul. Bill, like the rest of us, belongs to a story that tells us God is up to something.
Perhaps it is should be no surprise, but I met Bill at a dinner. People like Bill make me glad we get together to eat. To be with old friends and to meet new ones. Our gatherings are a celebration of what God is doing and a foretaste of what is to come.
Four years ago, I walked into a church building. It seemed almost accidental. They needed someone to preach that day and I was available. It was the second Sunday of Advent and I was greeted at the door by a gentleman who introduced himself as Charles (that is his name but no one calls him that). I had no idea how the next four years would play out.
These days, I am in that same building quite often. I like that I can walk out the front door and onto the Appalachian Trail. I also like that when I walk out the back door, I can see the Susquehanna River. Earlier this week I walked outside and saw snowcapped mountains. These will never be confused with the Rockies, but they were wearing a snow cap. Looking south from the front sidewalk, standing on the trail, a white cap was visible on Cove Mountain. Looking east from the back door, across the river, a white cap was visible on Peters Mountain. I tried to take pictures but they did not do it justice.
Now, four years later, we are again walking through the season of Advent together. I love that we are surrounded by some fascinating geography. But the real beauty is not the landscape, it is these people. It is privilege to gather with them to read old texts, sing old songs, light candles and explore ways to best serve this community.
Twenty-two of us gathered around a table in the basement last night to talk about Christmas. We also eat at these gatherings. We seem to take cues from those first century gatherings we read about in an old book we call Acts so when we get together we are often eating (I suspect some come for the eating). We weren’t quite talking about Christmas, but about Advent. One has to go through Advent in order to get to Christmas. We are preparing. We are waiting. We are getting ready. In a way, I suspect we are like shepherds tending sheep in the fields or like Magi traveling from the east.
Our conversation actually included a prophet for hire and a donkey who talked. These are great stories but it was the words of the hired prophet that stick out in a context for Advent. “I see him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; A star shall come forth from Jacob, A scepter shall rise from Israel.”
I love these meetings. While I do not tend to like labels, we have had people who call themselves Congregationalists and Methodists and Lutherans and Pentecostals attend these meetings. What do you get when you put a group like this in the basement with a holiness preacher for the purpose of listening to old texts together? I think you get a great picture of church. Sometimes this text simply fascinates us. Sometimes it creates more questions than answers. Sometimes it challenges us in ways we did not expect. But we always benefit when we get together for the purpose to hear what it says.
It is our hope that our readings and discussions lead to things like belief and behavior and belonging. If they don’t, then why spend time in the basement on a cold, dark night anyway? We don’t want to be a people who just talk about things. We want these things to spill out onto the street and into the surrounding community. What happens at 212 N High Street, doesn’t stay at 212 N High Street.
At first glance, 212 North High Street may not stand out. There, you will find a fine brick building with plenty of character. The imprint in the concrete near the front steps say it was built in 1912. Multiple things go on here. In just the next few weeks, among other things, the building will serve as the site for a dinner, study sessions, the local food distribution, a board meeting, and a party. Next Thursday evening, we will sit on the front steps and give treats to the neighbors.
But the primary thing that happens here is a gathering on Sunday mornings. We don’t take these gatherings casually; in fact, we believe heaven and earth meet here. We gather with allies to acknowledge who rules the world. We gather to remind ourselves of our role in such an important narrative. We gather to pray, sing, and bless one another for the ongoing journey. We enter sacred space and read words of hope out loud. We are reminded of what is real in contrast to the artificial news we hear so much of the time. On account of these things, I suspect most of our gatherings leave attenders somewhat ‘spirited.’
But recently we were reminded that what we do is not always ‘spirited’, at least not in a sense that feels good. In fact, we were reminded that our gatherings can be sobering. It is hard to feel good when one of your own is hurting. It is easy to talk about retaliating toward a perpetrator. It is difficult to talk about forgiving them. It doesn’t feel good when a friend is pouring out the emotional pain of her soul because of a literal catastrophe.
At first glance, 212 North High Street may not stand out. But there is something going on in those Sunday gatherings where we attempt to “bless those who persecute… rejoice with those who rejoice… mourn with those who mourn.”
I am a pastor. I serve with the folks at Christ Reformed Church in Duncannon (a borough named after the family Duncan, it says so on the sign when you enter town). Christ Reformed Church is a small church (a church named after, well I think you can figure that one out). I have come to realize it is silly to argue over the size of a church (an argument more natural in the world than the church). Small is not better, nor is it worse, it is simply our present reality. When we take a look at the kingdom, small churches are the most common expression of the kingdom (and I suspect that has always been the case).
Karl Vaters says that “Small churches are like the cockroaches of the Christian world.” Though it may not sound like it, he means that as a sincere compliment. “After whatever cultural nuclear bomb comes along to destroy all other visible expressions of the church, small congregations will scurry out from under the baseboards. When the money runs out, small churches will find a way to keep going. When there’s a failure of leadership, small churches will lead themselves. After denominations topple, small churches will rise up.”
I don’t know why I haven’t heard of this Vaters guy before, I agree as he goes on to say;
“After what’s cool and new starts feeling cliched and trite, small churches will still matter. After most of our church buildings, both large and small, are empty, demolished or converted into hipster apartments, small churches will find somewhere else to meet. After we’ve grown sick of programs and events, small churches will remind us of our essential need for relationship. After we’ve torn ourselves apart with politically-charged rhetoric, small churches will still be there to bring God’s people together. After persecution has come, small churches will meet in secret. After our plans have failed, small churches will still be a big part of God’s plan.”
Obviously, some of what Vaters says is true of churches no matter the size. Still, it is true of small churches. Not better, not worse, just our present reality. And whatever comes our way, even when cultural bombs go off and if hipster apartments rise up all around us – we remain a big part of God’s plan.
It was Sunday morning and we were gathered for worship. There had already been some excitement in town that morning. A herd of cows had escaped from a nearby pasture and had been wandering around in the borough. Most had been returned to where they came from, but some had spent the night in town and were yet to be found. Sounds like just another day in Duncannon.
During morning announcements, Crystal shared she had seen a cow that morning. She had texted her son who told her she should have invited it to church, then it would be a “holy cow.” She reported she did not, so there was no “holy cow” in worship. She then went on to say there would however be holy communion. I heard Joel who was seated near the front quickly reply “Holy Cow-munion?” (great word Joel)! Moments like these may not be what some think of when they think of worship, but for some reason they make me very glad to be part of this group.