By MWS Stewart Smith, General Presbyter
The length of this pandemic continues to produce multiple levels of anxiety and stress. I have always wondered how our ancestors coped and endured during lengthy periods of crisis. I was able to inquire with relatives and elderly friends in my younger years about life during the Depression and World War 2. I am 58 years old. I remember sitting on my father’s lap as a child and watching the evening news and asking questions about the war in Vietnam and violence during the Civil Rights Movement. That lasted a long time in the 1960s but I was just a child and I was shielded from much of the anxiety and discord in our society. During my adult years, there have certainly been various major crises in the world. But most of them did not seem to last as long as this pandemic. The events on September 11, 2001, come to mind as an extremely difficult time. Looking back on that event, it seems different than this pandemic. The grief and shock for me were certainly more intense. I watched the news with horror and was numb for days and weeks. But the difference was that the event seemed to bring us closer together as a nation. While the grief was intense, we grieved together, and churches saw increased attendance and political differences seemed to be insignificant at that time. And while that grief was intense, looking back, it seemed to me that we pulled together and moved more quickly with hope toward the future.
While the crisis of 9-11 brought us closer together, the Covid-19 pandemic seems to be driving us further apart. Dr. Cindy Lui, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School was quoted in a recent article in USA Today saying, “The pandemic, it widens existing disparities – it’s going to have long-term consequences.” Certainly, we have seen statistics that bear this out. Many professional workers have kept their jobs and have been able to safely work from home while many hourly wage workers have had to keep working in person and be more at risk for exposure to the virus. I think we could just as easily replace the word “disparities” with the word “divisions”. The pandemic has widened existing divisions.
Those divisions include political divisions, racial divisions, and cultural divisions. I have heard a term used recently that we are living in a time of “Hyper Partisanship” and our political divisions and our racial divisions have rapidly escalated. It is much more difficult for me to be hopeful about our future as a nation and I do not think we will recover from this as quickly as we did from 9-11.
These divisions have impacted our churches as well. We are divided on how we should “be the church” in this unusual time. Should we gather in person or should we take steps to ensure the safety of all our members? When will it be safe to meet again? What steps will be taken when we meet again? People are passionate about their opinions on both sides of these difficult questions and pastors are often placed in the middle.
Even as we go through our own struggles with “how to be the church” during this time, I would hope that the Church can offer the world an example of how to be faithful, loving and compassionate to people on all sides of these divisive issues. Are we as the Church and as Christians working to bring people closer together or drive people further apart?
I keep a pamphlet on my desk that I have referred to numerous times during my ministry. It was produced by our denomination in the ’90s and is taken from a position paper produced by the 204th General Assembly (1992) titled, “Seeking to be Faithful: Guidelines for Presbyterians in Times of Disagreement”. I offer this again to sessions and congregations as they continue to wrestle with difficult decisions on “if, when, and how to gather in person for church activities” and also for your reflection as you wrestle with the painful divisions in our society.
Act …… in a spirit of truth and love;
Respect ……. Each other, believing that all desire to be faithful to Jesus Christ.
Learn ……. about the various positions on the topic.
Respond ……. After stating what we have heard and asking for any clarifications.
Indicate……. where we agree as well as disagree.
Share ……… our concerns directly with the individuals or groups with whom we disagree.
Speak ……. from our personal experiences related to the subject of disagreement.
Refrain ……. From name calling and labeling of others.
Focus on Ideas …… instead of questioning people’s motives, intelligence, or integrity.
Maintain Community …… with each other though our discussions may be tense; and
Pray …… Seeking God’s grace to listen attentively, speak clearly, and remain open to the vision God holds for us all.
It seems obvious that this pandemic will continue into 2021. There is more time for divisions and disparities to be heightened. I want to encourage our congregations to do the difficult work of staying together during these anxious times. We probably disagree on a number of issues. But we are united on the most important one – our Lord Jesus Christ. We have a common faith and a common Lord who promises to help carry our burdens and to be with us to the end of the age.
Please pray for and be understanding of our pastors. They are carrying the weight of all the differing opinions in the midst of their own adjustment to the pandemic. They have had to learn video production skills and alternative ways to meet and provide pastoral care. This time is stressful for all of us, but I believe it is especially heightened for our pastors.
I long for the day when this pandemic is behind us and I long for a world where we are more united than divided. Let us remember our unity in Jesus Christ and let us work together to make His kingdom more of a reality on earth. I continue to be thankful to be partnered with you in this most important work!!
P.S. On a personal note, I want to thank you for all the cards, e-mails, phone calls, prayers, and expressions of sympathy on the death of my mother. My family is gathering this Labor Day weekend for a private memorial service that will be recorded and shared with her congregation, the Presbyterian Church of Bella Vista.