Death and Loss During a Pandemic

Craig in Alaska

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


In March my spiritual director fell in his home and suffered a serious head injury. This led to a brain bleed, stroke, and paralysis. After days in a coma, Chuck was revived with serious physical and mental impairments. One week ago today he passed away while in hospice care. Chuck’s death is a loss of over a decade of spiritual direction, friendship, and love. The suddenness of his loss is an unplanned and sharp pain in my heart. I also hurt for his wife Jean, daughter Rebecca, and grandson Gus. Losing someone during a pandemic is extra difficult when physical touch is not possible, and family bedside gathering is not permitted.

Perhaps we underestimate the amount of grief being experienced by our society and our churches during this pandemic. I see the irrational anger of people who feel their rights are being violated because they are asked to wear a mask in public. There is heightened anger in the voices of protesters. I perceive this anger as grief. There has been exponential loss since the first orders of shelter in place back in March. Beyond the social loss of physical connection, people are sick and dying–alone. The deaths of George Floyd and others have left in their wake spouses, children, and communities painfully grieving life that has been suddenly taken. Dr. David Williams, Professor of Public Health at Harvard, has shown how trauma caused from the death of an unarmed black man can affect a community for 3 months. See his article here.

As religious leaders and as the Church of Jesus Christ, we are called to be God’s gentle and caring hands for the world. We, too, are hurting, angry, sad, and lonely. We, too, want to come back together and resume our old rhythms and rituals. But it is important that we respond in ways that will not exacerbate the problem and create further pain and loss. We must fervently pray, and we must diligently practice social distancing. We must reach out to our neighbors and let them know God cares while wearing a mask. We will come together in worship–perhaps outside–but we will refrain from singing or hugging out of care for others.

I miss Chuck greatly. Our conversations were always fruitful and full of life. I miss the fellowship of the saints too. I miss the sounds and actions of worship. Both are longings of loss. In the book, My Soul Feels Lean: Poems of Loss and Restoration, Joyce Rupp writes,

“Now is the time to yield, to enter
the next turning, accept the stark contrast
of barrenness in place of fullness.”

There is another side of grief. A fresh restoration returns when we exit the season of sadness and barrenness left by those we love. As people of the resurrection, we will get to the other side. In the meantime may we be prayerful, compassionate, and gracious to all those we encounter.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Four Models for Understanding the Current Unrest

Craig in AlaskaBlog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


 

After the Civil War, white Americans controlled economic and political systems that resulted in lynching, Jim Crow, Black Codes, white citizens’ councils, poverty, racial profiling, school to prison pipeline, and mass incarceration. Even today we continue to prolong racial inequality through codifying white supremacy. We apologize for being complicit for the last 400 years in perpetuating these injustices.

From “An Apology to Our African American Sisters and Brothers for the Sin of Slavery and Its Legacy”

We all come to conversations on race at different levels. Some don’t want to hear about race at all. For them racism is not a subject that belongs in the church. On the other extreme are those who feel we can’t say enough, do enough, or speak out loud enough when it comes to racial injustice. The majority of people in the presbytery are somewhere in between these two extremes.

I recently listened to a podcast in which Paul Butler talks about four models to help understand the current unrest. I confess that I have lived in all four of these models (and probably still do). Like any real issue in life, the conversation about race shifts from complicated to complex.

The first model can be summarized as “black men are the problem!” Black men are angry and have an aggressive form of masculinity. If they would just pull up their pants and stop acting guilty and aggressive, “then they wouldn’t have to worry about being stopped and frisked or being shot by the police.”

The second model says we have an under-enforcement of law. We need more police. We need more laws so that we can have order. We need more freedom to stop and frisk to prevent crime.

The third model is what he calls the “liberal idea.” In this model we need to improve the relationship between African Americans, communities of color, and the police. It is a compassionate model that believes if we could just sit down with one another and hear one another’s side, then we can come to an understanding. He says, “It’s like we’re caught in a bad marriage and we just have to come together.” In this model the solution is more body cameras, changing policing patterns, better training of police officers, and even investigating police department.

