Online Presbytery Gathering

Craig in Alaska

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


Participating in worship during COVID-19 has been a different experience than most of us are used to. Many congregations are doing online worship either live with Zoom or Facebook live, or recording worship and presenting it on various online platforms. When our shelter in place began in early March, we also postponed the May 9th presbytery gathering. In March, we did not know what the future would bring. But we were confident that business as usual was not going to be possible. We knew that the ability to assemble over 100 people, bring in outside speakers, obtain reports from various committees, and pull together a cohesive and worthwhile meeting could not happen.

Just as many churches have found a way forward, so has the presbytery. Our next two presbytery gatherings will be online. The first will be on Saturday June 13 and the second will be August 27. We are excited about providing an opportunity for everyone to participate, learn, and fellowship during these events. We will use the Zoom platform. This will enable both video and audio participation. For those who have the technology and bandwidth for video, you will be able to see one another as well as listen to the business and learning. For those with only telephone capabilities, you will still be able to listen, vote, and voice your opinion. Click here to see a humorous take on doing online presbytery gathering from my colleague Stewart Smith in Arkansas.

The staff has participated on other online presbytery meetings so that we could bring what we learned back to Giddings-Lovejoy. We will have several opportunities for those who need training on how to participate remotely. We have learned to have layers of help with technology and using Zoom with a large audience. The June 13th meeting is scheduled from 2 – 4 p.m. in the afternoon. This should provide those with children a best time to participate.

We will prepare, train, and practice. And it will not be perfect! But whatever happens, we will all be in it together to make the best of our situation during this pandemic. We will experiment and learn as a community. This too is what it means to be presbytery and to be the church of Jesus Christ.

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

 

COVID19 and Black Bodies

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


Racism does not shelter in place. It does not work from home, but continues to dissect and disintegrate values and life in America. COVID-19 has revealed the contours of America’s structural racism. Like a pencil rubbing a nickel under a sheet of paper, this pandemic is bringing out details of structural racism that exist in healthcare, the labor force, and in the minds and hearts of African Americans.

The news about black people contracting and dying from COVID-19 in higher numbers than whites has been statistically proven. Numbers from New York, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, and other major cities clearly show a large discrepancy between the number of blacks in the general population and the number who are dying from the virus.

Why is this so? An immediate conclusion is that there is a difference between black bodies and other bodies. Some believe black people are somehow different flesh and bone than whites. In the article, How Racism is Shaping the Corona Virus Pandemic, Isaac Chotiner writes how the yellow fever in 1793 wiped out 10% of the population in Philadelphia. But experts believed blacks were immune. For this reason, they assigned blacks to care for the whites who were ill. Many blacks died because of this action. The belief that blacks have different bodies goes back to the false science of eugenics and the determined effort to prove blacks are physically and mentally inferior.

The truth has more to do with socialization than biology and more about where black people work and live than how they think. These elements of structural racism were present and active before COVID-19 appeared in this country. Working African Americans hold more blue-collar and service jobs. They are the janitors, grocery clerks, bus drivers, and nursery home aids. They can’t work from home. Black and brown people are the ones ordered back into the meat processing factories where hundreds have been infected and many have died. They are the ones exposed to the unprotected coughs and sneezes of the public.

While black bodies are not different bodies, healthcare for black bodies is often inferior. The history of misuse, abuse, and non-treatment of black bodies has created an internalized reticence toward doctors among African Americans. Some of this is connected to areas of poverty where many blacks live. It creates an atmosphere where people are less likely to trust doctors or the medicine they provide. Limited nutrition leads to obesity. When added to untreated hypertension and diabetes, the combination becomes deadly. COVID-19 is the final weight on the scale that leads to serious illness and death.

These areas of structural racism- employment, healthcare, and poverty–are lifted up in the Apology document DRAP created. We are reminded that just as racism doesn’t sleep nor shelter in place, neither should our vigilance to bring observable change to our communities and society.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Gods Beautiful People

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


Each week several of you join me and the staff at noon for a Zoom lunch meeting. We meet with different groups of people in our presbytery: rural pastors, new pastors, youth and Christian educators, transitional pastors, and clerks of session. Sometimes, we have lunch with all pastors! These pastors and leaders are located throughout the presbytery. From Cuba to Steelville, from Brighton to Ballwin. In our meeting, we take the time to share how we’re feeling, what types of things pastors and leaders are doing, and policies and recommendations from the presbytery. We laugh with each other, tell stories and even jokes! We pray for each other. Most of all, we enjoy the fellowship and support from one another.

When I arrived three years ago, the presbytery was marked by fragmentation and division. We struggled to feel a sense of unity and cohesiveness. The events of Big Tent and GA went a long way to helping us work together and become one presbytery. But this pandemic has been the heavy wind that has loosened long-held and deep-seated resistance. Our waters of stagnation are now a flowing stream. We have found commonality, creativity, and realized we are stronger, smarter, and more tech savvy than we were aware of!

Many books have been written about change theory. My presbytery executive colleagues across the country are in shock and awe at the speed of change in our churches, ministries, and denomination. The change has been more dramatic than what we’ve found in our readings. The reason for this change is because we, as Presbyterians, had to change. We didn’t have the option of remaining in our buildings and doing business as usual. The pandemic has caused us to draw upon resources we have known and studied but never applied. It has caused members to open up to new ideas like online worship–ideas that have been presented and rejected before but are now welcome.

I see God moving in this moment. My God is not the God of plagues, disease, illness, and death. But even through these horrible things, we find ways to bring God glory and worship. In this pandemic, we have found faith over fear, and we have found each other. We can agree with the psalmist who writes,

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” Psalm 52:7 NRSV

Thank you for being God’s beautiful people and for bringing the message each week of peace, good news, and salvation. We are all in this together. Amen.

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