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Who Was That Masked Man?
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Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. If your brother or sister is being injured by [you not wearing a mask], you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you [do not want to wear] cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. So do not let your good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not [masking or unmasking] but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. – Romans 14:13-19

 

I may have finally heard it all…

 

In the weeks since we’ve been back at in-person worship, I think I’ve heard every argument about masking and unmasking. I’ve heard studies and rumors of studies about whether masks work or don’t. I’ve had people tell me they’re not showing up in worship because we’re still requiring masks and others who say they’re not showing up because they’re afraid people won’t wear their masks and distance properly. I’ve heard all about other churches around us that have no restrictions and about others that are still closed because of the coronavirus. I’ve heard impassioned treatises about Constitutional rights and equally impassioned concerns about the danger of virus transmission. I’ve heard from those who couldn’t wait to get the vaccine and those who are wary of it.

 

You’ve probably heard it all, too. Add to that the daily dose of ambiguous, contradictory, and ever-changing opinions we get from talking heads on the news and social media and, if you’re like me, you’ve probably heard enough.

 

Our team at Tri-Lakes UMC has pivoted so many times in the last year that we’re dizzy. We’ve done online worship through pre-recording and live stream. We’ve done outdoor worship on beautiful summer days, days when the wind was blowing 40mph, and even on a freezing Christmas Eve. We’ve had limited capacity and no capacity. We’ve been open and closed. We’ve scrubbed chairs and scrubbed the air. We’ve reset the sanctuary at least four times. Through it all we’ve followed the guidelines we’ve been given by our State, our County, and our Annual Conference, as well as the CDC–not an easy task since those three entities have rarely been in agreement on what exactly is the best course of action. The County says no restrictions on worship; the Bishop says we have to keep things tightly under wraps. The State eliminated its COVID color wheel but still has a mask mandate. The CDC guidance changes with the wind.

 

All the while, I’m responsible for maintaining the spiritual and physical health of the people who attend worship at Tri-Lakes. That’s a responsibility I take very seriously. Since the pandemic began I have officiated no COVID-related funerals for anyone in our congregation. Is that because we have followed the restrictions? Is it because God has protected us? Is it because we’ve been fortunate? Is it a combination of those things? We’ll likely never know for sure. The after-action review on this pandemic will be interesting and, hopefully, we’ll eventually be able to sort the fact from the fiction and learn from it. In the meantime, it’s been a very confusing time that’s pulled a lot of church leaders in different directions. Leading during coronatide has involved making decision after decision knowing that whatever direction you take will run up against someone’s opinion and preference. We’ve lost some people because of it and gained a few as well.

 

My doctorate is in ministry, not in epidemiology, so I don’t pretend to know much about the best approach to dealing with this pandemic. What I do know, however, is that I am a United Methodist Elder and that means I am under the authority of a Bishop. Now, I disagree with my Bishop on just about everything, but I’m still under her authority. I took vows to that effect when I was ordained. Whether I agree or not with the COVID guidelines given by our Annual Conference about masks, capacity, and social distancing, I am duty-bound to follow them and we have done so and will continue to do so. Other churches are doing things differently. I understand that. I hear that. But I don’t pastor those churches. I’ve been appointed to this one and that appointment is contingent upon my upholding my ordination vows. Those vows continue to drive my decision-making, as well as our General Rules, the first of which is to “Do no harm.” Our Church Council has joined me in this by endorsing our continuing compliance with the Conference guidelines.

 

Some voice the opinion that our “Constitutional rights” are at stake in all this. I have observed, along with many of you, that this pandemic has challenged the boundaries between the government’s need to protect public health and the government’s potential for dangerous overreach. I’ve heard people quote the Constitution, article and verse, on all sides of this. I hear all of that.

 

What I haven’t heard much of, however, especially in the Church, is very many people actually quoting chapter and verse of the Scriptures–passages like the one above where Paul is talking about meat sacrificed to idols. It’s a passage that could also apply to how we address other controversial but minor issues in the church like wearing a mask (hence my adaptation of Paul’s letter above). Of course, just before this in Romans 13 Paul also says that we should be subject to governing authorities, but that’s another post in itself.

 

Paul’s point here in Romans 14 is one that’s been guiding my thinking during this time. Remember Paul’s worldview–that no matter where we live those who follow Christ are citizens of a different Kingdom. The laws in our Constitution are important, but the law of love, the law of the Kingdom is even more so. When it comes to matters that affect the community of faith, the key question for the Christian isn’t, “What are my rights?” but rather, “Am I walking in love? Am I pursuing “what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding?” Are my actions causing another to stumble? Would they prevent someone else from feeling safe in worship so they can hear the gospel? Am I putting the needs of others ahead of my own? Am I going to let something so simple and so temporary as wearing a mask until the pandemic is over keep me from worshipping with the Body of Christ or cause me to seek out another community that bows to my will and my ‘rights?”

 

I don’t like wearing a mask either. I don’t like all the hoops we’ve had to jump through. I want the church to be fully open more than anyone. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re moving in that direction. We have a ways to go yet. It’s not happening as fast as we’d like. I hear you. We continue to covet your patience.

 

But I’d also invite my beloved church family to hear a request from me, your pastor: Can we covenant together to withhold our opinions, speculations, and complaints about masks and all things COVID and, instead, exchange them for expressions of cooperation, peace, and “mutual upbuilding?” Can we cheerfully take on the mindset of building up the Body of Christ by doing whatever it takes to make sure that everyone feels like they belong, even if that means something as simple as wearing your mask properly on Sunday morning for the time being? Can we come to worship expectantly and joyfully celebrating what we can do rather than what we cannot? We will see one another with “unveiled faces” soon enough (2 Corinthians 3:18). In the meantime, let us remember that the kingdom of God is not masking or unmasking, but “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).

 

We’re continuing to take more steps toward “normalcy.” We no longer assign seating. We trust that you can negotiate keeping social distance from one another and yet still have the opportunity to sit with friends if you mutually desire to do so. We’re still limiting capacity to allow for that distancing and we ask you to register in advance, but we’ll add back more seats as we can. Our Nursery and children’s Sunday School have reopened, as have our Youth Group and Youth Sunday School (masked and distanced). We’re also planning some periodic outdoor services this summer that will enable our church family to gather as one Body without masks. We’re getting there!

 

I look forward to the day when we can look back at pictures of the past year and ask, “Who was the masked man? Who was that masked woman?” The truth is, however, that we are not Lone Rangers. We are part of the Body of Christ together.

 

I’m grateful for your prayers and encouragement for me, for the staff, our lay leadership, and for the Church. Trust me, I hear that, too!

 

Thanks for listening.

 

See you Sunday,

Pastor BK

 

FYI – Here is a list of the members of our Church Council if you have further questions or concerns:

 

David Blanks, Chair

Ted Bauman, Lay Leader

John Rickman, Secretary

Rob Gordon, Finance

Colleen McCrary, Staff-Parish Relations

Scott McCreedy, Board of Trustees

Andre Mouton, Emergency Preparedness Group

Kevin Williams, Discipleship

Margie Frostman, Missions

Phil Brown, United Methodist Men



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