The fourth model (and the one the presbytery supports) says the problem is white supremacy and white privilege. The idea of white supremacy and privilege is the engine that drives the car of racism and racist actions. He says, “Mass incarceration, brutal prisons, and violent policing are just symptoms. If we just fix the symptoms, we are not treating the disease. Even if we could make the police do better, it is just going to mutate the way white supremacy devolved from slavery to the old Jim Crow to the new Jim Crow” (Podcast Deep Background with Noah Feldman. Episode 37: “The Barriers to Reform: Pushkin Industries”).

If we see racism as a chronic disease, we may realize the solution is not a single answer but a polyvalent approach: It is about learning and doing.

The work to dismantle racism and white privilege is ongoing and daunting. It is work that often pulls us from our comfort zones as we face new realities of American life, see familiar history in new ways, and make daily decisions that are not guided by our instincts of prejudice and judgement. It is work that makes us pause and see everyone as equal human beings that deserve respect, agency, and a chance at a prosperous life. I pray we have the courage to continue the work.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Taking a Productive Break

Craig in Alaska

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


In a meeting with rural pastors yesterday, I learned something new. It’s called floating. Apparently, this is when a person gets in a canoe, raft, or other floatable device and floats down a river. Being raised near lake Michigan, I have a difficult time imagining groups of people just floating down a river! My first question was, “How do you get back up the river?” I could tell from the silent giggles that I was out of my element! Steven Matthews, who is the pastor at Ste. Genevieve, then sent me photos. I still have many questions, but this summer I’m ready to head to Steelville and give it a try!

The conversation of floating came about as I challenged the pastors to take a break. The time spent on Zoom meetings, writing liturgies for virtual worship, making conference pastoral care calls, and delivering front door care packages is taking a toll on the pastors. Chaplains have been working double time to be the family for patients who cannot have visitors, as well as care for overworked medical colleagues and caregivers. Many are feeling exhausted, yet taking time off doesn’t feel right when we are already working from home.

For some, being at home is part of the problem. In the article, “To Avoid Burnout, Work Less and Ignore ‘Productivity Propaganda’”, Lindsey Tramuta writes, “There’s burnout, and then there’s pandemic-induced burnout. . . Juggling full-time responsibilities, family life, and the stress of confinement makes the risk of burnout greater than ever.”

Tramuta then raises the issue of productivity and distraction and how our ability to be productive on devices that are designed to distract us is problematic: “When you combine our culture of chronic overwork with the distraction inherent to the technology and social media, at a time when people are forced to stay at home, you have a recipe for amplified anxiety and shame.”

Tramuta then interviews Rahaf Harfoush, the author of Hustle and Float. Harfoush believes we need to incorporate recovery time in our work process. In her book, she shares the idea that “it’s crucial to recover hard when you play hard.”

As we approach Memorial Day, perhaps it is time we plan for a break. Plan a time to turn off the electronics, take our eyes off of the screens, just unplug and take some “self” time. Call in the stated supply, bring in the guest liturgist, and get away. As things are opening up, perhaps a nature walk, museum exploration, or just sitting in a canoe and floating down the river is in order. Take a break. You deserve it.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

 

Longing and Desire

Craig in Alaska

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


On Sunday I enjoyed worshiping online with Trinity Presbyterian church, University City. It was a pleasure saying hello to people as we tuned into the live worship service. The interaction with the online chat during the passing of the peace and as we left the worship service was unique. It was even cool watching people text “hearts” and “thumbs up” as Marilyn Gamm preached. I guess that’s the closest we’ll come to saying “Amen!”

