Greetings to the members of St. John:
I thought I would take a few moments and address all members of St. John – Prairie Hill.
As I write this message, times in our nation are really changing. These are historical times as our country continues to be crippled by COVID-19. Most of us have never witnessed the closing of so many businesses, so many people unemployed, schools and universities closed, and church buildings empty. Shucks, did you ever believe that 4 people gathered together would be a crowd? Such are the times we live in.
Now for some current information about your church. I hope each of you are aware that St. John remains a very active church. No, we do not have gatherings at the church buildings; however, the work of the church continues. Your pastor and the church office remains open and very busy. Pastor has his weekly services online and on Facebook. I hope you are listening, watching and becoming an online worshiper. Johanna is as busy as ever paying bills and completing all forms of communications that are now more important to our church family.
Your church council continues to meet with our monthly meetings, also online. We continue to monitor the work of the church and maintain all the church properties. Please do not forget to give to your church as the church mission continues as we try remain a healthy, active congregation.
Last but certainly not least, a word about the St. John food pantry. This program is really growing, especially during this epic time. We are now serving over 50 families. These families receive food twice a month and this need is greater than ever before. God continues to bless this program.
My final prayer is that all of you will remain healthy and that your lives will be restored to normal, soon. I pray that better days are ahead and that we can again have Sunday morning services in the church building.
God bless each of you.
I’ve cried a lot over the past two weeks. I’m thinking maybe a lot of us have. This virus has rocked our world in a way we didn’t really know it could be rocked. Even though we don’t have that many cases of infection in our community, our lives have been changed. The whole world has changed. And while we wait to see how everything is going to play out, we are stuck with this uncomfortable feeling, this weight on our chests, this tickle in our throats. That feeling is grief, and we are feeling it on a communal level as well as a deeply personal one.
I was reading an article this week from the Harvard Business Review in which David Kessler, the guy who co-authored the 5 stages of Loss book—you know: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Sadness, and Acceptance—was interviewed on how people can deal with the sense of grief they are feeling right now as COVID-19 sweeps across the world. He was asked, “What can individuals do to manage (how they’re feeling)?” His answer was pretty simple. Acknowledge it.
Kessler says, “Understanding the stages of grief is a start. But whenever I talk about the stages of grief, I have to remind people that the stages aren’t linear and may not happen in this order. There’s denial, which we say a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities. There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.”[i]
In our Gospel text for this week you can see all five stages of grief at different points in the story. When Jesus tells his disciples that Lazarus has fallen asleep, a clear euphemism for death, they deny what they already know to be true. It takes a clear acknowledgement of the reality of Lazarus’ death for the disciples to agree to accompany Jesus back to Judea where his life is already in danger.
When Martha meets Jesus on the outskirts of town we see a whole spectrum of feelings within her first three sentences. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Denial. Anger.“But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Bargaining. “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Acceptance.
Martha goes to collect her sister Mary. When they return the cycle starts again, this time with Mary echoing the words of her sister, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Denial. Anger. Sadness.
Then Jesus, seeing Mary and Martha’s grief and that of their friends, does something unexpected. He joins them in their grief, “Where have you laid him.” In turn, the mourners invite Jesus in, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus weeps with them. He does not lecture them. He does not ignore their grief and move straight to signs miracles. He stops and he weeps. He acknowledges the pain that loss brings.
I’ve cried a lot over the past two weeks. I imagine many of you have as well. I’ve fluctuated between all five stages of grief at different times, sometimes in different orders. I know you have too. Last Sunday we recited the 23rd Psalm together, “The Lord is my shepherd.” We were reminded that though we are currently walking through the darkest valley, God is with us (Immanuel). This Gospel text from John adds another layer to our understanding of God’s presence with us in times of trial. Not only is God with us, God enters into our grief and shares it. When we weep, Jesus weeps. In this time of social distancing, quarantine, and isolation—when we can’t gather together to comfort one another with a hug or a hand on the shoulder—it matters that when we weep, we don’t weep alone.
In the article I mentioned earlier, David Kessler offers a sixth stage of grief—Meaning—which comes after acceptance. He says, “I did not want to stop at acceptance when I experienced some personal grief. I wanted meaning in those darkest hours. And I do believe we find light in those times.”
Throughout this story of Lazarus being raised, Jesus offers meaning for what is happening. It’s the first thing he says when he hears of Lazarus’ death, “This illness does not lead to death;” Jesus says, “rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” The thing is, neither the disciples, nor the sisters, nor the friends of Lazarus’ family can see or understand the meaning until Jesus did what he did and brought life and healing. While Jesus can declare meaning before the suffering ever occurs (remember that he spoke of his own death and resurrection) we can’t. We need to acknowledge the grief we’re in. We have to get through it first. Then we may begin to see the new life that comes after death.
