Living the Dream

In Genesis 37 we read a story that centers around a journey. Jacob asks his son to go check on his older brothers who are shepherding the flock far from home. Joseph is born to his father later in life. He is the firstborn of Rachel, the favored wife. Jacob keeps the boy close, letting the older brothers wander more than 50 miles from home to keep the flocks fed. Joseph was a dreamer and his father nurtured that in him. Joseph shares two dreams with his older half-brothers that point to his future power over them. This goes over like a lead balloon. In Joseph’s world, dreams were believed to be God-given. So the idea that this spoiled brat of a brother would rise above them was more than they could take. They reject the dreams and their hatred for Joseph sharpens. As we page through the family album in Genesis, we keep running into family dysfunction.

Shechem was 50 miles away from home. When Joseph couldn’t find his band of brothers there, he was directed to Dothan, a town that is another 14 miles down the road. Can you imagine sending your middle-schooler 65 miles on foot to do a sibling check? Even more impossible is the idea that they would accept the assignment! Joseph dutifully carries out his father’s request that he, when literally translated, would check on the shalom of the older boys. It’s an ironic word to use given the alienation that dominated their family life. Usually shielded by his adoring father, Joseph is way out of his protective reach. As the older brothers see him approach they bitterly refer to him as the “dreamer of dreams”. They cannot speak a peaceful word to him.

We read that the cistern is dry. It cannot preserve life. Likewise the brothers are emotionally running on empty. There is no peace between them and the favored boy. The very sight of him approaching in the full length coat his father had given him makes their blood boil. This sort of outer garment was a symbol of maturity and status yet it was given to the younger boy. It would be like dressing one of the youngest siblings in a suit and tie and making him foreman over his elders. Jacob, the father, is a schemer who had been ruthless in getting what he wanted in life, set Joseph up for failure by unabashedly preferring him. So, with their elderly father 60 miles away, the ten older brothers set out to crush the dream. They move from killing him to selling him as a slave but they cannot come to agreement. Perhaps they knew in their hearts that there is no place for such envy in a family. Eugene Roop, in his commentary, writes, “Despite all of their schemes, the brothers have managed no murder, no profit, no dramatic rescue, and they have no idea where Joseph is.” Joseph, the boy whose name means “Add” is no longer part of the family. The much beloved addition to Jacob’s clan is gone and the brothers fabricate one lie after another to hide their guilt. The hatred of ten sons prevails over the love of a father. The added one is irreplaceable. The family is set on a course of secrecy and sadness from which it will not recover. Generational sin leaves Jacob’s family gutted.

In this ancient tragedy the juxtaposition is between dreams and power. In Joseph’s case, the two are irreconcilable. Though they would have believed that their little brother’s dreams were from God, they did not honor them. God is the mover and shaker in this story but only in the background. Without the dreams, the siblings might have managed to co-exist. But the dreams God gives Joseph make for a heap of trouble. To resist them requires endless deception and heartache. Generations later the prophet Jeremiah gives us a peek into the broken heart of Rachel, the mother who had waited so long for this beloved son. Referring to the exiled descendants of Jacob who cried out to God for liberation, Jeremiah links them back to the family matriarch: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

But then we remember that Jacob schemed to take the privileged position that his older twin brother deserved. We remember that Rachel’s father, Laban, tricked Jacob into marrying the elder sister first even though he didn’t ask for her hand in marriage. Imagine the damage that did to the relationship between the sisters because of their daddy’s conniving. Add to the mix unbridled favoritism by the father toward one son who is honored with an extravagant robe. We begin to understand that evil didn’t amorphously jump out to claim the dreaming boy. Generations of scheming overshadowed the dreaming and power was chosen over love.

Walter Brueggeman writes, “Dreams permit the imagining of new political possibilities which immediately threaten the old and call it into question. One side resists. The other strives for it.”

Can we qualify some of our present-day angst as a conflict between differing dreams? Is there only fake news in the political arena today or are we hearing the articulation of a dream that speaks to us at a deep level? Are our hearts stirred in the fight for equality between the races? Are we working together to triumph over a deadly virus that has shut down the world? When a minimum wage employee is shot dead for asking a customer to put on a mask, we know that something profound is happening in our world. Is it the god of individualism that the Corona virus disrespects, indiscriminately claiming victims from all different camps. We will not tolerate that!

