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New England Synod FYI
March 30, 2020
Let me begin this letter by telling you how pleased I am with our New England Synod in these challenging times:
•Our congregations, leaders and ministry centers have risen to the challenge. Pastors and Deacons are working extremely diligently alongside worship teams to bring online worship to our congregations.
•Food ministries, hospitality centers and care for the homeless and vulnerable are continuing across the territory of the synod.
•Laypersons are stepping forward to serve as shepherding chaplains to small groups in their congregations.
These might be difficult times, but we, in the New England Synod, are stepping up to the challenge! Thank you!
The Synod Council met this past Saturday via Zoom and made some important decisions. One of those decisions was to not hold Synod Assembly this year (2020) and instead move our three-day Assembly to 2021. In accordance with the Synod Constitution, the Synod Council will attend to all business until that time. Any business that cannot be addressed by the Synod Council will be moved forward to the 2021 Synod Assembly.
This decision was made based on a recommendation from the ELCA, in consultation with the ELCA Office of the Secretary along with legal counsel, and is within the parameters of our constitution. Aside from this guidance, the Synod Council also deemed it unwise to bring 450+ people (many of whom are over the age of 65) into one room for three days anytime in the near future.
If you have already registered and paid for assembly, your fees will be refunded. However, please note that this will take some time as we will have to process these refunds in the form of written checks. Please be patient - you do not need to request a refund; it will be issued automatically. If, however, you made hotel reservations, you need to cancel those directly with the hotel.
Many of you are wondering how the recently passed legislation, known as the CARES Act, applies to our congregations. This is a complex piece of legislation that our synod attorney and treasurer are reviewing. Later this week we should have additional information to share. In the meantime, this link provides a summary of some aspects of the bill.
As nearly all our New England states are in various stages of “Stay-at-Home" executive orders, and the number of those diagnosed with COVID-19 continues to rise, I want to underscore our responsibility as Christians to be role models. We are called to attend to the needs of others - it’s not just about us. This includes our desire to have in-person worship.
I encourage you to listen to the orders of your state governors as well as health care professionals. Tied into this, there is some debate regarding how we are to understand ourselves in relation to “essential” vs. “non-essential” organizations. We should consider ourselves non-essential when it relates to worship gatherings. (Please note, I’m speaking in this instance practically, not theologically.)
Among New England Synod congregations, there are now several members who have tested positive for the virus. It’s time for us to be cautious. This is a long way of saying, please refrain from in-person worship for the foreseeable future.
Some of you have asked about practices of worship as well as Holy Communion. I’ve written about this in two recent articles. You can see them here and here. Please refrain from various online strategies regarding Holy Communion.
Holy Week Worship Resources
We will not be worshiping in-person during Holy Week, but it doesn’t have to mean that we will not be worshiping at all. As one person remarked, “This year Holy Week may be more like the original one than in most recent years”:
•Recall the Hebrew slaves sequestered on the night of the first Passover marking their doors, staying inside for fear of a cloud of death moving about the land of Egypt.
•Recall the abandonment on the cross, and Jesus’ words, “Why have you forsaken me”?
•Recall the early morning journey to the tomb, Jesus resurrected and as disciples move closer to him, he says, “Do not touch me?”
Our Synod Worship and Spiritual Life Team has prepared some resources that may be of help for Holy Week as well as other aspects of congregational life in these times. They can be found on our synod website: https://www.nelutherans.org/covid-19-resources
Bishop’s Easter Season Message
Lastly, I’ll be recording a sermon which can be used for your worship services on the weekend of April 18 & 19 (2nd Sunday of Easter). I’ll provide a text, audio and video version. You’ll have options to use the format that works best for you.
I have delayed providing a sermon for some time now as I’ve wanted our congregations to "grow their glue." I want congregations to be connected locally as much as possible and wish that to continue through Holy Week and Easter Day. However, it strikes me that:
•Many of our preachers could benefit from a weekend off.
•By that time we will have been into this stay-at-home mode for at least a month.
•The Sunday of Doubting Thomas seems a good time to speak a word of hope.
I’ll make sure you get the necessary worship items by Tuesday, April 14th.
Thank you for your thoughtful attention to what matters most.
Sincerely in Christ,
Bishop James Hazelwood
New England Synod FYI
March 23, 2020
Around the year 4500 BCE, ancient people in the Middle East discovered that the plant growing on the edges of waterways had multiple uses. Among them were clothes, shelter, food, baskets…and later on, paper. The papyrus plants gave birth to writing many years later. We benefited from the move from oral tradition to written tradition as stories, poems, songs, got put onto scrolls........ in what later became the Bible.
