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Let Love Be Our Law
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul said, “Everything is lawful, but not everything is beneficial.” This was toward the end of a letter in which he had urged the members of the church in Corinth to follow a higher law — to submit to the law of love. Later in the same letter, he said, “Don’t look for your own advantage, but look out for one another.”

In the prophets and writings of the Hebrew Scriptures, our more-ancient ancestors urged us to practice hesed (often translated lovingkindness, kindness, or faithfulness). Hesed is love that acts in the best interest of another person, even when one’s rights allow otherwise. For this reason, hesed can only be performed by those who have the power to choose. So, Ruth practices hesed toward Naomi when she goes with her to Bethlehem, even though by common practice Ruth could have returned to her own family like Orpah did. And Boaz performs hesed when he marries Ruth and takes in Naomi, even though someone else was actually responsible for caring for them. Hesed is also the word used by Micah when he says God requires us to, “Love kindness, do justice, and walk humbly with your God.”

And, of course, Jesus tells us, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” He doesn’t tell us to do what the law allows, but to treat others as we would want to be treated. His command is to do more than the law allows.

As we consider how to proceed in our churches in the days ahead, there are lots of voices urging us to exercise our rights. Ten churches in Oregon are suing the governor claiming a First Amendment right to ignore any stay-at-home order. Others would say we must follow the law, but should read the law as narrowly as possible, so we can do what is most comfortable and best meets our needs.

However, I would urge us to listen to Paul, the Hebrew Prophets, and to Jesus. Our law is love, so as we move forward we want to make sure we’re allying ourselves with love. As Christians, we do not base our actions on what is permissible, but on what is loving.

Knowing that No One Is Expendable, What is Essential?
During the past few weeks, we’ve become used to the term “essential worker.” As we begin to think about the next phases of our life together, it’s important to think about what is essential. What essential elements are required in our religious practice? What is essential for the Spirit to work in our midst? In what ways are our gatherings essential? What is essential to the mental and spiritual health of our congregants? However, as we do so, we must also remind ourselves that no one is expendable.

The fact is that as we’ve labeled workers essential, we’ve also begun to mark some as expendable. Medical professionals, farm workers, meat-packers, and grocery clerks have been among the populations most affected by COVID-19 in these early days. As we begin to move into the next phases of life during this pandemic, other professions will be added to those numbers, likely including pastors and worship leaders. We must proceed with an understanding that each person is a child of God, loved by friends and family, and not expendable. When they risk their health and their lives, they must do so knowing that their work is essential, not simply work that makes another’s life more comfortable.

For those of us who are the white descendants of a slaveholding and settler colonial nation, it’s harder to hold onto the truth that every life matters. Our American ancestors taught us that some people are beneath us, and those people’s lives matter less than our own. As Americans (even non-white Americans), without thinking about it, we naturally prioritize our own comfort over the needs of others. Though we resist it, this poison infects every corner of our society, even our churches.

In the coming days, when people urge you to exercise your rights (First Amendment or otherwise), take a moment to ask yourself if this is not just that old poison trying to infect you again. Is the thing you want to do really essential, or is this another incarnation of the white supremacist idea that the comfort of some is worth more than the lives of others. How are you ensuring we hold onto what is essential while also remembering that no one is expendable?

Sickness Is Not a Moral Failing 
Finally, siblings, please remember that the goal has never been to keep everyone from catching the coronavirus. Before this is all over, we expect that more than half the population will contract the virus, a percentage of those will exhibit symptoms of COVID-19, some will need to be hospitalized, and some will die. We cannot stop the spread of a novel virus, because none of us are immune.

What we can do is keep as many of us as safe as possible. We can slow the spread so our hospitals have enough beds to care for the most-sick. We can shield the most-vulnerable from being exposed to the virus. We can prioritize the needs of those who must risk infection because their work is truly essential.

We can also be easy on ourselves when we make mistakes. We can trust that those who are sick made the best choices they could. And we can remember that illness is not a sign of moral failing. When Jesus’ disciples were confronted with someone who was sick they asked the most-common question, “Jesus, who sinned? This man or his parents?” The answer, then as now, is obvious: No one sinned, but God’s work can be displayed in the lives of all of us who respond to the illness in the world.