Our world is a very different place now than it was six months ago. We felt that as we sat in our sanctuary, six feet apart, wearing masks when we reconvened in our building last Sunday. We long awaited the moment we could meet again face-to-face. But we couldn’t help but feel the wedge between us not just because we couldn’t see each other’s smiles but because of the emotional distance traveled since March. I suspect those who made reservations to be in our sanctuary felt a mix of joy and sadness. Whatever dreams we held onto for our church reunion were no doubt unmet to some degree. Some of us met in the sanctuary with finances challenged, job futures uncertain and increasing depression as we realize our planning for what’s next may amount to nothing. We rejoice that our children are back to school but worry about their emotional well-being. What social skills do they miss when study happens in front of a computer at home and not next to their buddies? When classmates reunite in the school building we worry that an invisible virus being passed from one to another as children wrestle on the playground or share their colored pencils with each other. Our dreams for our kids’ education drift anxiously on eggshells because we know that tomorrow could bring school closures anew.

We listen to the news and find that we envy those who seem to have it better. Those folks already fought the COVID battle and it barely touched them. They probably have immunity now. These folks have the money to hire a tutor for their children so that they can head off to their jobs that still support them. Those folks live in an area that is virtually untouched by the disease. That family has thrived during the quarantine whereas ours has had to face its demons. Our envy may be more subtle than that of the ten murderous older brothers. We make comments that put others down so that we look good. We say kind words but look for a way to get things done our way. When our dreams are crushed and our future so very uncertain, it’s almost impossible to keep bitterness out of the weary creases of each day. Why is their life going so well when mine is in a shambles?

In some ways we gathered in our sanctuary on Sunday as a beaten people. When we closed our doors on March 15 and headed to our homes, we imagined we would open our church doors in a matter of weeks and pick up where we left off. But that dream, along with so many others, was crushed for me with the first news reports of refrigerator trucks lining the streets outside NYC hospitals to hold our dead. So what did we bring with us through our sanitized church doors on the long-awaited day of reunion?

Faith. God wants us to be faithful to the dreams of divine origin, no matter our circumstances. When our journey takes a sharp turn and we find ourselves on a lonesome trail, God asks us to remain true to the dream. It would be easy to become bitter about our changed circumstances. Just listen to the news tonight to meet folks who have countless reasons to be bitter about the hand they’ve been dealt in COVID 19. But the very nature of faith is to hang onto the assurance of God’s presence particularly in the worst of times. The very nature of faith is to reach out to each other lovingly when we don’t know if we will be able to pay our lot rent. The very nature of faith is to offer a word of encouragement to a discouraged child who can’t understand how the easy life they so recently lived seems now as only a distant memory.

Perhaps you remember that Joseph ends up a slave in Egpyt where he languishes in prison for a time. A woman of high standing falsely accused him of lurid advances when, in fact, he turned down her bedroom invitation. Joseph was an ancient Emmit Till who didn’t stand a chance as an enslaved foreigner who had the audacity to hang onto a dream that upheld his dignity. But it is his faith in those God-given dreams that protects him from bitterness. He doesn’t ever allow himself to be written out of the narrative in spite of his brothers’ dastardly deed because he carries within him the belief that God is still at work in his life and may yet redeem his poor circumstances. Joseph remains faithful to God while shivering on the floor of a dank prison because of false allegations. His devotion in hardship is as noteworthy to God as the salvation he offered his people when promoted to stand alongside of Pharoah as a trusted advisor.

Maybe you were able to watch the Broadway show, Hamilton, while locked away in your homes? In the final song Alexander Hamilton’s wife sings, “I put myself back into the narrative.” She had every reason to be bitter about the loss of both a son and a husband to gunshot wounds sustained in duel fights. She could carry with her a desire to avenge her husband’s unfair treatment from peers who envied his sizable talents and sought to bring him down. But she puts herself back in the broken pieces of her narrative by honoring Alexander’s legacy. Her proudest achievement was the establishment of the first private orphanage in NYC to provide a safe haven for children orphaned, just as her husband had been. She sings, “In their eyes I see you, Alexander.”

We arrived in our sacred space having said goodbye to some dreams. But we met because we still believe that God is sovereign in spite of the chaos around us. We left the comfort of our pajamas and the luxury of good coffee in bed because we hang onto the dream that through our worship together we can accomplish much more for Christ than we can do alone. We can become embittered by the legitimately unfair turn of events that have rerouted us. But I suspect we left our homes to worship together because we keep putting ourselves back in the narrative by recommitting, time and again, to living the dream that God has given us.


