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Pastoral Letter on Church Closure

To the Members and Friends of Union Congregational Church:

“Jesus came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial! The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’”

(Mark 14:37-8)

When Jesus brought his closest friends with him to the Garden of Gethsemane, he trusted them to keep watch as he prepared himself through diligent prayer to endure betrayal, crucifixion, and death. Why couldn’t the disciples stay awake? They offer no excuses; all we have are Christ’s words for explanation: “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

When I was in college, my uncle passed away suddenly. He was middle-aged, my father’s only brother, and his death shocked our family. I remember wandering around campus in my grief, feeling as though the ground was crumbling beneath each step. And I slept—oh how I slept! Grief, anxiety, depression—while often these emotions cause sleepless nights, their emotional toll also drains the body, leaving us exhausted and prone to heavy sleep.

Anxiety, depression, and grief—it is what the disciples were feeling in Gethsemane, knowing that the end was near for Jesus. They were no doubt ready in spirit to fight for him…but the flesh was weak.

In just the past few days, the ground of our whole society has shifted beneath our feet. This past Sunday, hours after 30 people gathered for worship in Union’s sanctuary, the governor announced a ban of public gatherings over 25, along with a series of other drastic measures to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19). To many this seems like an overreaction; but these measures, as anxiety-inducing and harmful as they may be, are critical to stave off the rapid spread of a pandemic in our community. As in the Garden of Gethsemane, we find ourselves in a moment where life and death hang in the balance—and we must find it within ourselves to keep awake, even in our anxiety and our grief.

In order to safeguard the health and well-being of our members and our neighbors, Union Congregational Church will suspend all church programming until April 6th. During this time, worship services, including Palm Sunday’s service, are cancelled. The Spring Rummage Sale, originally scheduled for April 4th, will be postponed to a later date, and we will not accept donations from the community during this period. Decisions about whether to hold worship events during Holy Week will be made in the coming weeks; in the meantime, we will have to find new ways to be the church during this crisis.

Gathering for worship is central to our life as a congregation; but the directives of public health officials are clear. We all need to avoid physical proximity to other people (outside of our households) as much as possible. The way we can live out Jesus’s commandment to “love one another” (John 13:34) right now is to stay in our homes. If we are diligent in this, we can slow the spread of the coronavirus and save lives.

Practicing “social distancing” does not mean that we cease to be the church. I would encourage everyone to use phone, text messages, and e-mails to check in on one another. We should also find ways we can safely help one another navigate this time of crisis (running errands, picking up groceries, sharing ideas for activities, etc.). We can still be a caring community, even at a distance, because we are still connected through God.

With that in mind, I will be providing daily devotionals in the coming days through our all-church e-mail list and social media accounts. They will be adapted from a prayer book from 1918—the year of the Spanish Flu pandemic—called The Daily Altar. As it says in the foreword to that book, “To miss the joy and inspiration of regular and habitual periods of devotion is a distinct limitation on religious interest and efficiency, if not utterly fatal to the spiritual life.” Without our Sunday Worship together, I encourage everyone to use their solitude or time with their family to devote yourselves to the practice of prayer. I would also encourage everyone to submit requests for prayer directly to me via e-mail, phone, and social media direct-messaging, so that they may be conveyed to our deacons and, if you like, to the wider church community.

I will also post pre-recorded messages and prayers on the church website each Sunday for the next 3 weeks. While many churches in our area are offering “live streamed” worship services, I am of the mind that such presentations do not truly capture what it means to “have church.” I don’t see the use in pretending to carry on as normal; these are not normal times. But our faith was made for such a time as this. So let us keep awake, and find strength and perseverance in the Spirit of God, as we anxiously await the dawning of brighter days.

In Grace and Peace,

Pastor Shepherd

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