What people frequently wrote about were their observations of a world in chaos and the yearning for order. From Homer's The Odyssey to Jeremiah and Luke, ancient people wrote about a world around them rattling with conflicts and uncertainties. Collective anxiety and depression were present in the writings dating back to, well, the beginning of writing…dare I say, the beginning of human consciousness.
What we are experiencing today, therefore, is on one level, not new. In a globally interconnected world, however, everything is amplified. Cable News, Facebook, Texting, and E-mail allow us to share our collective anxiety and possibly to intensify it. The purpose of this letter is to offer an antidote........not to the Coronavirus itself, but a remedy for the escalation of collective anxiety.
Ancient writings from around the world, including the oldest narratives of the Hebrew Bible, make clear that the loss of shared values and meaning in culture cause people to suffer both psychologically and spiritually. True today, as back then, is the realization that a growing sense of despair and deep uncertainty about the future of the world is a dominant theme of life.
That’s my starting point:
· Life is Difficult.
· Life has Suffering.
· Life is Not Fair.
Our way forward begins with an honest acknowledgment of that reality. The real reason the cross is the central symbol of the Christian faith is the honest reminder that suffering is the wound we all carry as humans. We are meaning-seeking people keenly aware that loss, grief, fear, and the termination of life, surround us. Facing this reality is Step One in our Twelve Step Program of Life. We begin here because it is true.
Our knee jerk reaction to this truth is to attempt to exercise some semblance of control over the unfolding events that remind us of our frailty. How else can one explain the excessive purchases of toilet paper? People are attempting to control one small aspect of life in a world run amuck. Truth be told, our attempts at control, while they may bring us temporary relief, do not address the underlying angst of these days.
“But, Bishop, tell me what does? What brings relief?”
Ah, the desire for the quick fix....... the easy answer.......... the magic pill.
We live in the age of the quick fix as one Rabbi reminded us years ago. There must be an answer. As if on some secret gnostic quest for the hidden truth, we are all looking for the one thing that will bring relief to this angst and pain we are experiencing. I'll come back to this, but first, I offer an observation about Holy Communion.
In the last week, the anxiety drive within our tradition (Lutheran movement of Christianity) is centering around Holy Communion. Suddenly, all across the country, ELCA Lutheran clergy in particular (but also a few lay people) are clamoring for a quick fix to our dilemma around the Sacrament of Holy Communion. There is a sense in these online diatribes that there must be an immediate solution.
While thoughtful conversations around communion and emerging new understandings of community are legitimate topics for reading, writing and reflection, let's do that together, but not as a quick fix. Instead, I'm most intrigued by the way this topic has sucked up all the oxygen in the room. Instead of congregations focusing their energy on building intentional communities of connectedness (see below for more), there is a headlong dive into "we need to get communion out to people NOW."
And yet, do we not also believe that the "Word" is a Means of Grace as well?
In New England, I have been discouraging our churches from practicing any of the proposed ideas around Holy Communion. These include but are not limited to: Drive-Thru Communion, Virtual Communion, and Amazon Drone Delivery of Communion. While I understand the drive, I'm also keenly aware that in the church, we tend to bless a practice too quickly. Questions arise for me:
· After this is all done, will we normalize a regular online communion practice, later adding virtual baptisms?
· Will clergy of the near future opt-out of in-person communion visits because, well, it's more convenient via Zoom?
· And what of those, mostly older, who do not have internet access or comfort with digital tools?
Instead, I've been encouraging two acts that will serve us better in this immediate and temporary situation. These two areas of focus are not quick-fix solutions, but they may address the underlying anxiety our people are experiencing in these times, namely a loss of community and a loss of meaning.
Humanity is community. We are nothing, if we do not have each other. Knowing and believing this as a core value, some of our pastors have quickly moved toward shepherding or small group models. This Ancient/Future Church practice has all of the congregation divided into 3-4 households with one leader charged with contacting them twice a week. The leader stays in touch as they embody the Holy Spirit's glue in our temporarily disconnected body. As needs arise, that leader reports back to the Pastor.
This is not new. Jethro advised Moses in this way some 3,000 years ago. But in our time, a time of extreme loneliness (even before Covid19 sent us all to our rooms), people are yearning for community.
· Could these groups schedule periodic Zoom chats or conference calls?
· Could lay people pray for one another?
· Could lay people attend to the fundamental core values of our faith?
The early church was known not for its elaborate rationalizing of peculiar communion practices, but rather for its care for the widow, the orphan, and the dispossessed. Congregations focusing their energy on establishing this kind of care community would be living and dynamic sacraments. Is this not what Martin Luther highlighted in the confessions "mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren" as a kind of Means of Grace or sacramental participation in the life of God?
