The Hundred-and-Seventeenth Letter: Small-Town Church Life in the Midst of Covid-19

Dear Daughters,

I probably seem like a normal Sunday-school-born-and-raised kind of Christian. But the truth is, my church experience didn’t consist of one single congregation throughout my childhood, and often didn’t include regular Sunday school attendance at all.

Because of the travel we did with the Family Circle, the gospel singing group my family was part of when I was little, we worshiped in many different churches on many different Sundays.

So, basically, when I was your age, my church experience looked a lot different than yours does.

As a family, we still attend the church that you were both dedicated in–both on the first Sundays of Advent the years you were born. In your Sunday school class at church are some children who were born the same month you were, who crawled in the nursery alongside you, who have been at VBS and Wednesday night activities alongside you your whole lives.

I didn’t have that kind of longstanding, substantial, consistent church community when I was your age.

And later, when I think about the church experience that shaped my teenage years, it was a wholly different kind of church life as well: large, charismatic, Spirit-led, and energetic.

Also, loud.

Girls, we don’t attend a fancy or flashy church. The loudest part of the service is probably the peals of the pipe organ. Many of the people who go there have gone there for a long time. In fact, many of the members my age were born and raised in this community.

As churches go, I guess ours appears relatively traditional from the outside (and relatively progressive on the inside, but that’s a theological treatise for another letter). I’m not a fan of the traditional/contemporary divide because it fails to capture the complexity of church in America, so I like to think of our church as creatively liturgical. If you pay attention, you can see the nuance and thought behind what we do, but you have to pay attention. You can’t assume because we sing from hymnals that you know what’s going to happen next.

Honestly, sometimes it feels like we attend a church straight out of a movie about small-town America, in all the good ways.

And most of those “good ways” are the people.

In the midst of Covid-19 due to social distancing regulations, churches are not meeting in person, and it seems like everywhere I look, I’m reading about folks worshiping online. Our church has even been live streaming through Facebook.

I love that the church in America is trying to figure out how to have church in the midst of a crisis–and also how to be church in the midst of a crisis.

It’s not the same thing, of course, and it’s always good to be reminded that the church is not a building.

Our church is doing a lot of good in the community, girls, by actively partnering with nonprofits and seeking opportunities to help those outside our walls, but, let’s face it, also to help those within our four “walls” even when we aren’t meeting. Because our church is an aging church, and the aging are particularly at risk during this health crisis.

And one of the things our church does best is to rally around the hurting, the grieving, the vulnerable. We know how to show up, take food, send notes. We know how to make sandwiches, send cards to the reading camp kids, say “I can” when the text asks who can help.

We do this all the time, girls.

And we are still doing it.

That gives me hope.

I actually find comfort that we won’t ever have the flashiest online service or the most spectacular YouTube channel. Sure, we will learn those things and adapt as it makes sense to do so–but more importantly, we will keep people connected in the ways we already know how, with the habits and practices we have already been cultivating, by serving our community and refusing to stop loving our neighbors.

That gives me so much, so much hope.

And when your Sunday school teachers–two retired grandmothers from our church who have cared for you every Sunday morning this year–texted and told me they’d recorded a Sunday school lesson for your little class on YouTube, I nearly wept. Not because it mattered to me that you had Sunday school, but that the love shown was so simple, so straightforward, and so lovely. In the recording, they sang your Sunday morning greeting song, read a Bible story, taught the motions for Zacchaeus Was a Wee Little Man, recited the Lord’s Prayer, and taught you how to make a Resurrection Garden as we prepare our hearts for Easter morning.

I watched you bow your heads and pray solemnly along with the video, sing Zacchaeus, and get excited about the stone rolling away in the Resurrection Garden on Easter morning.

Easter morning.

There is much loss for me as I think about not having Holy Week and Easter services with my gathered church community. We have such lovely traditions–bell ringing, carrying Easter lilies down the aisle to recognize each family who has lost a loved one over the previous year, beautiful music. Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.

Gosh, I tear up just remembering what it is like to be present in that space.

But it has helped this week as I’ve thought through all the ways our local community is reaching out and being the hands and feet of Jesus in this season, all the ways I am grateful that we already practice such sincere and selfless community, all the ways that the light is shone to you girls by a whole community that loves you and prays for you and has committed to journeying alongside you, through every season, Covid-19-social-distancing-live-streaming season or otherwise.