Yet, the longer we remain sheltered in place, the more I miss attending worship. Like many of you, this is the longest I’ve gone without attending in-person worship. Years ago while working for State Farm, I was called from my home in Chicago to perform catastrophic duty in Galveston Texas. A hurricane had landed and done major destruction. While in Galveston I worked seven days a week for six straight weeks, pulling 12 – 14 hour shifts. It was hot, muggy, and brutal. And I missed my church in Chicago. I remember thinking that if I could just stand in the entrance of the church, that would be helpful. If I could just drive by the building, I would be satisfied. If I could just pass by the exit on the expressway to my church, I would be happy. I longed and ached for worship and being in the midst of God’s people.

In his book, There is a God, There is no God, John Kirvan believes that modern spirituality is a shift from perfection to desire. He writes, “The spirituality of ‘perfection’ that has so long dominated many of our lives- and intimidated them- has given way to a spirituality of desire, of longing, to a spirituality of ‘incompleteness and contradiction.’ A spirituality of restlessness (42).” Kirvan reminds us that the longing and desire we experience are the core feeling of hunger and thirst that the psalmist is referring to in Psalm 42:

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
the face of God? Psalm 42:1-2 NRSV.

This time of COVID-19 is a time of longing. It can become a time of longing for God if we are willing to turn our affection toward the Divine. The longing and desire to be in church and with one another can lead us to a deeper spiritual hunger–a hunger that can only be satisfied by the living God.

Perhaps this can be a period of transformation as well. As we reenter the world of our churches, we can enter as new creations in Christ.

Churches will open again. They will open after sessions have met and determined a timetable and opening strategy. As we wait, let us accept the longing that we feel and take hold of the desire that has taken hold of us. Let us nurture our spirits with waters of the Holy Spirit as we wait for the doors of the church to open again. Amen.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Next Steps

Blog Post byCraig in Alaska
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


Since Friday, March 13 when the presbytery strongly suggested congregations no longer meet in their buildings, the presbytery and its members have been traveling a road no one asked to be on. A journey that began with significant disruption has been transformed. We have learned to connect with one another as well as support and encourage each other as never before. Congregations have become innovative, creative, and bold in their efforts to worship and remain connectional. Talent has come forward to lead, and churches have been reminded that God supplies the church with the resources that it needs.

The pandemic we are experiencing is not a sprint of a few months but a run of possibly several years. And we are at the beginning. Yet, we are already seeing patterns of adaptive and creative leadership that will guide us through to the end. God is our sustainer and strength. God is our provider and keeper. What we are experiencing is God’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.

Our next step is to look forward to reopening our congregations. This is not an aspiration but a reality. Reopening will not be like flipping a light switch from off to on. Instead it will be more like a dial, which we gradually turn as we move forward. The pace of our reopening is created by the virus. We all desire to come back together and be reunited as soon as possible, but at all times, we must listen to our political leaders in balance with our scientists and experts. This may mean that sometimes we have to turn the dial back a notch. Whatever we are challenged to do, we know our God is is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.

I am strongly suggesting that each session meet within the next two weeks to discuss the document, “Questions to Consider Before Reopening.(found here) I am asking each session to create a plan for reopening. This document should include a future date in which the church will reopen or decide to reevaluate their status. Several congregations have already taken this step. Some have decided to see where things are in the middle of May. Others have decided to wait until June to reopen if it is safe. Remember, reopening should be done in phases and not all at once. Whatever decision a session makes should be communicated to the congregation.

The presbytery will continue to provide information and resources on the website. The content is constantly changing, so check back often. It is a blessing to be in Giddings-Lovejoy during this time. As we move forward together, I encourage you with the words of the Apostle Paul,

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Colossians 2:16 – 18.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Reopening

Craig in Alaska

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


This week I will be meeting with a small group of presbytery members to develop a plan to reopen our congregations. As we move forward into May, the governors of Illinois and Missouri may allow some congregations to open that are located in counties with low COVID-19 cases. In preparation for this inevitability it may be wise to be pro-active and think through the steps that need to be taken to make sure everyone is safe and kept well as we meet together.