Humans are meaning-seeking creatures. Lutherans value Word and Sacrament, but in recent years and recent days, they have fallen prey to that ancient foil of dualism. In this case, we have divided Word from Sacrament as if they are two separate Means of Grace. I've seen scribblings in various Facebook posts as people reactively clamor to get the wafers delivered by any means necessary. What about the Word? Is not the Word also a form of Grace? Do we not still hold to the hope of a kick-ass Law/Gospel sermon? Could that not be delivered in writing, on YouTube, or even in a Pastoral visit with a member via Facetime? Meaning-seeking creatures are hungry for words, stories, and vignettes that remind them of the central antidote to despair, namely hope.
In these days of despair, as in the days of past despair, we find ways to move toward hope. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. She is a hope-driven being. Friends, this has been the way humans have made it through 10,000 years of civilization. Reading about some of the less than competent Kings of the Old Testament is a potent reminder that things have gone wrong in the past, and yet, hope prevailed.
Jesus the Christ presents the ultimate hope........ not because of some magic salvific formula that includes testimonials of devotion, but because he is the center of life. The Hope of the Cross and Resurrection, is that life has lasting and robust hope.
We are in 'temporary' times. Let's gain some perspective here. This, too, shall pass. We have been here before, albeit not quite in this way. We are not at the end. I am wondering if it might be the beginning of something quite hopeful. I'll write about that in my next letter.
New England Synod - ELCA
New England Synod FYI
March 14, 2020
The times we are in
Last Monday, I wrote to you and said, “I have confidence in you.”
That still holds true!!!
I continue to be impressed with the way you are tending to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic in your various ministries. You are making wise decisions, including your leadership in those decisions, and communicating effectively.
I am hearing stories of congregations, campus ministries, chaplains, lay leaders, pastors and deacons tending to those most vulnerable. I wish you could hear what I’m hearing! You would feel so proud and enjoy a renewed sense of the strength of character of New England Lutherans.
There is no shame in erring on the side of caution. It is not necessary to make all decisions right now. Feel free to make decisions incrementally.
This is an unprecedented trying time in which everyone is doing the best they can. We all need to keep that at the forefront in our interactions with others.
Let’s be mindful of the need to “look down the road”. It’s easy to get consumed in what’s happening right now. Know with God’s help and guidance all of us will get through this challenge. There will be life..... and worship...... and summer BBQs..... and baseball, yet to come.
Know that as we care for others as best we can, there is wisdom and value in caring for ourselves as well. Be sure to do so! All of us need to have a good night’s rest, eat well, pray and meditate, talk with family and friends, exercise and of course, wash our hands.
I trust your ability to make decisions that are best for your ministry settings. If you wish to consult with the Associates to the Bishop or me, feel free to contact us.
Bishop James Hazelwood
New England Synod FYI
March 9, 2020
Congregations and Leaders in the New England Synod,
I have confidence in you!
I believe you to be wise, thoughtful and faithful people!
I’m aware that many members of congregations are concerned and wondering how to respond now as the coronavirus is among us. My thoughts on this matter are really quite simple:
1. Be thoughtful, not overly reactive. Exercise wisdom.
2. Consult the CDC website for advice.
3. Consult the ELCA Document, “Worship in Times of Public Health Concerns” for suggestions. Here’s the link.
4. Use your discretion regarding congregational life.
In the midst of any challenging situation, there is a mathematical equation to which I always refer:
Event = Outcome
The “Event” can be anything, for example, from a budget shortfall.... to a family dynamic.... to a virus. These are real events. The “Response” refers to the response of the person, organization, or organism.
If you recall your 8th grade math class, the bottom factor, the denominator, has significant influence on the outcome. We may not be able to change the event, but we can have an impact through our response.
All this is to say, that you as leaders have an important role in this or any destabilizing event: If you are calm, wise and thoughtful, that will impact how an event plays out in your congregation.
Therefore, in this time of the coronavirus, I encourage you to balance the need for thoughtful decisions around worship practices and congregational gatherings, with the need for calm and less reactive responses.
Yes, this virus is serious for people who have compromised immune systems, breathing conditions, and are frail. What is also true is that:
a) younger persons do not seem to be impacted in large numbers
b) a very high percentage of infected people recover, and
c) the vast majority of U.S. Americans have not contracted this virus at this time.
Yes, it’s serious.... but let’s be calm and remember the most frequently used words of Jesus in the New Testament, “Fear not.”
Bishop James Hazelwood