Looking Closely Through Things That Scare Us: Reflecting on Church Life in Stressful Days

Looking closely through things that scare us:

Reflecting on Church Life in Stressful Days

Stuart Higginbotham

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I caught myself again this past Sunday walking by the table in the narthex and looking at the attendance sheets for the two services we have. I have done this most Sundays for a while now. I would love to say that the pressure of such metrics doesn’t matter to me, but I guess I’m not that strong. Knowing the sheet is just lying there feels like driving past an accident on the interstate; I can’t help but look, hoping it isn’t as bad as I can imagine it being. Or is it like waiting for test results to come back? You get the point. The little butterflies in my stomach all decide to work together these days, holding hands and flinging themselves against my ribcage. 

Person after person tells me that we have all just gotten out of the habit of going to church on Sundays. I smile and say, “of course,” and take a deep breath when I walk away. When I reach out to folks or see them, I don’t get the feeling that anyone is really angry or frustrated with “the church,” so to speak. Maybe they are and being Episcopalians they are just being very polite. There is a general anger that feels as thick as chocolate pudding sometimes. All that frustration has to go somewhere, but unfortunately, maybe, there is more than enough to share between church, school, political structures, and anyone caught in the whirlpool of backlogged supply chains.  I remember when our friends at the DMV were the ones who took the brunt of such societal frustration and my heart wishes to return to such fond days. 

The rhythm of life has shifted. Much has shifted with weekly schedules. A lot has shifted with the way we see life. There is a lot of shift to deal with. The turmoil of Covid with the risk to our physical health and the political toxicity that gripped us through an election season and continues to weigh heavy on us all. My laptop feels like a jack-in-the-box. Each time I open it, I’m not sure what terrifying news will start screaming at me. 

With all that we are facing, we had no choice but to adjust and find some sort of equilibrium in the midst of chaos. We did our best as “the church” to hold what we could and offer online services and conversations while pushing cats off the dining room table, but we all know it wasn’t the same thing as kneeling next to someone and tasting wine while hearing the choir sing. We made phone trees and spent countless hours calling folks, but as well-intentioned as that was, it didn’t take the stress off parents with multiple kids who looked at pages of math problems with glazed eyes. I had to get permission from my bishop to go give Last Rites to a dear soul. I stood next to her bed wearing a mask and watched her struggle to put one on too until I told her to please stop. My heart couldn’t bear not being able to see her face. 

It turns out that one enormous gift of this time is that it proved to us all that we are, indeed, an incarnational church. Our bodies matter. Senses matter. Tasting, smelling, feeling, hearing, and seeing our way to God is the way we are wired, no matter how any developments in ‘alternate reality technology’ might wish to influence us.

All this took a toll on us, didn’t it? It still does.

Now, some of us gather back on Sunday mornings, and we are doing as much as we can with adjustments to guard our health. We don’t drink out of one chalice Sunday mornings, and many folks miss that. Some folks have always thought that was gross (we don’t look down on them), but sharing a common cup reminds us that we are all held together in God’s (non-infectious) hands. Lord knows we need something to encourage us to share in these days, and being able to share the Body and Blood of Christ is the absolute anchor of our life.

Since I am a priest, I look for the ways that our texts, prayers, and rituals–the rich Christian tradition we have inherited–can offer ways to imaginatively engage the circumstances we find ourselves in. My soul needs the texture of our tradition to help me gain traction as I struggle to walk through these very strange and stressful times. My own practice of faith looks to the liturgical season, the cycle of feast days and celebrations that help mark the passage of time throughout the year. On a recent walk around the lake, I noticed the incredible Halloween decorations our neighbors had put out. Something whispered in my ear and I kept listening as I walked.

When I was a child, my family didn’t really observe Halloween. My parents were suspicious of it, and my family preferred to keep our terrifying experiences limited to potluck dinners at church picnics and being called on suddenly to sing a special on Sunday morning. One time I took a towel and wrapped it around my head, pairing it with a robe my grandmother had made for an Easter cantata our church did. I wanted to be King Tut. Since they didn’t have glasses in Ancient Egypt, I took mine off so I could mark my eyes with the dark black lines of kohl–although in my case my mother’s mascara which smeared in the balmy October night and made me look like I had stepped out of the shower with two black eyes. I made my friends drive that night so I could be more “authentic.” Yes, I was in highschool. There wasn’t that much to do growing up. 

Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve, gives us a chance to look closely at the things that might normally scare us. Folks put skeletons in their front yards and plan ways to trick kids when they come by for candy. We hang ghosts in the trees and light jack-o-lanterns outside our doors. It is a time that seems to encourage looking closely at things that scare us. 

It may surprise you to learn that there are actually readings assigned for All Hallow’s Eve. At least we have them in the Episcopal Church, and while some of you may roll your eyes thinking of course you have readings for Halloween in your church, pause for one moment and see if it doesn’t make sense to you. Can’t these stories help us make sense of unusual circumstances? Perhaps your church has readings as well and now is the time to hold them high and give thanks for the way that they can help us make sense of all things scary right now. 

Some of the readings appointed for All Hallow’s Eve are the story of God telling the prophet Ezekiel to prophesy to the dry bones (Ezekiel 37); the story of Saul conjuring the Witch of Endor so he could speak to the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 28); and the story of Michael fighting the dragon in the war in Heaven (Revelations 12). The service itself has a note that says “suitable festivities and entertainments” may also be shared in an evening service. That makes me smile.

These stories are fascinating ones that invite us to look at strange and evening frightening circumstances and wonder just how God is present. As weird as it may sound, these stories “call the question” on whether or not we believe that God is indeed fully present in the midst of our human lives. A prophet sees dry bones coming to life; a struggling king tries to make sense of what he faces; a seer on Patmos wonders how his faith can speak to the stress of an empire. 

The truth is that these stories are, in a sense, the most extreme examples of strangeness, mysteriousness, even spookiness, that we find in the Bible, and, if we have any integrity in our claim that “The Bible” has spiritual authority in our lives, All Hallow’s Eve presents us an opportunity to take this claim out for a spin. 

Above all, I think these stories help us see the reality–and weirdness–of our human condition and the extraordinary graciousness of God’s presence within it. At the end of the day, perhaps God shows up most–or we become aware of God’s presence–in the most trying and strange moments of our lives. Who hasn’t felt like Ezekiel, questioning God’s claim that dry, parched bones can live again? Who hasn’t felt like they wanted to consult some type of oracle that may offer a clue as to how to navigate the pressures we face? And, honestly, who hasn’t felt like there are dragons loose upon the earth these days? Surely I can’t be the only one. 

I pay close attention to my practice each day, with Centering Prayer, and Vipassana Meditation helps enormously if I can dare be curious about paying attention to the thoughts that pop up in my fickle mind. I pay attention to the root fear that hovers around me, even as I am reminded about God’s deep, loving grace. It turns out that practice doesn’t really make perfect; rather, it can help open our hearts so God can make us whole.

So, as we step forward, holding each other up and encouraging one another, let us never lose sight of God’s trustworthiness–even as we fret and worry and hold our breath as the ushers walk down the side aisle and count those present in the service. It turns out that we don’t just look at the things that scare us, we are called to look through them. Yes, let us never lose sight of God’s trustworthiness and our call to dare to be imaginative as we listen to the Spirit. Because the Spirit is very much at work, my friends.

Not to spoil the story, but just over the horizon, something is about to be born again. Come, Lord Jesus, be born in us again.

  • I found this image online, with a reference to blogspot.com.

One thought on “Looking Closely Through Things That Scare Us: Reflecting on Church Life in Stressful Days

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  1. The fallout from the quarantine is so much bigger than the disease. It has been like trying to put out a fire with gas in a world that was already starting to turn its back on the church.

    Your role I think is to talk about what we are losing when we walk away. We lose fellowship. Have you considered just talking about what fellowship and loving each other in that way is like? Are we forgetting how good a hug can be. Is it time to say as you did with the lady attempting to put on her mask: “it’s not as important as seeing/being with you!”

    The church cannot live without people who support. “Masking up” may become a death knell. Some churches refused to mask up/take precautions and that I think was foolish.

    But I look down from the loft and see 4 children for children’s church and feel so sad for children who aren’t there. They won’t learn the songs. They won’t know a child’s God.

    Your job is often thankless.

    I know our politics are different but I have to thank you for the ways we see eye to eye. Jesus is God.

    Everything else is a hula hoop.


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