Questions to Consider

Where can we get good scientific information?
The pandemic is a challenge that requires a sustained response based on the best science available. Unfortunately, our social media world is filled with bunk science. Fortunately, our internet-connected world makes good science readily available.

I recommend you pay attention to your state’s health department. In the Central Pacific, we’re blessed to have the one of the best-regarded health departments in the nation in Washington state. You can find the Washington coronavirus page here. We also have excellent resources in Oregon (here) and in Idaho (here).

Additionally, Covid Act Now, is a science-based page with good data and well-defined criteria for labeling states and counties red, yellow, and green. Several of our UCC conferences are using the criteria on that page as a way of determining when and how churches should think about gathering in person.

Finally, I would also recommend paying attention to the CDC Website. Their resources for worshiping communities can be found here.

How should we phase forward? And when can we sing again?
The Southern New England Conference has begun using the phrase “phasing forward” rather than talking about things like regathering, returning, or any other words that start with re-. I like this, because it reminds us that the future cannot be the past. We don’t know exactly what church will look like in the coming days, but we’ve learned some things during the past few weeks that we’ll want to carry with us into the future.

There are lots of phased plans available. The most-widely sourced plan is the one put out by the Wisconsin Council of Churches. You can find it here. The Southwest Conference is similar in size and geography to ours, with a boundary that covers two full states and part of another, including urban, rural, and frontier settings. For that reason, I like their plan, which you can find here. Southern New England has a large staff, so their plan (found here) includes lots of links and resources that you might find helpful. I won’t be publishing a phased plan for the Central Pacific, relying instead on the work of others, so we can use our limited staffing resources in other ways.

To the question of singing: Every plan I’ve seen says, “no singing” until there is either a widely-available vaccine or herd immunity. When an infected person sings, they expel the same kind of virus-rich micro-droplets as they do when they cough. That means singing a hymn is like coughing continuously for several minutes. Since people can be contagious without having symptoms, this is one of the best ways to spread the virus. So, I’m sorry to say, we probably won’t be singing together in person for at least a year, and maybe not for two.

The Catholics down the street are having Mass. Should we follow suit?
Every denomination is making decisions about how and when to gather based on their own theology. In the early days of the pandemic, I had a conversation with Bishop Laurie Larson Caesar in which she told me some of the questions her ELCA colleagues were asking about what constituted proper Communion (these are conversations I’ve never had with UCC Conference Ministers, because we simply don’t think about Communion the way our ELCA siblings do). Likewise, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese has faced intense pressure from parishioners who feel they need weekly in-person access to the Consecrated Host.

At meetings of the Common Table, an interfaith project of the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, several of us have agreed to consider this an opportunity to care for one another across faiths. Those of us who have theologies that allow us to gather in other ways should hold back from in-person gatherings, so our siblings of other faiths and persuasions can risk meeting in person. I can preach over Zoom so an ICU bed is available for a Catholic Priest who might need it. We’re in this together, and we can moderate our risky behaviors so others can feel safer doing what they need to do.

What if we gather in multiple small groups?
As people read the various state plans, one of the most-common solutions put forth by parishioners is that we ought to have multiple small gatherings. If the governor’s phased plan says “gatherings no larger than ten,” then our church of forty people can just have four services on Sunday. We won’t be singing and we won’t be having coffee hour, so the services can be shorter, and it won’t be much more time than the pastor usually spends on Sunday morning.

If you’re considering this, please think about how you’re airing and cleaning the church in between services. Take some time to research the science of how the virus lives on surfaces, and how long droplets can remain in the air. Also, think about your pastor who is being exposed to many more people than you are. In the scenario above, each parishioner will be exposed to ten other people, but the pastor will be exposed to forty. And if the pastor contracts the virus from one of those parishioners, the other forty could quickly be exposed in a single Sunday.

I’m in a small town, so we’re probably okay, right?
I lived for twelve-and-a-half years in New Mexico, in a town of ten thousand in a county of thirty-five thousand. I understand the sense of invulnerability that those of us who live in small towns are feeling right now. However, I would caution us to think more deeply about our potential risks.

