I never noticed those words in the Psalter. But how fitting they are during this time of isolation, grief, and sorrow as we continue to live (and die) during this “2020 Pandemic.” Years from now, how will be look back at this time? Will there be a name for this era in the history books?
One thing is for sure. We are each grieving in our own ways. For many, the loss has been visceral – a loved one no longer with us. For others, the grieving is not related to the pandemic as death always makes an appearance whether it is expected or unexpected. At the moment, gone are the times to hug family and friends, gather to share stories and remembrances, be present to hold hands in silence with unspoken words passing between us.
For my entire life I’ve been a Christian educator. Whatever you may call it: Sunday School, Church School, Religious Education, Christian Education, Education or Formation Hour (the names have changed throughout the years depending on the understanding and purpose of what we are “doing” with/for children on Sunday mornings), I believe we have come to a turning point. For some this may be a reckoning moment that things may never be the same again in our churches – at least on Sunday mornings. Welcome to the future – it is today.
In the various denominational Christian formation Facebook groups I participate in, the big question that is being asked with a variety of responses are: How are you going to hold Church School (or whatever you happen to name it) when we go back to our buildings? How do we keep our classrooms clean? How will we get small children to wear masks? How much hand washing will be required? Fill in the blank with your most pressing question of bringing children (and youth) back to church when September rolls around and / or your church building opens for worship.
Yes, parents are overwhelmed with home-schooling and distance learning. Doing formation at home has added to that burden, even though many churches and educators have found creative ways to send materials to homes such as “lessons in a box” dropped off on the family front porch, using Zoom for telling Godly Play stories, or emailing a lesson with creative ideas to do together as a family using stuff easily found at home such as crayons, glue, scissors, markers, paper, or LEGO-bricks. But how are we engaging everyone in a household together that isn’t seen as another “thing that has to be done”? How are we helping form disciples to learn about and follow Jesus during this time?
Perhaps parents want to simply drop their kids off for Church School while they have some peace and quiet in the sanctuary. We want life back the way it was before COVID-19. I live in Connecticut about 50 miles northeast of New York City. We were part of that first “gigantic red circle” you saw on the nightly news in March and April. Thankfully, our state governments took things seriously and we have been social distancing, wearing masks, and washing out hands since March. We entered Phase 2 of our reopening in mid-June and will not be going to Phase 3 in mid-July as planned due to the rise across the rest of the country. For the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, our church buildings remain closed for worship with some doing socially distanced worship outside with families sitting far apart on blankets or their own lawn chairs while masked (12 feet apart). I don’t see us worship inside our buildings anytime soon – even with our “numbers down.” Oh how I wish the rest of the United States had learned from our hard experience this spring.
Let’s face it, we are now living in a new normal, which means Church School needs to reinvent itself now. And expect a resurgence this fall, if we ever get a handle on the ever-increasing rise in cases across our nation.
I’ve written about this plenty of times (see my 5-parts series Christian Formation in a Changing Churchpost five years ago, particularly Part 3 about a new ecosystem). In recent months on this site since we’ve been figuring out how to support one another while in quarantine I’ve suggested numerous resources. Looking back on what we’ve been doing and what we can be doing, I suggest this:
The Church and Christian Formation leaders are called to:
Focus on the spiritual nourishment of our congregations for all ages. For me, this means worship. Liturgy is formation. We hear God’s Story alongside (if the preaching is good) our own story. But worship needs to be accessible to all as family units sit spread out in the sanctuary, with chairs set at a distance or pew spaces roped off. Theresa Cho of Still Waters wrote an excellent article: Children in Worship: It’s More Than Coloring Sheets and has numerous pieces about creating intergenerational worship. We need to focus on how we can engage all ages safely in worship before planning how we will open up classrooms to small group learning. After all, segregated learning / formation is a relatively new phenomena in the Christian tradition (as well as Jewish and Muslim).