The Pleasant Rule

My parents loved to travel. Spending more than 20 years in the Air Force, they had ample opportunity to see many parts of the world. They translated that passion for new cultures into leading tours to foreign lands. Many of the people who signed on with them were my father’s parishioners. Some were dear friends from an earlier military post. Some started the trip as strangers but they inevitably became good friends.

My parents developed one requirement for their fellow travelers: that they follow The Pleasant Rule. Their expectation was that that folks would be Pleasant with one another. That seems like a low bar but it actually counts for a lot when coexisting with twenty others in the heat of India or the tensions of Soviet Russia. I suspect it’s only after leading a couple of trips that they realized the importance of being Pleasant.

It’s not a word we use much anymore, certainly not for anyone under the age of 40. I’ve heard the expression that someone is Pleasant to the eyes. But their rule did not have to do with physical appearance. The people they traveled with probably packed coordinating outfits with jewelry to match. They were well-kept. Like a prenuptial agreement, my folks urged people to sign on to a mandate that had to do with behavior. Consider an unpleasant look that stems from someone who is frustrated that their preferred hair products were confiscated when they went through security. Imagine the unpleasant look on a travel companion’s face who is frustrated that it takes forever for the group to be seated in a restaurant. The Pleasant Rule forbade an snippy exchange between group members the morning after a late hotel arrival the night before. Breakfast the next morning was something to endure not enjoy.
My parents knew that there are inevitable ups and downs to any travel excursion. When a couple dozen people travel together, you multiply the potential for frustration. So, during the orientation for one of their new trip opportunities, Jim and Katie Chapman articulated the need for folks to be Pleasant sojourners.

pleasant people 1

pleasant people 2

We may not talk about being Pleasant with each other so much today. But a related word comes to mind that connects with us more in our contemporary setting: civility. We have talked much in recent years about the slippery slope of diminished civility toward one another in this country. Leaders, neighbors, co-workers, and even family members lack civility toward one another. Common decency has been replaced with self-absorption. Why can’t others honor my needs first?

eddy haskell

As the countdown to a presidential election accelerates I find myself yearning for words of sincerity. I watch for expressions of compassion. I think of my parents’ rule which, in hindsight, cuts to the quick of the matter: The Pleasant Rule. Imagine how palatable the political campaigning would be if folks in different political camps managed to be genuinely Pleasant with each other. Our stress level as citizens would go down. Even faux Pleasantness is better than the ugly name-calling that has become commonplace. But an understood part of being Pleasant is that it comes from within. To be Pleasant means we consider the comfort level of the person who is with us. It means that we are willing to communicate kindness to someone even when our own life is in upheaval. We see it when rivals agree to disagree, respecting each other for their stance. It is evidenced when we keep company with the most whiny group member for five hours in an airport when our flight keeps getting bumped on an icy day. The Psalmist may not have experienced flight delays but they seemed to understand the gift of people getting along when they didn’t have to: “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1)

The Pleasant Rule doesn’t speak exclusively to groups of people who were brought together for a common journey, far away from what is familiar. It can be the guiding principle around the dinner table. That assumes that we sit down for dinner. That assumes that we put down our phones long enough to look one another in the eyes and talk at a deeper level. One who is Pleasant knows the importance of listening. One who is Pleasant understands that there’s much to be learned from the story of another. Someone following the Pleasant rule would understand that their words of kindness might be the only encouragement someone receives in an otherwise challenging life.

Out of fear of a virus, we’ve been holed away for months. We have begun to come out of our caves and mix with others. If we are the fortunate ones who have job security, comfortable homes, and healthy relationships, we have had the luxury of being able to focus on our own needs. It’s easy to be content in our own carefully controlled environment. Then we walk out into the world where tensions run high. Just ask people who work for minimum-wage at stores where they’ve had to ask people to wear masks. Those interactions have not been… Pleasant.