As your presbytery leader, I am listening to pastors from across the presbytery. They are saying that if the governor allows congregations to assemble, pastors would be hard pressed to prevent people from wanting to have church. And I understand that. People are clamoring to have any social contact! Therefore, we should prepare our physical buildings and our mental and spiritual selves for reopening and coming back together.

I’m assuming that smaller counties which have had little or no exposure to the virus will open up first, perhaps as soon as May 4. I doubt any churches in St. Louis city or St. Louis county will open before June 1. I will know for sure later this week when the governor of Missouri makes his announcement.

But no matter when a county is approved to move to phase one of the re-opening plan, each session must lead the congregation forward. A church can only open with the authority of the session. The session should create a plan that includes sanitizing the building, keeping safe distancing, how to handle offerings, movement within the building, children, and many other factors. I hope to provide a guide by the end of the week that will help the session answer some of these questions while asking other questions.

My hope is that we continue with online services for those who choose to stay home. What a wonderful way to expand our ministries! What an opportunity to continue reaching out to the community! The presbytery stands ready to help congregations with technology grants for this purpose.

Let’s get to work figuring out how we will reopen and serve God together in our gathered communities.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

 

 

Changing My Swing

Craig in Alaska

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


In the summer of 1997, two months after Tiger Woods had won the Masters golf tournament by a record 12 strokes, Tiger made a rare and unusual decision. He decided to change his swing. The change wasn’t a random idea or an attempt to bring attention. While others saw perfection, Tiger saw a flaw in his swing that needed a radical correction.

 

The social effects of COVID 19 has me rethinking my “swing” of faith and theology. I have fresh questions around what it means to be created in God’s image, the tension between repentance and confession, divine punishment and divine love, and the responsibility of freedom that God has given to each of us. Part of me feels as though I am resetting what I believe, and it affects everything from determining who my neighbor is to what it means to show love for my community during a pandemic.

This unwanted time allows me to reflect on my journey from Pentecostal to Presbyterian. It has been a journey of connecting bridges and opening doors. It has been an experience of wading deeper and deeper into an ocean of faith that knows no boundaries. And it has come down to one word: Grace.

 

The experience of God’s grace through the life of Martin Luther is what cast me on the journey from my Pentecostal world to this Presbyterian path. I have love and respect for my Pentecostal faith tradition. But God’s grace struck me in such a powerful and meaningful way that it plunged me in the direction of God’s “yes”: Yes to humanity; yes to diversity; yes to unconditional love; yes to showing responsibility, respect, and inclusion of my neighbor; yes to giving people another chance, and another, and another, and again another.

With this “yes” comes the freedom to love and share the reconciliation of Christ with others. I shelter in place because I’m protecting my neighbor too. I wear a mask so my neighbor will not get ill. I extend help to others because I am not afraid of illness and have the freedom in Christ to love them.

To change my swing of faith means I embrace God as an authentic expression of my faith in the world and humanity. To me, God is grace and freedom to love. That is all I know for sure. That is all I have at the core. I can wrap all of my theology, ethics, liturgy, biblical hermeneutics, and understanding around this middle. But the freedom to question, wonder, wander, and simply not be sure is another gift of God’s “yes” to us. We don’t have to get it right. But we need to get it honest. We need to make sure our swing is a reflection of our hearts that seek to worship God in spirit and in truth. Amen.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Harps on the Willows

Craig in Alaska

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


Watch video or read below


When the pandemic first occurred, and I knew we would be sheltering in place, I immediately thought of Judah’s captivity and exile in Babylon. The focus of my thought wasn’t so much on the suffering of God’s people who were being subjugated by the Babylonians. Instead, I kept thinking about the resistant journey to an unknown place. Psalm 137 reflects the feeling of loss, fear, intimidation, and longing they felt.

