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

Shopping During a Pandemic

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


This morning, I got excited about getting up early to arrive at the local Schnucks to join my other “over 60” population to shop for food between 6 – 7 a.m. I’d seen the videos of people fighting for paper towels and hoarding milk. I imagined this grocery shopping experience would fall somewhere between roller derby and ultimate cage wrestling!

I arrived at 5:45 to make sure I would get a good spot in the line, just in case it was snaking around the building. To my surprise there was only one person there, sitting in his truck. By the time the store opened all of six people had arrived. I figured these must be the meanest, most aggressive folks in the neighborhood! So, with cart in hand, I entered the store.

The experience was nothing short of pleasant. Instead of being met with aggression and panic, I experienced kindness and generosity. People helped one another find things. People allowed one another to step in front of them in line if they didn’t have much to check out. People talked with one another with gladness. I experienced a great sense of “we are all in this together.” And with that spirit, people conducted business in a civil and orderly way.

I am sure all stores are not like this one. The news and online media show the footage of people-acting-badly somewhere. But there is a question the COVID-19 pandemic is raising. It’s about our belief in human nature. Do we believe that we need to buy guns and hoard food because a time is coming when hungry, desperate people will be walking the streets looking for homes to ravage for food? Have we been programmed by disaster films to believe the worst in human nature will appear when given a chance?

In her book, A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit dismisses the myths around how people act during times of crises and disasters. She exams wars, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and other mass disasters. Her findings go against the grain of what we are often told to expect. In her quote of Enrico Quarantelli, an authority on public panic, Solnit explains how fear is a normal and healthy reaction to a disaster: “It doesn’t mean that if people are frightened, they cannot act appropriately. Instead of ruthless competition, the social order did not break down, and there was a cooperative rather than selfish behavior predominating.”

I believe that people want to get along, be cooperative, kind and generous. I believe that people will help others, shop for others (as one woman said she was doing today at 6 a.m.) and be benevolent if given the chance. Are there mean-spirited and selfish people in the world? Certainly! But I believe there is good in people too—a good that is looking for an opportunity to show tenderness and compassion. During this time of pandemic, perhaps we can show the good that is in us toward our neighbors and community, in the name of Jesus Christ. Maybe then we will realize that we are all in this together, and we will all get through this together.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

 

Homebound

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


While doing development work for McCormick Seminary, I was deployed and worked remotely from my home in Madison Wisconsin for three years. As many of you are sheltering in place, I thought It would be prudent to talk about ways to be more productive, less frustrated, and maintain work-life balance during these stressful times.

With schools closing, and colleges using online courses, many households are full of loving, attention needing, disruptive little and big people! And I’m not even including the dogs and cats! In the midst of this fun and chaos, we are challenged to carve out a space for our work.

That’s why it’s so important to set boundaries of where and when you will work. That is the first principle of working from home. Make sure you have all of the work tools you will need including computer, printer, pens, paper, bookcase, etc. Next, set your hours. Determine when you will be available for work. It is tempting to just answer the phone, texts, and emails whenever they arrive. By setting hours you are setting boundaries (there’s that word again!) for yourself and your family.

Another idea is to develop a routine that prepares you for work. In a good article by Jill Duffy, “20 Tips for Working from Home” in PC Magazine, she writes about having a routine that gets you started in the day. “What in your morning routine indicates you’re about to start work? It might be making a cup of coffee. It might be returning home after a jog. It might be getting dressed (wearing pajama pants to work is a perk for some, but a bad strategy for others). A routine can be more powerful than a clock at helping you get started each day.” One way I know that I am NOT working that day, is that I break up my morning routine.

I also find it helpful to take frequent breaks. I often set a timer so that I know it is time to stand, walk around, and stretch. I take a lunch. I take timed TV or do other things as a break too.

During this time some of us may feel as though we are not working hard enough. We tend to make our boundaries porous and work morning, afternoon, evening, and night. (In the back of my mind I still hear my mother asking, “As a pastor, what do you do all week?!”) I have discovered that people who work hard often don’t perceived themselves as the workaholics they really are. So, this is a word of caution to all of us. Do not fall into the trap of overworking because you are working from home. Set your boundaries, create your space, make sure you have all of the office equipment you need, take your breaks, and continue to be productive to the glory of God.

I’m ending with a sentence of a prayer Karen Blanchard shared with me earlier this week (It is posted on the website).

God, help us to take time to sit still as the world around us swirls, and drink from the still waters of the love and peace that you offer to quench our thirst in both body and spirit. Amen.

 Rev. Craig M. Howard

Stress Reduction

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


Last weekend I had a difficult conversation with my soon-to-be 90-year-old father about attending worship on Sunday in Chicago. He was determined to do it, and he did. I was disappointed that his pastor held service in a church that seats 3500. I was more disappointed that Dad went anyway, in spite of warnings, calls from his children, and public messages from the government. Just imagining him at the church stressed me out. Afterward, when I had to then try and talk him out of getting on an airplane to go to Florida to play golf, I was exasperated. (Thankfully, he decided not to go.)     

In addition to sickness and illness, I now realize that the coronavirus is bringing stress to our world and our lives. Kids are home from school. Offices and restaurants are closing. Hourly workers are being hit hard. There is tension in family life. Churches are trying to figure out what does it mean to be faithful and how to maintain community.

In this time of stress, one of my first concerns in the well-being of the pastors, teachers, chaplains, and leaders in the presbytery. Leadership matters. If the leadership of the church or institution is cloudy in their thinking and incapacitated in their actions because of stress, then the entire church or organization suffers.

I asked Rev. Renita Mercado-Heinzl, director of the chaplaincy program at St. Luke’s hospital, to share a list of online sights, articles, and books she could recommend to our leaders. Renita provided a treasure trove of information! I found that just taking the time to look at some of these resources reduced my stress levels! I’m going to list them after the article, but you may want to be sure to see the this one on “10 Ideas for Church Financial Leaders Amid the COVID-19 Crises”. One of the suggestions is to “send messages of hope, encouragement, and impact.” You can find it here: https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/articles/10-ideas-for-church-financial-leaders-amid-the-covid-19-crisis.

Another one I found helpful is a commentary from the Baltimore Sun called, “Coronavirus Stressing You Out? Here’s How to Cope”. Her first recommendation is to limit the intake of media. She also suggests we do things that bring happiness or pleasure. You can find it here: https://www.baltimoresun.com/opinion/op-ed/bs-ed-op-0317-coronavirus-stress-cope-20200316-u5vacvgy6zbqvdun2roa3dkdoe-story.html.

Be sure to look at the Headington Institute page with titles such as Resilience, Stress and Burnout, Trauma, and Lifestyle Balance. https://www.headington-institute.org/overview.

When you feel the pressures building, stop, breathe, move around, read an article or a book, gather your thoughts. Pray at any point! Know that we are in this together, and we will come out of this together. Pray for me, as you are all in my prayers as well.

Rev. Craig M. Howard