Support households (of all ages) in learning scripture and praying at home. That might mean making sure every household owns a Bible and prayer book (or has access to both via the internet – but let’s get away from our screens!). If someone else reading or praying is an access point to families, develop a calendar with links for them to hear scripture (such as The Bible Project’s Church at Homeor Godly Playstories told on YouTube) and prayer (such as The Mission of St. Clare or Praying with Children. Create your own videos of instruction for families and individuals to guide them how to use (and read) their Bible as well as tools for prayer. The Church has failed in many ways to teach adults these skills and tools. Here is an opportunity.
Recognize that not all have the technology or time to engage. Those who need to put themselves at risk as they are front-line workers and those do not have the option to work at home (especially our siblings of color what are disproportionately sick and dying of this disease) need our support. How can we put our faith into action by helping food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, and any number of services that are being overtaxed? It is easy for our (predominately white) congregations to want things back to normal when there are plenty of Black, Latinx, and Asian folks struggling to survive.
As a leader in your faith community, how will you set an example for re-envisioning the future?
Social media is beginning to fill up with pictures of adults (young and old) dressed in cap and gown as is typical this time of year. Graduation signs are popping up on front lawns. What is not typical is that these photos are being taken on front porches, around dining room tables, and in Zoom chats. These milestones in a person’s life still need to be marked. What are ways a faith community can lift up graduates (and their families)?
There have been plenty of articles written in the past few weeks about this topic. The Fuller Youth Institute recently posted “Reinventing Graduation: 3 ways to honor milestones in the midst of pandemic” by Hannah Lee Sandoval, offering some interesting ways to connect with graduates after school is out. And in this article from Vox, five soon-to-be graduates share how they are feeling and adapting amidst the grief and loss.
In a previous post, Ideas & Resources for Lament and Thanksgiving, I shared a curated list of prayers (laments and thanksgivings) along with processes to help (youth especially) express their grief in what many have called “being robbed” of a rite of passage due to social distancing and quarantine due to COVID-19.
“We are also beginning to grieve for the passing of a way of life, because however much we want things to go ‘back to normal’, we also recognise at some level that many of them never will. ”
The above quote is from This Too Shall Pass: Mourning Collective Loss in the Time of COVID-19, a document put together by The Collective Psychology Project, a collaborative inquiry into how psychology and politics can be brought together in new, creative ways that help us to become a “Larger Us” instead of a “Them-and-Us.” Within this document they share how to embrace and live out the following eight lessons in fuller detail. In summary, they offer this:
At this time of social distancing and the cancellation of many milestones of a young person’s life (graduation from high school or college, prom, senior activities, sports, performances, driver’s licenses, confirmation, etc.) there is a need to acknowledge such loss. The Confirmation Collaborative, a group of Christian formation leaders in The Episcopal Church who come together in person and virtually to live out its mission, recently met via Zoom to talk about the various projects we are working on. We chose instead to focus on creating a source that might assist churches and youth in this time of sadness and grief.
Below are some of the ideas that were generated. It should be noted that these should occur through individual expression and/or online gatherings (zoom, Google classroom, etc.). If at all possible, gather young people together in advance (online) for their input and creation of any liturgy or expression you may choose to construct. Invite them to offer contributions in word, image, music, or any expression they may find unique to their own personality or the group’s identity.
About six months ago I was invited to the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia (western Washington state) to deliver a keynote address for their annual Better Together Christian formation event. I was asked to speak about where I saw the church heading in the future based on my 40+ years of experience in formation, drawing upon what I had seen and learned along the way. I entitled it Faith Formation in a Changing Church: Learning from the Past, Preparing for the Future. My intention was to share a little history of Christian education in the church through the lens of four generations of my family. I planned to talk about my perception of how the church needed to adapt to a new reality in the twenty-first century. How would my granddaughter (a fifth generation – the Alpha generation) be formed in faith?
Little did I know that much of my preparation in talking about the “future” would become the present. A week before I was scheduled to fly to Seattle, the area became a COVID-19 hotspot. Twenty-four hours in advance, Bishop Rickel made the decision to cancel all diocesan events where more than fifty people would be present. I cancelled my flight and said a prayer.