Many of us are looking for the meaning of what we are going through right now. We want a reason. But we can’t jump to meaning too soon, friends. We need to wait and see what new life God will bring/is bringing after this is all over. If we go searching for meaning too soon, we usually make a mistake. I’ve seen people say that COVID-19 was God’s will. That God sent a virus to show us that we can’t rely on our governments, science, or the economy, but that we should instead rely solely on Him. That the coronavirus is God’s punishment for a godless people. Or, on the other hand, I’ve seen people claim that their faith in Jesus will protect them from the virus. That if they truly believe in the healing power of God, they won’t get sick.
Nothing about the story of Lazarus supports those claims. Jesus didn’t kill Lazarus. Lazarus’ close relationship with Jesus didn’t keep him from becoming ill. Neither Martha nor Mary’s faith saved Lazarus’ life.
But meaning did come to Lazarus and his sisters, and to their friends, in the end. Jesus showed up, joined them in their grief, and God was glorified.
This thing we’re all going through will end eventually. We’ll get through it. Out of the grave God always brings life.
But we’re not there yet. At least I’m not. Easter feels really really far away. Right now, I think I’m somewhere between sadness and acceptance. I’ve cried a lot these past two weeks, and that’s okay. That’s what you’re supposed to do when the world seems like it’s falling apart. But I don’t weep alone. Neither do you. And I know that someday Jesus will yell out to me, “Lazarus, come out!” and I’ll stumble back into the light to be unbound.
[i] Berinato, Scott. “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief.” Harvard Business Review, March 23, 2020. https://hbr.org/2020/03/that-discomfort-youre-feeling-is-grief?utm_source=facebook&utm_campaign=hbr&utm_medium=social&fbclid=IwAR3TECyNDeDfqfb8fZ5s43pnhHUrC08dZz4kABJxzH7w-9xhzfyo52S9zcI.
Well this week sure took a turn, didn’t it? For our Lenten service on Wednesday night, I had originally planned to step away from the Israelite’s journey in the Wilderness and talk about Jacob, at whose well Jesus and the Samaritan women met. I wanted to examine the story of how he wrestled with God and received a new name. I think there are some interesting connections there between Jacob’s story and the Samaritan woman.
But then some things happened. Some news came out, guidelines were recommended, and our gathering place was closed. And that really sucks. I don’t like it either. I’m going to miss shaking your hands and seeing your faces. BUT I believe this is the absolute right decision—for us, and for all churches at this time.
We are commanded to love God and love our neighbor. In fact, one of the clearest ways that we show that we love God is by loving our neighbor. At this time that means keeping our distance from one another to slow down the spread of Covid-19, thereby keeping our most vulnerable neighbors safe. Keeping our distance from one another means not coming to church. To do otherwise would be selfish and dangerous. It could cause harm to our neighbor. God doesn’t want you to come to worship and harm your neighbor in doing so. That’s not love—for God or anyone else.
Churches all over the country are having to figure out how to continue to be a community of faith without being together. Some are mailing out worship materials for families to use at home. Others are recording services and broadcasting them. Some are even hosting online video chats so that everyone can at least see each other while they’re stuck at home.
All those things, and any other way we can find to worship God, ARE church. You don’t have to come to 6605 Old Independence Rd. to have/be church. Jesus said that whenever two or more are gathered in his name, he is there. In John 4, when asked by the Samaritan woman where the correct place to worship God was, Jesus said, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.”
Well. The hour is here. We CAN’T worship together like we used to. And we shouldn’t. At least for a little while. So, we’re going to get creative. We’re going to read and study more. We’re going to pray together over the phone. We’re going to drive by the church and receive communion while we can. We’re going to sing along with others as we watch videos or listen to hymns. You are the body of Christ, friends. Wherever you are, that’s where the church is.
Back to Jacob. On the way back to reconcile with his brother Esau, Jacob found himself alone in the Wilderness (Genesis 32:22-32). Somehow, the story doesn’t really say, Jacob winds up wrestling this guy and they wrestle all night, neither one of them gaining the upper hand. When morning comes, the guy tries to leave, and Jacob won’t let him go. I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Jacob says. The man blesses him and gives him a new name, Israel, because he had “wrestled with God and with humans and had prevailed.”