The Corona Virus has reminded us that we are all in this together. While we certainly are not hopping on airplanes to travel to foreign countries, we are sojourners who recognize that we need each other. We understand that others are counting on our care. Whether we have been on the receiving end of someone’s goodwill or served others sacrificially, we are walking on the face of this earth as common pilgrims. We are strangers thrown together by circumstance, geography, and family ties. Just as we no longer go anywhere without a mask, we need to carry The Pleasant Rule with us into these new settings.  We smile at complete strangers underneath uncomfortable masks because we care.

masked garrett and laurie


The Pleasant Rule surfaces from a deep love for all people, those whose suitcases are filled with Tommy Bahama gear and those who have practical shoes and a walking stick. In the church we are called to model that deep love and respect for one another. As our church gathered anew after 23 weeks of being physically apart on Sundays, we rejoiced at being together. The natural expressions of hugs and handshakes, sharing coffee and conversation are not allowed presently. Singing and Sunday School are on hold. I grieve these losses too! But we have this great opportunity to look each other in the eyes, even if the rest of the face is covered, and speak words of encouragement. We may have to repeat our words because masks muffle our message! The easy reaction is to be irritated. But we must commit to gentleness, kindness, and compassion. We covenant together to live by The Pleasant Rule as we face fires, double hurricanes, earthquakes and an unprecedented pandemic. We may not be as perfect as Ward and June Cleaver appeared to be! But the one thing we can control in the chaos that seems to have broken loose is the way we treat others. Let’s choose to be…Pleasant!


Getting it Right

I wonder if Esau’s face haunted Jacob in his dreams? All these years after he tricked his elderly father into giving him his brother’s blessing, I imagine Jacob still relived the moment Esau discovered the betrayal of his twin brother. Why would a brother do this to another? Jacob has added two wives and eleven sons since then. After enduring years of manipulation by his father-in-law, Jacob is fleeing again. But this time it is toward home, the place that calls out to him. Inevitably this means an encounter with the one he had deceived. So he develops a plan. Jacob sends waves of servants ahead of him and his family. They are herding cattle that will be presented to his brother in hopes of appeasing his wrath. After setting up this lavish scheme of emotional bribery, almost to himself Jacob says, “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterwards I shall see his face; perhaps he will accept me.”

I wonder if Esau’s face robbed Jacob of sleep after all these years.

The night before the encounter Jacob sends his beloved wives and children across the stream and sleeps alone in a very dark place. The mood to the story is heavy. Jacob knows that he is deserving of Esau’s harsh retaliation. He seems to realize that no one else can pay the price for his sin. So he assumes the posture of a penitent and lowly servant before a more powerful master. Like a dog who crouches submissively when afraid, the younger twin hopes for mercy from the elder.

This is another Genesis story that really shouldn’t be read at bedtime. Whatever assumptions you have that this tale from our ancestral tree wraps up neatly, cast those aside and listen closely!

Jacob wrestles with God

Jacob has learned that his brother is coming out to greet him—with 400 men! Whatever anxiety plagued Jacob as he set out on this journey is now ratcheted up to code red. He lays down his weary head across the stream from all he holds dear hoping to trick his tensed body into sleep. He needs to be ready for the fraternal encounter the next day. But, that very night, Jacob faces off against a fiercely strong competitor. In this nocturnal struggle his enemy is faceless and relentless. But the story boasts of Jacob’s strength. He holds his own throughout the night. As the first light of dawn stretches toward this tumbling mass of entwined sweaty bodies, the antagonist asks for mercy. Jacob, ever the schemer, wants to manipulate this powerful enemy by asking for a blessing. At a standstill with their fighting skills, they have to resort to speech.

My guilty confession is that I watch Big Brother in the summer. In the cool of the basement my kids and I watch as exhausted competitors hang off moving platforms, while being pelted with cold water and tipped at impossible angles. Who will stay up longest? Who gains the upper hand for the next week? Quite often there are two left clinging to their tilting, slippery world, exhausted but tenacious. They want the agony to be over so they start to talk. They make deals. They offer promises they may or may not keep. When they’ve met their match and no one seems to pull off a win based on brawn, the opponents use their words to end the fight.

wrestling with God 3

Jacob refuses to let go unless the stranger blesses him. As the man’s face begins to appear in the morning light, he asks Jacob for his name. It means “schemer”. He had certainly lived into that title! Jacob then asks the stranger for his name. This will allow him to keep the advantage. In the ancient world, to know someone’s name is to have power over them. The man is not willing to give this but he offers a blessing to the one who had tricked his way into his father’s blessing decades before. This time it’s a gift and it comes with a new name: Israel. The Master Manipulator will leave this wrestling match against a faceless opponent with the name Israel which means God rules or protects or preserves. With this name a new future stretches before Jacob that was not possible before. Some of God’s power has rubbed off on the younger twin and the axis on which his family’s future turns has shifted. When daylight finally appears, the stranger is gone… and so is the Schemer. The man with the new name called that place Peniel, which means “The face of God.”

