During the Gathering worship service last Sunday Rev. Lance Marshall, Co-Pastor, took a few minutes out of the service to speak directly from his heart to the hearts of those few staff members present and all who were worshiping via live stream.
The topic was our current practice of online-only worship. But this wasn’t the usual discussion of pros and cons and gratitude for technology and all who are keeping our church family connected via technology. This time, Lance went straight to the elephant in the room and tapped it right on the snout.
“I want to highlight again how hard it is to do online-only worship, especially at Christmas,” he began, then cut right to his first point. “It’s just brutal, and I want to name that, he said.
Lance says that another important thing to lift up for our congregation right now is why we’re making this choice, even at Christmastime. “We’re not choosing to worship online out of fear,” he emphasizes. “It’s not that we are afraid, and others are brave. It’s not that we are concerned, and others are not. It’s not that we are scared, and others have faith.
“This is a choice that is made fundamentally out of love,” he continues. “It’s out of love for the most vulnerable members of our congregation, for whom in-person worship could be extremely dangerous. It’s out of love for the vast community that surrounds us that is impacted by our decisions, whether we realize it or not because our church community impacts the wider community. It’s out of love for doctors and nurses and healthcare workers who are pleading with bruises on their faces from wearing N95 masks every day for the past nine months to “please, please, please make this easier on us.” It’s out of compassion for people who are trying to get into hospitals and can’t get in to receive the care they need because the system is so overwhelmed right now.
In emphasizing the underpinning of love and mercy to our decisions of sacrifice, Lance goes on to say that acknowledging our own feelings of pain and frustration over these decisions allows us to then also name the spirit of love that surrounds it — and us — that makes this sacrifice possible.
If you are struggling like I’m struggling, hurting like I’m hurting, if the people with whom you are in relationship are frustrated like I’m frustrated, here’s what I want you to remember,” he says. “It’s not fear, it’s not doubt, it’s not complacency, it’s not indifference. It’s self-sacrificial love and it’s hard. It’s harder still if you wonder if it’s even right.”
Speaking again to the Zoom-assembled collection of his peers and colleagues, the full staff of the church, and now to the entire First Church faith community, he elaborates this point even further.
“The difficult impact of this decision is true for the entire congregation,” he adds, “and it is particularly true for the people who have given their lives to the services of Jesus Christ and the ministry of the church.”
Saying that facilitating the ministry and community of Sunday of worship is, for staff, who we are, he named the specific facets of these nine months of loss for the FUMCFW staff. “We lost getting to be together on Easter. We lost the rhythm of the summer; we’ve lost trips, classes, experiences. Since March we haven’t had the hugs, the cups of coffee in the garden, the handshakes, the side-by-side-ness of being a congregation.
“All these things, just gone. And now we’re not getting to be together for Christmas Eve in our Sanctuary. Not having the winter coats, the taffeta, the shiny shoes, the crowds, the coming up to the front of the church for communion, the candles all in one big beautiful space, glowing with candlelight and the joy on our faces. It’s not happening that way this year. And it’s brutal.”
But that’s not all Lance wants to acknowledge about this decision. In addition to acknowledging those feelings of loss, particularly for our clergy and staff, the aforementioned elephant in the room is another set of feelings no one likes to notice.
“Many of the churches around us are not making the same decision,” he says. They are having some of those things, some in different ways, and even though they’re doing things differently, they’re not making the same choice.”
Recalling how, back in the spring, the choice to go online only was one our church leadership recognized early on as our path, pretty quickly we were not alone in making this choice. But now, in a different season, a number of different religious communities are thinking and behaving differently. “So, I want to highlight, first, the grief and loss we’re all feeling,” Lance reiterates, “and second, that this grief and loss also feel like sacrifices others aren’t making. That’s even tougher.”
In lifting up the bigger picture of our church’s sacrificial love, Lance offers a true gift of the season — returning our focus to love again and again is, no matter what, what Christmas is all about.