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?  Psalm 137:1-4

I’m struck by the fact they brought their harps. Perhaps they thought the situation was temporary. What they experienced was going to be a momentary disruption. Perhaps they just wanted to take something familiar with them, something they knew how to do. Maybe they thought, “We better bring our harps, because we can sing anywhere!” I’m not sure what it took for the reality of permanent change to take hold. But miles into the journey, the image of weeping willows caused the new reality to set in. They wept there. They hung up their harps there.

Robert Foltz-Morrison, my colleague in the Presbytery of New York, speaks of this time as a cocoon period. He says that he doesn’t know who we will be on the other side of this metamorphosis, but he knows it will be different, and it will be beautiful.

During their captivity, Israel had to learn a new way to worship that did not include the temple. They cultivated the idea of portable worship, which is synagogue. When God brought them out of Babylon and back to the land of Judah, they kept the notion of synagogue, and it is part of the Jewish tradition today.

I do not know what church will look like on the other side of this pandemic. I am not sure what we will carry forward, and what we will leave behind. I know that God will be with us for God is faithful and will never leave us or forsake us. And I know it will be beautiful. Amen.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

 

 

CARES Act Online Seminar

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


Friends,

I have an exciting opportunity for you to learn about and apply for loans under the new CARES program. CliftonLarsonAllen (CLA) has contracted with the presbytery to provide an online seminar to all congregations that are interested in this program. This seminar will primarily focus on three items: The Payroll Protection Program, Economic Injury disaster loans, and other general credits available under CARES. If you are considering using the CARES program or are curious about its content and how it relates to the church, I strongly recommend you attend the seminar.

In addition, CLA will be available for one hour of consultation for individual congregations. They will help congregations form a strategy for applying for these loans. These consultations are also covered by the presbytery and are free to the congregation. 

Some churches may need more help in completing applications or have a more nuanced and intricate challenge. CLA is willing to help in these cases, and the cost will be discussed on a case by case basis.

The CARES program is available now and if a congregation is interested, they should apply soon. But the congregation should move forward with professional consultation even if they are not ready to apply now. CLA is working with the presbytery to provide the help you need. Please take advantage of this opportunity.

The seminar will be scheduled early next week. You will receive an email with the date and time. Please let me know if you are interested in the seminar and these services that are being provided.

Peace, 

Rev. Craig M. Howard

COVID-19 Update

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


Click on the arrow, at left, to watch the first VLOG (Video Blog) or continue to read below. 

On Sunday, March 29, the president extended the restrictions on social distancing until April 30. Many scientists agree and believe we should not consider removing restrictions until we see evidence of the virus slowing. There appears to be a correlation between large gatherings of people and the presence of COVID 19 weeks later. An example is a church in Seattle that decided to have choir rehearsal. 60 members showed up, used hand sanitizer, practiced safe distancing, and rehearsed for two hours. Now 45 are infected, 3 hospitalized, and 2 are dead.

It is a difficult decision to request all congregations and New Worshiping Communities in the presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy to continue not to assemble in worship until April 30. I strongly recommend we continue this period of online worship, and other creative ways of being together, until April 30. On the last week of April, we will evaluate the situation and decide how to move forward after the April 30 deadline.

I am aware this includes Holy Week and Easter. I am sensitive to the financial and personal hardship this places on all congregations- large and small, urban and rural. We are making financial grants and loans available if necessary to help congregations through this difficult time.

The church has endured persecution, plagues, wars, and pandemics throughout history. We will overcome this one too. There is a future for God’s church. There is a future for each of you. When we return to worship, it will be a time of celebration of the resurrection.

So many of you are using creative ways for worship, music, children programs, and observing the sacraments. You are demonstrating what it means to serve the church with creativity and imagination. I am so proud of you all!

The presbytery is committed to being present with up-to-date information as we reach out visually, verbally, and in writing to each of you. We are truly all in this together.

Peace,

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Article on church choir: https://www.yahoo.com/news/choir-decided-ahead-rehearsal-now-023414705.html