But there’s one important detail about how this nightmare ends. Before resorting to verbal bargaining, the powerful stranger brought a sudden end to the encounter by showing off his strength. He touched Jacob’s hip and that was enough to knock it out of joint. Remember when you learned as a child that your dad had been letting you win? Jacob realized that this was no ordinary human being. When bestowing a new name on this lifelong manipulator, the stranger helped Jacob understand how significant the struggle had been: “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Jacob limps away from the place he had chosen for a bed but turned into a wrestling mat. His identity is changed in the nick of time before he will face the brother he had robbed and deceived years before. Finally Jacob fought for the right reason: to be blessed. Nearly overwhelmed in the fight, he limps toward his brother, humbled. Pastor and writer Frederick Buechner calls this “the magnificent defeat.” The egotistical scrapper who always gained the advantage met God and everything changed. The limp would forever remind him of the night when he faced his demons and, by God’s grace, was forgiven. It was a fresh start for him, his children and all who would follow. In this defeat, a nation would be blessed.

Jacob with a limp

And, by the way, when he met up with Esau, groveling with fear, the elder twin grabbed onto the younger and they wept into each other’s necks. All is forgiven, as only brothers can do.

We shake our heads at Jacob’s character as if it is foreign to us. But Buechner points out that the Jacob’s of the world can thrive! Scheming—in legal ways—can serve you well! He writes, “…what does it all get him? I know what you expect the preacher to say: that it gets him nothing. But even preachers must be honest. I think it can get him a good deal, this policy of dishonesty where necessary. It can get him the invitation or the promotion. It can get him the job. It can get him the pat on the back and the admiring wink that mean so much. And these, in large measure, are what we mean by happiness. Do not underestimate them.” This time Jacob got it right! He fought with all his might to preserve his life in order to be blessed by the only proper Authority. He admitted defeat. Buechner states, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief is the best any of us can do really, but thank God it is enough.”

I love this story! The wrestling mat is emblematic for me of where we encounter God. No sooner do we think we’ve got all the answers to life and God shows up to challenge us. With each magnificent defeat, our life goes a needed direction and we are humbled anew. I remember meeting with other clergy to plan a high school baccalaureate service. What passage would we use to congratulate the seniors on their accomplishments and send them out into the world ready to live their faith? Some suggested “God is love” or “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” or a host of other passages. But this story was the one I promoted. Many of us were baptized into the faith, coached into Christianity by the example of our protective parents. They fend off our enemies, put band aids on our knees and hearts when we get hurt and say prayers with us at bedtime. When the time comes to own the faith for ourselves, outside the influence of our parents’ home, the journey can get down and dirty. Remember the prodigal son who self-righteously heads off with his father’s money to make his mark in the world? That’s us. Each of us. Until we experience the magnificent defeat that comes when God knocks some sense into us and we cry out, “Thank you!”

Levi baptism

Levi baptism hand on face

Last Sunday I had the profound privilege of baptizing my young grandson into the faith and family of Jesus Christ. We had planned a baptism for March 22. It was to be in the 145-year old church sanctuary with the prayerful support of our church family. But COVID showed up and we no longer met in person for worship. So we waited…and waited. Finally it made sense to baptize him in Clear Bottom Lake, a family-owned setting that means the world to Levi’s parents and the rest of the family. Levi baptism with Lisa and MatthewImmediate family members gathered at a safe distance from each other, filled with joy at such a great occasion. Levi’s mom spent time swimming in those waters as a girl. Levi’s father proposed to his mom on a deck that overlooks the lake. At the family cottage they had a rehearsal dinner the night before their wedding, when sweet Levi was only a dream. There was a grand baby shower in which blue confetti exploded out of balloons to announce that a boy would be joining the family. Church members were among the guests as gifts were bestowed on the parents-to-be, preparing them for this beloved son. So this was the perfect setting for his baptism. Levi baptism singingMy husband sang while my son strummed the guitar. Parents and family members made vows to teach this little boy the ways of the faith so that he would know he was never alone when he faced with the inevitable struggles in life. We videotaped the ceremony and included it in our on-line worship service yesterday so that our church family could take ownership of this life entrusted into their congregational care, even if in non-traditional ways!