The world, our nation, and our church are in a wilderness moment right now. Many of us find ourselves alone wondering what on earth is happening. Many of us are wrestling with our faith, trying to discern how show our love for God in new ways. How do I love my neighbor? Won’t God protect me from this virus? How could God let it all come to this? These are good and important questions that we all need to wrestle with. It’s good to ask questions. Remember the Samaritan woman?
My prayer for you is that you are blessed in your wrestling and your questioning. That we come out of this disaster with a clearer knowledge of who God is and who we are called to be. I pray that we meet God in this Wilderness. I pray that we reemerge with new names and new ideas. I pray that we learn what it means to worship God in Spirit and truth.
I’m praying for you,
Pastor Shea Berbaum
Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
After prayerful discussion and in consultation with the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, and state and national health officials, the council of St. John has elected to suspend public gatherings through April 1st. This includes Wednesday night Lenten services, Sunday morning worship and Sunday School, as well as bible studies and committee meetings.
Why are we doing this?
The Coronavirus is now an international pandemic and we are responsible for one another, especially for the most vulnerable among us. Mathematical models based on data from other countries experiencing cases of coronavirus show that the virus is spreading exponentially. We can’t stop the spread, but we can slow it, thereby saving lives and helping ensure that our health care system remains effective. Social distancing is our best means of slowing the spread.
What can I expect from my church during this time?
Just because we are unable to meet in person does not mean that we cease to be the body of Christ. We are still called to be in relationship with one another and to care for each other. Since we cannot speak and fellowship face to face for now, we will be exploring different ways to remain in community together. This will include:
- Regular phone calls from the pastor and/or members of the council.
- Regular check-ins from committee and circle heads.
- Timely updates via email, on our website, and Facebook page.
- Resources for faith formation for adults and children online
- Weekly sermons either in print or audio recording.
- Help with going out to get groceries or medications for those who need to stay home.
- Much more.
Some nursing homes are locking down as a precaution. Some hospitals are requiring proof of health from a doctor before visitors can enter their facility. This will impact in person pastoral care. Pastor Shea and other volunteers will be tending to our acute care list via telephone. If you have a pastoral emergency, please call or text Pastor Shea on his cell phone, (336) 633-9770.
Can I still give my offering?
Absolutely! The ministry of the church does not end when a virus breaks out. In fact, it increases as we are called to care for the sick and vulnerable among us. You can give online at stjohnprairiehill.org or you can mail your offering to 6605 Old Independence Rd. Brenham, TX 77833.
How can I protect myself and my friends and family?
Martin Luther said that every time you wash your face, you should make the sign of the cross and remember your baptism. The same is true of washing your hands!
- Wash with soap and warm water for 20 seconds after you touch a potentially contaminated surface or shake hands.
- If you are feeling ill, STAY HOME!
- Social distancing, meaning staying away from other people unless absolutely necessary, is the best way to keep yourself and others safe and healthy.
- If you are afraid that you may have coronavirus, call the hospital or doctor’s office first. Do not go directly there unless your symptoms are severe.
Who do I call if I need something?
The church office will remain open Monday-Wednesday from 8am-4pm. Both Pastor Shea and Johanna Becker will be in the office during that time and can help answer any questions you may have. If Pastor Shea is not in the office, he can be reached at (336) 633-9770 anytime, day or night, especially in the case of an emergency.
Will we still be distributing food from the food pantry?
Yes, this is a time when we are especially called to provide food for the hungry as grocery stores become increasingly hectic. The Food Pantry will operate during its normal time, 7-8:30AM, on the 2nd and 4th Tuesday of every month. We will be operating as a drive-thru during this time to keep everyone safe.
How can I help?
During this time of isolation, it is more important than ever to keep in contact with one another to share God’s love. This is a great time to renew the practice of writing cards or letters or calling your friends and neighbors just to chat! If you would be willing to help your church leaders and be responsible for a list of people to contact on a weekly basis, please let the office know. We would love your help. Also, PRAY PRAY PRAY! Pray for your council who is making difficult decisions. Pray for your pastor and pray for one another. In fact, you can pray right now!
Gracious God, it is good for us to gather as your beloved in community. We treasure your presence with us in word and meal, song and prayer. Be with us in these days when gathering together as often as we would like is not possible. When we must be apart for reasons of safety, we trust that you surround us with your sheltering wings. Encourage us in connecting as we are able, reaching out to our neighbors in need and being persistent in prayer. We ask this in the name of Jesus, our constant companion. Amen.
Please check your email, our website, and our Facebook page regularly for updates from the church.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit IS with you all.
In Christ’s love,
Pastor Shea Berbaum
St. John Lutheran Church Council