COVID UPDATE: A LETTER FROM THE PASTOR
“A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” -John 16:32-33
Beloved of Christ, On the 25th of November, 2020, the Russell United Methodist’s COVID Response Team discussed and made the decision to offer online-only worship until further notice. This decision was not entered into lightly, but with prayerful hearts and discerning minds, and there was an unanimous vote which finalized the decision. Our church is blessed by God to be a blessing in our community, and it is our responsibility to do whatever we can to ensure that the safety and well-being of all who gather together in worship is not taken lightly; it is out of this heart to protect the vulnerable, to do no harm, and to show love of neighbor that I believe our COVID Response Team’s difficult decision was made.
With the number of COVID cases on the rise, and the numbers being the highest they have been both locally and nationally since this pandemic began, we must continue to do our best to protect and serve our community and congregation well: Physically, Mentally, and Spiritually. With this difficult decision to cease in-person worship gatherings, we are not taking a posture of fear but a position of protection.
On Nov 18, our Bishop Cynthia Moore Koi-Koi wrote, “I am continuing to mandate that clergy work with their lay leadership to make decisions about whether or not to hold in-person worship. If you have in-person worship, you must follow all state and local mandates, which, as of Nov. 18, include wearing masks indoors and outdoors whenever people other than those who live in our households are present.” Since her letter, on the 23rd of November, Pennsylvania’s Governor Tom Wolf tightened the state’s mitigation efforts so that indoor gatherings are to be limited to 10% of occupancy.
This gathering limit of 10% is not the most conducive way to serve our congregation or community. In a small rural church such as Russell UMC, that would mean that approximately 15 people could gather for worship in that space, and so we are left with looking for new ways in which to worship together.
As your pastor, my efforts will be to focus on offering meaningful online worship, devotion, study, and other discipleship resources to help you to grow in your faith, and for us all to grow in community, even while gathering online. I realize that not everyone has easy access to the internet, and so we are also going to have a heightened sensitivity and service for those who need to receive information in the mail. It is our hope that our community will “not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another — and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” It is our prayer that we look forward to worshipping together, even online, realizing God has promised us, “When two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” Advent is a wonderful time for us to look for the Messiah! Jesus came into the midst of brokenness in a way that was quite unexpected: a child wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger — how is Jesus coming to us this Advent? Advent means, “coming to”…and I feel that it comes to this: are we going to continue seeking Jesus, not only in the way that we have always gathered together, not only in our traditions; are we willing to continue seeking Jesus in his tradition of coming to us in unexpected ways?
I feel that, as Christ followers, we should be prepared for God to do the unexpected in our midst, to take us further than we have ever been before, and to call us to drop our nets and simply follow after him, even into the unknown. This Advent will give us the opportunity to experience Christ, our Messiah, our Savior, a little differently. For some, it may feel like we are traveling into the unknown — it is not unknown to God. I encourage you to be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit in and through these difficult times of pandemic, open to receive what God has for us in this season of Advent instead of focusing on what our traditions do not have for us. Let us keep our eyes on God, like a bright star, guiding us through!
I don’t want anyone to think of online worship as a synonym for the church is closing, the church is not closing. We are not closing, rather, we are opening ourselves up to worshipping online for a season. Please tell everyone that you know and invite others to join us online via our Facebook page, share the news that we’re still gathering together for worship, gathering together in community, and we look forward to the creative ways we can continue to come together as the people of God, even when physically apart. This is part of what it means to seek Christ in the unexpected. It is ok to be honest with the fact that this Advent, this Christmas, will look a little different, but it is my hope that the anticipation of finding Christ in a different way will excite us, and invite us for a closer look at what Emmanuel really means: God is with us.