As little Levi moves through school, into college, a career and lifelong relationships, hanging onto faith in our increasingly secular world will be a challenge. The readily available gods will be technology, money, relationships that meet his personal needs, success at work and self-promotion, at the least. So God meets us in the dark of night, when our defenses are down, and we engage with each other on the wrestling mat. Ultimately, when we’ve fought for as long as we possibly can to hang onto our false gods, we give up. We ask for God’s blessing and we know that we finally get it right. This is the relationship for which we were created. All our yearnings point toward God. When we finally understand the sacrifice God made for us in Jesus, we no longer regret the limp we have from so many divine encounters.

The nutshell of the Gospel is offered in this story. It comes from the older twin who had given Jacob his birthright one day because he was famished. He came in from a hard day’s work and Jacob was cooking a fragrant soup. Esau told Jacob he could have his birthright if Jacob would pour him a bowl of that soup. Esau was duped by Jacob a couple of times when his priorities were misplaced. So it makes me wonder if Esau, perhaps, didn’t have the character needed to be at the helm of the nation of believers God was shaping. And maybe Esau recognized that over time and traded in bitter resentment toward his conniving brother for peaceful contentment. When the brothers met up after years of separation, Esau, the deceived, embraced the deceiver. Esau doesn’t mete out just punishment, as Jacob knew he deserved. Esau extends grace.

And because of the magnificent defeat Jacob suffered the night before, he was able to receive it.

Levi baptism Garrett and me

For you, for me, for my tiny grandson, Levi, newly baptized into this crazy family called Church, I pray that we will get it right each time we stand at a crossroads and ask not for money or fame or power or beauty—but blessing. A blessing from God.

Levi baptism me kissing him!


Orange Sherbet

I opened the door to the church fridge to retrieve the leftovers I had grabbed for my lunch that day. They were in a sour cream container that was too useful for me to throw away. As I reached for it I scanned what else was in this community cooler. There wasn’t much. At some point each summer I take it upon myself to pitch whatever food items have been left in our basement kitchen from earlier potlucks or coffee hours. It’s funny what people leave behind, as if those of us on the staff scrounge for food in fits of hunger. I remember a plate of jello with whipped topping that sat there for weeks after a funeral luncheon. (My kids always helped out when there was leftover funeral cake however!) During this August lunch hour, I looked to see what needed to be pitched. Not much. We’ve been out of the building since March 15. No worship. No classes. No pastoral care appointments. No on-site board meetings. I found a stick of butter that was unfit to be smeared on toast. There was a half-empty jar of salsa in the back of the top shelf that I dumped. I discovered a couple of two-liters of fizz-less pop that I poured down the drain and an opened bag of corn chips. In the freezer there was a half-used plastic carton of orange sherbet. I’m sure it was used to top a bowl of punch served at one of our coffee hours. It’s stunning that folks willingly take on the responsibility of providing refreshments for hungry parishioners whose minds start drifting to the treat table during the singing of the last hymn. I opened the lid and the sherbet was gummy. When I scooped it into the industrial sink in the church basement, it sat unnaturally glued together. I hope whoever left it there wasn’t planning on using it months later! I did leave an opened bag of Pecan Sandies in the freezer, thinking someone might come back for that when a COVID vaccination makes us all feel safe. There’s also a big bag of broccoli in the freezer that must be part of a planned supper for our guests when we get back into housing homeless families in our church post-quarantine.

The broccoli and pecan sandies remain. But the orange sherbet and various other odd items abandoned in a communal kitchen are gone. Time to move on. There will be no food occasions in our church in the near future.

Remember when we gathered around a long table in the church parlor to eat cookies and drink decaf coffee? No masks. No tongs. No individually wrapped snacks. Can you recall walking forward during communion to pull a piece of bread off the communal loaf, sharing in the Body of Christ together? Remember when we hugged a friend in the sanctuary after worship because some part of the service set off memories of a difficult loss? Remember baked potato bar luncheons when the donation basket overflowed to support an out-of-state youth mission trip? Packed in vans our teens traveled to some small town where their lives would overlap in transformative ways with residents there. Busy youth parents donated desserts for the fundraiser luncheon, adding one more thing to their endless to-do list. Any kid raised in the church knows the joy of unlimited access to the dessert table. Parents are too busy chatting with friends to notice that you’ve devoured two cookies and three pieces of cake. Grubby hands reach for food they can barely see from their lowly vantage point. But they’ve learned that anything they get will be good.

