Greetings from the Moderator JULY 2020
Being the Body of Christ in a Time of Exile
Most churches in Central Florida Presbytery (CFP) suspended in-person worship in mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic. Many are providing a meaningful worship experience for its members by moving to a form of online worship, according to the technology and skills of its staff and volunteers. It hasn’t been the same as worshiping together in person, but thanks be to God for the creativity and technology that has kept us worshiping “together apart”! Thanks to all who send the CFP office information and updates about your worship services, and thanks to Presbytery staff for posting it at http://www.cfpresbytery.org/church-info-covid-19.html . I hope you’ve taken the opportunity to visit other churches during this time - to see what they are doing, to learn from each other, to strengthen our connections to each other - without having to miss worship at your home church.
Updates as of June 26 showed that 24 of our 63 churches and 1 of our 8 worshiping fellowship groups had resumed some type of in-person worship, and another 7 congregations announced reopening dates in July or early August. I was excited about sharing that good news with you in this message. But, only a week later, the picture has changed: the death rate from the virus is steadily declining, but new cases and hospitalizations are rapidly climbing again statewide and in our presbytery. As of July 2, five CFP churches that opened in June have re-suspended in-person worship due to the increase in cases or because they have received word of a member being infected or having come in contact with a potentially infected person; one church did not re-open as planned and another was reconsidering its announced reopening date. Our sessions continue to review and reconsider plans in light of constantly changing data. It’s discouraging, but at least we see that other congregations are going through the same struggles as our own, and we can learn - and continue to hope - from their experiences.
This pandemic is making me consider anew what it means for the church to be the body of Christ in coronavirus exile. Paul’s analogy of the body in I Cor. 12:12-27 is simple enough for young children to understand. While in college, I helped with the kindergarten Sunday School class at the Presbyterian church in town. When asked to teach that passage, I wondered how much of it 4-5 year olds would be able to grasp. But when I read the text to them, the children “got it” right away. They laughed and laughed at the thought of a body that was just an ear, and of their hand or foot telling the eye that it isn’t needed. They quickly understood that “different” does not mean “better” or “worse”; that while we are different from each other, we also need one another. God made us this way, and gave us different gifts for the good of the entire body. This is the diversity of the body of Christ.
In Romans 12:3-21, Paul speaks of the unity of the body of Christ. He exhorts us to rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Our presbytery is good at rejoicing together: at services to ordain and/or install a pastor, to charter a new congregation, to celebrate accomplishments. We weep together at services that dissolve a congregation. How can we do that today, while physically apart? Physical distance between the parts of the body does affect how they work together. The need for “hand to eye coordination” is a direct result of the hand and the eye being physically separate. We smile as we watch a baby try to get these parts to work together. The more parts involved, the more difficult it becomes. Surely golf and tennis would be easier if they didn’t require coordinating so many parts of the body at the same time!
Technology can overcome separation, as demonstrated by June’s Zoom Presbytery Meeting. We met as a body, conducted the business of the presbytery, connected to the larger Presbyterian church by hosting GA co-moderator Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri , and even participated in small group breakout sessions - all without being in the same physical location. Many tools available to us today didn’t even exist even 50 years ago! Zoom meetings, Skype, FaceTime and live-streamed worship services let us see each other. I notice more people are calling in to Zoom meetings 10-15 minutes early to chat and catch up before getting down to business. That’s good! It also confirms that different parts of the church body don’t just work together - they need to be in relationship with each other.
A big challenge of being the body of Christ in this time of pandemic is how to connect with and care for those who are physically alone and without access to technology. Think of members in nursing or assisted living homes who are not allowed to leave the facility (even if in good health) or to have visitors. Phone calls are a good way to keep in touch, but not for Joe who is hard of hearing and needs to be able to see Jane’s lips to understand her words. Sue is alone in the ICU and the hospital does not permit visitors - not family, not clergy. How do we care for her? We need to make prayer our priority for these children of God, that they will be surrounded with a strong sense of God’s presence, that their faith will be strong, that God will give them peace that passes understanding - a peace that doesn’t make sense given the circumstances but is nonetheless solid and comforting.
Paul cautions us, “Do not be wise in your own estimation . . . If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” (Rom. 12:16,18) Both of these are personally relevant for me today. Much is still unknown about this virus, respected experts provide contradictory guidelines, and we may disagree with others about which precautions are necessary or sensible or overkill. How does the church resolve this tension within the body? When we as a congregation ordain and install elders, we affirm that they are called by God to the responsibility of leadership. Once the session decides on a course of action, we should respect that decision and abide by it, even if we don’t fully agree, because we are the body of Christ, not a collection of individual members. As a session member, I need to respect and support the decision of the entire session, even when I disagree. These are done as acts of love - conscious choices to preserve the unity of the body of Christ instead of putting our own will first.
We’re still in coronavirus exile, longing for the day we can return to our sanctuaries and worship together again. As we wait, let us remember that we are still the body of Christ, called to use our gifts for the good of the entire body. We are the body of Christ, called to bring light to the rest of the world - to people also in exile who don’t know our hope. Let us look forward to being filled with laughter and joyful shouting (even if we are wearing masks and can’t sing), and declare “The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad.” (Psalm 126:2-3)
Thankful to be part of the body of Christ in this presbytery,