Yes, I am grateful for this small town church in the middle of America.

And I am grateful we planted a Resurrection Garden here in the middle of Lent.

Love,

Your Momma

The Sixty-Eighth Letter: Death and Life and Alleluia

Five Easters Ago...

Five Easters ago, taken a few short weeks before the first Bean was born.

Dear Daughters,

Yesterday was Holy Saturday.

We transplanted oregano I had rooted in water from last year’s herbs and then had nursed all winter long in small pots scattered around the house. It felt like an appropriately liturgical activity, getting our hands dirty together, trying to teach you to be gentle with the roots, appreciating the way new life can come from cuttings of old plants, watering the fresh soil. We’ll see if they survive.

Your dad also built a 20-foot long raised bed to plant our ten baby tree saplings in. They’ll live there for this next year or two and then get placed into their forever homes, flowering beautifully as so many central Kentucky trees do. You played with earthworms while your dad and I broke up the soil.

We had neighbors over in the morning for an Easter egg hunt, which I confessed on social media I didn’t feel much like doing (okay, not really at all) but was grateful we did, hopeful in the building of relationships, so strong as I am in the conviction that loving our neighbors has become such a cliche in Christians circles that we forget Jesus actually might mean our literal neighbors.

We let you open some Easter gifts while Facetiming with family.

We ate Thai food for dinner with friends.

Your dad prayed at dinner, mentioning our particular prayers for those who are mourning, those who are dying, those to whom the whole world feels dark and lonely and sad. He mentioned that we wait this day, Holy Saturday, knowing what death feels like, knowing that Jesus has died, but also knowing that because of this death we know life and freedom and light. Life gets the final word. But we dwell in the death for a season because we must.

Yesterday, the mother of one of our sweet friends from church died.

Yesterday.

Yes, yesterday while so many children across our town and state and country were picking up Easter eggs and gorging themselves with candy, our sweet friend lost her mother.

This is the tension of Holy Saturday.

This is the already/not-yet tension at the heart of our faith.

This is the reason I love the liturgical calendar so much.

We don’t always “feel” the seasons we are walking through. And sometimes we feel them too much. Life in this broken world is real and painful and dark. And carrying lilies down the aisle this morning at church will not change that.

It just won’t, girls.

Now, the truth is, most of us will pretend that it does. Most of us will open Easter baskets, get all fancied for church, take posed family photos in front of beautiful flower beds (if the isolated thunderstorms in the forecast don’t gather overhead), and we will stand when the congregation stands and we will sing “Christ the Lord is risen today,” and we will ring our bells every time Alleluia is said. And I, too, will ring a bell. My grandmother’s beautiful pink glass bell.

But I will also remember my grandmother’s death, and I will remember the year I carried a lily down the aisle for her, and I will see my friend who lost her mother a few weeks ago carry a lily down the aisle for her, and I will remember when you toddled down the aisle and carried a lily for my grandfather, and I will hug my friends with broken marriages and sad hearts and anxieties about their children and their parents’ health, and we will all say Alleluia even though we are hurting inside.

Because being the people of God, saying “He is risen indeed,” doesn’t mean life doesn’t hurt big time.

And when you’re an INFJ like I am, a highly-sensitive person, an empath, and you feel the weight of the world’s burdens like I do?

Easter doesn’t make that go away.

So my tears will probably flow over a bit today, because Easter is so full with love and beauty and grace. But we only have it because of death and suffering and darkness.

I feel like I want to say that to you every Easter, my sweet girls.

I want you to open your Easter basket and love the beauty that is inside (and it’s not candy, by the way–none–just art and silly putty and puzzles and rubber frogs because why not). I want you to love the banners and the procession and the bells and the orchestra. I want you to learn to chime in “Risen indeed” when someone greets you with “He is risen!”

But when you are older and reading these letters, I want you to know that it’s okay when you don’t feel like Easter.

And I want you to keep in mind that there are others around you pretending to feel like it, pretending that their hearts aren’t broken and full of sadness.

And that’s okay, too.

He is risen, girls.

He is risen indeed.

Alleluia.