There will be no “food ministries” in our foreseeable future. If we can’t get closer than six feet from each other, we certainly can’t help ourselves to the same plate of cookies. My Tuesday morning Bible Study class is on indefinite hiatus as we keep ourselves safely apart. On the first Tuesday of the month a couple of class members brought treats to celebrate the birthdays of those who were born in that month. It was an excuse to party before cracking open our Bibles. The average age in that class is over seventy so a couple dozen individuals will have to commit to homeschooled Bible lessons. Will we ever all be together in the church basement again, leaving strange leftover items in our community cooler?

We are planning to reconvene in our sanctuary for worship on August 23. Of course, anything could change between now and then. In these past few months we’ve learned the painful lesson countless times that we cannot plan ahead. Just ask any couple whose wedding was scheduled for Spring, 2020! Against this new backdrop of uncertainty, we have readied our sanctuary to receive the faithful. They will be invited to sit in spaces designated by strips of painter’s tape on the back of our wooden pews. Masks will be part of our Sunday Best in the months ahead. Parishioners will follow traffic patterns taped onto the carpet. Doing all things in an orderly fashion, at a distance from each other, will presumably keep us safe. But many will not come back. I am curious to witness how many folks will stand for the temperature check at the door (100.4 degrees or lower). Who will tolerate the discomfort of donning a mask in worship and leaving distance between themselves and their beloved friend with whom they used to share a pew? For now we will not sing together, a cherished part of each service. The choir director and I will remain removed from our people in the front of the church. I am presently looking for the perfect plastic shield that keeps any exclamatory spray to myself. We have self-contained communion elements ready to put out on the first Sundays of the month so that no one has to take bread or juice from somebody else’s hands. Will we ever pull a piece of fresh bread off from the loaf again, trusting that the hands that have done that before us are clean?

“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure heart…They will receive blessing from the Lord…”

What have I missed? The fact that children will stay in the pews with their parents instead of being dismissed midway through the service for Sunday School classes. Babies and toddlers will stay in the sanctuary rather than play with a capable nursery attendant whose job is on hold due to the virus. A woodworker in our congregation is crafting an offering box on a pedestal into which the faithful can deposit their tithes so that we don’t have to pass plates…and germs.

Oh yeah. No coffee hour at the end of the service. Folks will process out the red doors of our 145 year old sanctuary at the end of the service. In an orderly manner they will make their way to their cars. Outside they can have their own virtual coffee hour by “tailgating” with the faith community. We will not break bread or cookies together for awhile. We will not float scoops of orange sherbet in a lovingly prepared punch so that children head home wearing an orange mustache. No leftovers will accumulate in our refrigerator. No treats will be left for the Tuesday morning Bible Study class. For now the kitchen is closed, the lower level is roped off and the classrooms sit empty.

So why bother? A lot of us have become accustomed to worship in our pajamas with a good cup of coffee in hand. Why take a risk when the sermon can be heard while driving to the cottage?

We take a shower and leave the comfort of home because we have met Jesus when we have been together for worship. We have discovered during the quarantine that the Church is a gathering of the faithful and we miss each other terribly. We have felt the presence of the Spirit when we lift up our prayers together. In the sacrament of communion we have heard the answer to our fervent prayers. As the light danced through the stained glass windows, we knew that we were going to be alright. We can remember the moment when the words of the scripture lesson redirected our path. In a time of loss it was the words to familiar hymns that gave us the greatest comfort.

Each congregation will decide when to reopen their building and how to prepare for the return of their membership. Each disciple will carefully decide when they are able to rejoin their church family in person, even if at a distance. There is risk. There will continue to be risk. Whatever assumptions we had that we would slip back into a familiar style of worship after a couple months of quarantine have been dispelled. So, like generations of believers before us, we must let go of what no longer works and allow the Spirit to lead us in new paths. Fortunately, we know that the form of our worship is not what makes it real. Citrus punch with sherbet melting on the surface is not required for a good Sabbath. It’s the blessed encounter with the One who seeks us out whether we are watching worship with our pillow propping us up or sitting in a marked pew with our mask firmly in place. We have learned a few things in this pandemic. One of them is that nothing can separate us from the love of God!