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I am not afraid. I am heartbroken.

I live in Montana, a state with a very low number of diagnosed COVID-19 cases. Even more specifically, my county has not as yet had any cases. This passover is both a blessing and a curse because it divides the community, with some of our citizens feeling as though we have been spared because we have been careful and others suspecting that our precautions were "sound and fury, signifying nothing". (Macbeth)

Now we have the ever-present questions about what we can do, what we should do, and from what should we abstain. In the conversations around masks, distance, and open v. close, the word "fear" gets bandied about. It is murmured that people who are cautious are "fearful" or being led by fear, as opposed to faithfulness or freedom.

I cannot speak for everyone, but I can speak for myself. As a mother, as a wife, as a sister, as a friend, as a pastor, as a neighbor, as a daughter, as a citizen, I am not afraid. I am heartbroken.

My heart broke when I posted a sign in March, closing the church to the public and to in-person worship. Praying for those who depended on the building for 12-step help, a source of community, and actual sanctuary, I ached and I grieve.

Another fissure came through weeks of preaching without seeing faces, feeling the energy in the room, or hearing singing other than my own. Learning that singing may be off the table for awhile brought tears and sorrow too deep even for sighs. Remembering our harmonies between the Yellowstone and the Boulder, I hung up my harp. I ached and I grieve.

The experience of Holy Communion brings heart wholeness through Christ's presence in the elements and in the community as we eat, drink, and breathe together. In our present fast from the physical sacrament, the pieces of my heart vibrate with longing. Making the decision for the fast was right for our community, but I ached and I grieve.

This past week, I denied a person a hug because I had permitted a person outside my family to hug me the day before. In embracing one another, I also embraced a waiting period to be sure I neither caught nor transmitted anything but love and compassion. To be physically present to one meant denying another. For the same reason, I am continuing to only eat takeout from local restaurant and not to sit inside. In the waiting, I ached and I grieve.

A friend of mine, another pastor, talked with her community about the fact that continuing to worship virtually permitted the pastors of the church to be present- with masks and other precautions- to the sick and dying of the church. When a pastor hasn't been exposed to 50, 60, 90, 150 people on a Sunday, he can more easily go to a bedside or home because it is a more calculated risk for himself and the person he is visiting. This isn't the case in all places right now, but it is for this church and the pastors in question. In choosing the needs of the few for the sake of spiritual care, I am hoping not to drive away the many. For the whole church, I ached and I grieve.

I have offered commendation of the dying over the phone. Heartbreak. I have watched divisions and harsh words in online spaces and in-person conversations. Heartbreak. I have stood on steps and talked across the porch to people who are bored, lonely, and worried. Heartbreak. I have wept over whether I am currently an effective pastor to the 13 people with no internet connection at all. Heartbreak. I have seen an increase in our church's attendance online and wondered how we may be true community to those who are experiencing church in a helpful way for the first time. Heartache.

Recommendations about how to space people in pews, skipping coffee hour, and how to encourage masks in church are difficult to decipher and painful to consider.

Worry about people whose marriages were struggling, children and teens who need structure for their mental well-being, seniors who live alone and receive little information or communication- these things fill my mind.

Navigating tense political, emotional, and social conversations is a tightrope that I balance across, Bible in hand, not because I want to be liked, but because I want the relationship to remain open for the sake of Christ in both of us.

This is the truth, but not all of it. All of it would be too much to write and too much to read.

One final truth, though, I am not afraid of re-opening because of COVID-19 or because I am "cowed" by rules and regulations.

I am afraid my heart and my spirit cannot take it if someone or several someones became sick at church.

I am afraid my heart and my spirit cannot take it if we resume in-person worship, which means I am unable to visit the most vulnerable, even on their porch.

I am afraid my heart and my spirit cannot take resuming worship only to refrain from Holy Communion, sharing the peace, corporate speaking, and group singing.

I am afraid my heart and my spirit cannot taken it if I have to do more funerals, by interment only, and mourn apart from the consolation of being physically together.

So, yes, I am afraid. I am afraid not of the virus, but of more unending, bone-deep wearying heartbreak.

Some of these things will not be avoidable. They will likely come because this will be a long journey. But you can carry the baton for your pastor (and your neighbor) a little way if you understand and respect that they are not afraid. They are heartbroken.


Unknown said…
Pastor Julia, I have so enjoyed your online services during this unusual times we are in,and I especially enjoyed stumbling on to this article on your blog. You put it so beautifully into words that a person could just FEEL your heartbreak for your fellow parishioners and your friends. I too am not afraid because I know that God is in control, but I do miss going to church on Sundays plus the other things associated with church. Thank you so much for making it easier. Marit Oiestad Bridger

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