Love,

Your Momma

 

 

The Thirty-Fourth Letter: Where, O Death?

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Dear Daughters,

We live a few blocks away from a funeral home, so I’m reminded every other day or so of the reality of death and suffering. On long walks, we pass by cars full of mourners, with you two happily in the stroller eating your snack, oblivious to what’s going on. On our way to head out to eat for dinner, on the way to Lowe’s for a quick construction run, on my way to reading group, heading to a playdate, picking up your dad from work when it’s raining: those who have experienced recent loss are nearly always present. I drove by black-clad mourners on my way to get a soy latte this morning.

I have always found this reminder of death in the midst of life helpful. It’s a proverbial wake-up call each time, that whatever is on my mind or burdening me at the moment is fleeting and that there is real suffering all around me.

I love our church’s Easter tradition of carrying lilies down the center aisle in memory of loved ones who have passed away the previous year. The preschooler carried one this year, in memory of my grandfather who died on Christmas Eve. The plant swayed as she walked, but she made it safely to the altar.

As the lilies pile up in the front, filling up the absence left when the altar is stripped at the end of the Good Friday service, our congregation stands and sings “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.” I can never sing the song, of course, because as I watch my friends carrying down lilies–or those years I’ve carried them down myself–I think of all the loss we’ve experienced as a community. I think of all the meals we’ve delivered. All the prayers we’ve prayed.

My throat catches, and I don’t sing. Our loved ones die, and we feel so much pain.

The lyrics to many of the great Easter hymns, including “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” have a line or two echoing the sentiment of 1 Corinthians 15:55: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (sometimes the King James Version just says it best).

I counted at least three references to that verse in the songs we sang Sunday morning. And, I’ll confess, it kind of annoyed me each time.

A friend of mine who lives many states away texted me an update about her dad, who is having significant health problems and was in ICU. She was travelling back from visiting with him, and she concluded with, “I’m exhausted and sad. But He is risen, so there’s that.”

So there’s that.

Where, O Death, is now thy sting?

One of my strong and beautiful friends lost her husband suddenly last year. She carried a lily down the aisle at church.

Where, O Death, is now thy sting?

A vibrant 26-year-old mother in our town was diagnosed with two forms of terminal cancer this week. She was given three to six months to live.

Where, O Death, is now thy sting?

I can tell you where. It’s right here.

Right.

Here.

People are hurting all around us, girls. It is hard to live in this world and know pain and love people who know pain. And we get numb to these words of Scripture–O death, where is thy sting?–and it kind of makes us, okay, me, mad. Or sad. Or frustrated. Or helpless.

All of it.

Sometimes I think we sing Where, O Death, is now thy sting? followed by Alleluia (adding a little salt in the wound) without remembering that many among us don’t feel encouraged by the creeds. And I’m talking about those of us who do have faith in eternal life, who do sincerely believe that eternal life brings relief from suffering. We know it intellectually, and we might even know it on a deeper level, but it doesn’t always ring true to experience.

What we feel is the very real sting of death.

The very real sting of our loved ones being diagnosed with cancer. Of babies dying. Of marriages crumbling.

I have faith, girls. Most days, I have it in spades. But I have faith alongside a healthy dose of reality, which is that life in this world hurts a lot of the time, and I don’t want to pretend that’s not the case.

I am careful when I write condolence cards because it’s too easy to be trite.

Of course, Easter reminds us that death does not get the last word. I appreciate that message. But I think we need to be careful where we go from there.

Easter does not tell us that we won’t feel the very real pain of losing loved ones in this life.

We can believe and have hope in eternal life and in the good God whose own creation sings praises, while we also say, no, I’m sorry, there is a sting of death.

Part of me hopes that you feel the sting of death a lot, girls. Because that means you’re really living in the world and loving people.

And I hope when you see full parking lots at funeral homes, you are able to pause and reflect on the death and suffering that coexist with your own lives, that trump your own annoyances and frustrations and pride and self-centeredness.

But I also hope that when you see Easter lilies, you remember why we carry them down the aisle on Easter morning. I hope you remember this little nugget of the truth of Easter that sometimes gets buried: even when we’re sad and exhausted, He is risen.

Because there’s that.

Love,

Your Momma