It was an awkward start. There’s no denying it. (I’m talking about the beginning of the live stream last Sunday.) The band finished their prelude. And then. This. Long. Awkward. Silence…
To break the awkwardness, Matt played a couple of playful chords on the piano, an attempt to lighten the apparent error (Thanks my friend!). Then I entered stage left. I jaunted up and welcomed viewers to the very first live stream of an Emmaus Church service. (I’m told that one viewer even posted something to the effect of “Five minutes late. Typical Emmaus.” Which, if true, is my favorite line of the entire morning.)
But let me back up.
Minutes earlier, six of us were huddled together in the back of the sanctuary while the band played (I’m still not sure that this prelude could be seen by viewers.) By “huddled together” I mean “standing at least six feet apart from one another to comply with MN Department of Health guidelines”. We met there in order to make a decision on whether to go ahead with the live stream at 10 o’clock. Or whether we should wait until after the governor’s address to the state, which was scheduled to begin, you got it!, at 10 o’clock. We had about 53 seconds to decide. If we were to wait, it would have been yet one more suspension in an already suspension-heavy week.
The decision seems rather obvious now. Of course you go forward! All that work. All those hours. Of course you don’t wait! We were recording the service after all. People could easily watch it later. Surely the governor’s address (regarding the closure of every single school in Minnesota!) would be posted all over the internet. People could easily watch that later as well. Goodness, the announcement could take an hour or more! (Which it did.) Were we seriously considering starting this thing at 11 o’clock? But after you spend a second guessing, even easy decisions start looking complicated. So we met and talked through the decision while the band neared the end of their opening song.
“I don’t like making decisions this quickly, but that’s what we’re going to do,” I told the group. Jason assured me that the service would be recorded. Jim and April nodded that we should stick with a 10 o’clock start time. “Okay then.” I said. “That’s what we’re going to do.” I said these words with confidence in my voice but with some doubt in my heart. Just then the band hit their last note. In the silence I began to jog to the stage. (When I got to the podium I was a little out of breath. Check the tape. It’s true.)
There is a passage in the book of Ecclesiastes that is as uplifting as it is blunt. It’s the passage about there being a season for this and a season for that (Ecc 3:1-8). It’s the bible passage that The Byrd’s made so famous (Insert “Okay boomer!” here). There is a line from that passage in Ecclesiastes that hit me right between the eyes this week. It reads: There is a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing.
It’s right there in the bible. There is a time to embrace. But, it appears, there is also a time for people to refrain from embracing. Which, of course, begs the question, how do you know which time it is?
Sometimes it’s easy to know which time it is. Your child runs to you excitedly calling out to you with their arms opened wide. Simple. Embrace. Your boss, whom you cannot stand, speaks unfair, harsh words to you. Equally simple. Refrain from embracing.
But other times it appears, at least at first, not to be so simple. Like this one: a world pandemic hits your country and your state. It seems to trickle in, but the experts tell you this one is the real thing, deadly. Government officials (eventually) begin sending warning signals. Then advice. Then guidelines. Embrace? Refrain? Hmmmmm…
On the one hand, during times of fear and uncertainty, when people need hope most, what other place is there like the church? Remember September 11, 2001? When terrorists flew planes into the World Trade towers? I sure do. Churches swelled to the brim with people. Preachers and the faithful alike offered hope and comfort. This role, I think, is why one pastor from Hong Kong gives this advice to pastors during COVID-19: “Should you cancel church? No. Spiritual care is vital, especially in an epidemic, when people will be afraid and confused.” So… embrace?
On the other hand, experts and officials started telling us last week that the time to act was immediately. It was a 53-second-type of decision. The band was finishing up. Measures needed to be taken. So… refrain from embracing? No gathering together at the church?
Things came to a head last Friday after the governor and the MN Department of Health announced their guidelines for slowing the spread of COVID-19. Last Friday was a flurry of thinking, phone calls and emails for lots of people. It sure was for our Church Council, a group of people that I am so proud of. The decision was made Friday night. The Church Council would suspend in-person church services until further notice.
Ultimately, it came down to whether we as leaders were willing to comply with the guidelines of the MN Department of Health or whether we as leaders would disregard them. The welfare and safety of everyone at Emmaus is first order for us. So the call was made.
I’ll be honest with you, that decision stung. When I hit “send” on the announcement email on Saturday it landed on my spirit with a thud. I was sad. Turns out that refraining from embracing is hard. All of us are learning just how blunt those words truly are. We can’t go to parties. We can’t go to school. We can’t go to basketball games (or watch them for that matter). Many of us can’t go to work, and those who still do are facing other fears and challenges. There’s a lot we don’t know and a lot we’re trying to figure out.
Back to last Sunday.
So I ran up on stage and welcomed people to the live stream. I’ll be honest, it was weird. Then I sat back down while the musicians led us in worship. That part of the morning didn’t seem quite as foreign to my spirit since I’m usually in the front row with no one in front of me anyway. My spirit was taking it all in pretty well. Then I got up to preach. I couldn’t see your faces. There were no “amens”. No laughter. No smiles. Not even people nodding off (never thought I’d miss that, but I did). It all hit me at those moments. There would be no embracing.
I like to tell people that someday I’ll write a book titled Small Church. It’ll be filled with quibs about the quirkiness of church life and the beauty of the human heart. Of course, I’ll have to wait until I’m done being a pastor to write it. You know, to protect the innocent. I like the title. Even though it is misleading in one sense: Emmaus is not what most people call “small”. (On a full Sunday we see about 275 people in our sanctuary. Perfect if you ask me.) But that word church? Emmaus is without question what I’ve come to know church to be.
Emmaus is warm. It’s inviting. It’s “a bit mom and pop”. It is not perfect. But it’s home. It’s filled with people who are compassionate and sincere. It’s this stuff that makes “suspending in-person gathering” so blisteringly tough. I don’t like it. I miss you. I do. I miss shaking your hands. I miss hearing about your kids, hearing about your parents. I miss dismissing the kids for children’s church, and then watching them run back inside the sanctuary when I get preaching too long. I miss the jokes. The stories. The connection. I so, so miss it all. And I know that you do too.
But here’s what else I know: we will be back together in time. We will. And when that day comes we’ll laugh together, and drink coffee together face-to-face. We will watch our kids running around, some of us nervously, others of us fondly. We’ll sit in church and wonder how long this service will go anyways. We’ll get back to talking about the weather and the news and the Twins. And when we do we will rediscover just how much we love being together. And I’ll tell ya what, I can’t wait. You people have become my family and I miss you. We are in a time to refrain from embracing. And while the bible tells us that there are times for such things, we are also promised that the time will come when we will embrace each other once again.