Although your town may feel remote, people in the 21st century travel frequently. Particularly in the rural west, it’s not uncommon for people to drive hours to work and shop. Our remote towns are not as remote as they used to be. One of my friends in New Mexico recently had their hair cut by a person who they later found out had just returned from a trip to LA. In that same town, half of the confirmed cases aren’t actually counted as being Grant County cases, because those people live three hours away in Doña Ana County and travel to the local mine for work. None of us are as remote as we seem.

As you make decisions, it’s also important to think about the healthcare capacity of your local community. Although your town may have far fewer people than a large city, you also have fewer hospital beds. An outbreak of several hundred could easily be handled by the hospitals in Portland, but an outbreak of only a few dozen would overwhelm the hospital I worked at in New Mexico.

How will we respond when a member of our congregation gets sick or dies?
As we begin to gather in person — in whatever form that takes — there is a possibility that one of our members will get sick. Your local health department will help you decide who needs to know what, and when they need to know. They will also have resources on how those who have been exposed should quarantine and for how long.

If you’re thinking about opening your church before the local authorities say it is safe, you should have a conversation with your insurance agent about what your liability will be. You will likely not be covered.

How are we caring for all our parishioners?
As most of our churches continue to gather in ways that don’t require face-to-face contact, we have people who struggle with virtual church. Some of our parishioners used to be able to drive to church, but don’t have the technology to access Zoom and Facebook. Some of our parishioners are experiencing electronic overload, as they attend work and school online, and can’t imagine spending their Sunday online too. Some of our very young parishioners need to find ways to play and explore their spirituality that doesn’t involve more screen-time — and the parents of those youngest parishioners are completely exhausted and overloaded.

On the flip side, I’m hearing stories of people who haven’t been to church in ages, and who find they can finally connect to church because of the emerging practices. Those people are beginning to be concerned that they’ll be left behind as churches rush to gather in person again.

As you make plans for the next few weeks and months, consider the needs of both of these groups of people. Some churches are using old technologies like phones and snail mail to connect with parishioners. Others are making plans to continue some form of weekly virtual meeting for the foreseeable future. Whatever you do, please consider those who are most-in-need in your midst.

What are some emerging practices around virtual worship?
We’ve created a document that gathers the wisdom that emerged in our weekly worship conversations. You can find that here.

I would also highly recommend paying attention to the UCC Coronavirus page (here). It includes lots of resources, from worship ideas to legal advice. It also includes news and notices from across the UCC.

Will we ever get through this?
Yes! When I risk falling into bouts of despair (which is easy to do as a Christian minister living in the 21st century), I look to the stories of our ancestors. I think about the prophet Ezekiel who, in response to the trauma of war and bondage, penned the vision of dry bones. I think of the Jewish Apostles who saw their sacred temple destroyed and desecrated by Roman soldiers, and who used that as an opportunity to reinterpret the things they remembered Jesus saying. I recite again the words of Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well. All shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well.” as I remember that her city was devastated by the Black Death during her lifetime.

Lately, I’ve been reading the book Blessed Among Us: Day by Day with Saintly Witnesses by Robert Ellsberg. Each day, he recounts the stories of two heroes of faith, some recognized Saints of the Church and some not. On May 15th, I read about St. Isadore, a man who was canonized on the same day as Ignatius of Loyola, Francis Xavier, Teresa of Avila, and Philip Neri. Isadore was not a theologian, teacher, or founder of an order. He was a farmer who knew the hardships of farm life, and who was known by his neighbors for his faith and generosity. Ellsberg says, “In the list of canonized saints, his type is surprisingly rare; in heaven, presumably less so.”

I know we’ll get through this, because we’ve been through terrible things before. The Spirit has led the body of Christ in good times and in bad. We can look to the stories of our spiritual ancestors — to Dr. Martin Luther King who spoke passionately and eloquently about the need for justice and his dream of a better world ahead, and to Jo Ann Robinson who organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Bayard Rustin who planned the March on Washington.

If we remember that we’re all in this together, and we each do our part, then we’ll get through to the other side together.

I know we can, and I trust we will.

Rev. Tyler Connoley, Conference Minister

First Congregational United Church of Christ & Central Pacific Conference UCC

United Church of Christ

Review & Commentary