Dear Members and Friends of Trinity Lutheran, Nampa,
Idaho Governor Brad Little began gradually lifting the Stay at Home Order and included churches in Stage One of Rebound Idaho, congregational leaders (pastors and lay people) in the ELCA Treasure Valley Cluster have been discerning when we should return to in-person worship and, if so, what would it look like. Trinity’s Council President Kim Mills and I were asked to serve on the Treasure Valley Cluster COVID-19 Task Force. We have been working with representatives from other congregations. Our synodical bishop also provided guidance in a recent letter, which I commend to you.
The whole process reminds me of what scholars call apophatic theology, or negative theology, in which we speak of God only in terms of what may not be said. I do not know exactly what worship would look like if we came back together soon, but I can definitely inform you of what it will not include.
- Singing has proven to be like coughing, spreading aerosols of saliva further than plain speaking. So there will be no assembly singing.
- Traditional ways of Passing the Peace (hand shaking and hugging) will be gone.
- Gathering around the altar rail together to received Holy Communion will be impossible as we practice physical distancing. Some congregations have figured out a way to distribute Holy Communion, but it is hard for me to imagine.
- Our Baptismal Font will remain covered because standing water is not safe.
- There will be no lingering after worship or shaking my hand as you leave the sanctuary. Families would need to be spaced out and possibly even exit a different way than they entered.
- We will not be able to read facial expressions because we will all be wearing masks.
- Many of our church family will be missing. So many of our members are older and/or have underlying health conditions which will mean they cannot return for a very long time. (Here’s another article, about exposure+time, that I found helpful and understandable.)
I say all of these things not to be a downer but to catch up the entire congregation on that with which our council has been wrestling. I want to give you time and space to grieve, a most natural response in my humble opinion. Please know that I am longing for the day when we can all be together. One reason I entered public ministry 15 years ago is because I love being with people. While I give thanks for all of the technology at our disposal, it cannot replace an embodied gathering of people.
At the same time, I took the call to Trinity Lutheran, Nampa because I could sense a congregation that genuinely cared about the vulnerable, the marginalized, those who others cast aside. And the members I met when I interviewed and the members who have joined since also care about one another. This is a congregation that seems guided by a few verses of scripture which I have thought of often in the last few weeks, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor has yourself” (Galatians 5:13-14).
I really do not know what the next year will look like. But I can absolutely affirm that God is with us. As Bishop Kuempel wrote in her letter and as I said in my sermon Sunday, the Holy Spirit will continue to be at work. And the people of Trinity Lutheran, Nampa have a good track record of being attentive to the Spirit’s prodding. I do not think that ability or our longing to heed the Spirit’s guidance will end now. It may even be intensified. As several church leaders have been saying, we may not be going to church, but we can still be the church.