As we move through the sixth month of life with coronavirus, we look to scripture, tradition, and experience for hope. Here are three questions to ask in these challenging times.
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Clouds come in various shapes and sizes — Cumulus, Nimbus, Cirrus, Funnel. We learned that back in 7th-grade science class. Those clouds can be beautiful, like the ones in the Snapshot of Vitality, further down this page. They can also be destructive, as those suffering right now from flooding in Michigan and hurricanes in Louisiana know only too well
We listen to the weatherman every day and determine whether we should carry an umbrella or put on sunscreen. However, not ALL clouds are meteorological. Some clouds are more spiritual, like the ones spoken of in the 13th chapter of the book Exodus. There we learn about pillars of cloud by day and fire by night that provided direction and comfort, and purpose to the people of Israel who were fleeing from their Egyptian oppressors. They did some moaning and groaning but what the Hebrew children saw in those clouds, in their best moments, was a Mighty God delivering them and protecting them as his chosen people.
A cloud is also mentioned in the Letter to the Hebrews, chapter 12. This cloud is neither meteorological nor spiritual. The great cloud of witnesses is metaphorical. It’s not a cloud that is going to water your petunias or float ahead of you across the desert, like a holy GPS. The great cloud of witnesses is made up of all of those wonderful folks who have gone before us in the faith.
When it comes to the great cloud of witnesses, some of them you and I know, most of them we don’t know. We don’t see this cloud with the eyes in our heads; we perceive them with the eyes of our hearts.
John Wesley knew the value of a cloud of witnesses. The “method” behind Methodism, even before it became a formal church, was the intentional building of a community characterized by the depth of its care. Wesley was converted during a meeting of the community he was part of called The Holy Club. So, he had personal experience of the power such gatherings have to change lives.
The Wesley brothers encouraged the formation of what they called “classes,” and they trained leaders to serve as spiritual coaches. Smaller gatherings called “bands” met regularly. All of this relationship-building made disciples with a deep love for God and neighbor.
John Wesley would open up all small group meetings with a particular question, “How is it with your soul?” And that inquiry into how class members’ spirits were faring was NOT a rhetorical question. It was a taking-stock of life kind of question, an exercise in accountability in the company of friends in Christ. What were the classes and bands and what we now call small groups? They were clouds of witnesses! Since the time of John Wesley, being part of a cloud of witnesses, United Methodist style, has been good for the soul and has helped millions of people grow spiritually.
It’s been five months since many United Methodists here in Michigan have gathered in-person. Pastors and leaders are taking cues from the Governor, the Bishop, and their membership. Bishop Bard, when announcing the ballot of the Virtual Annual Conference on Labor Day, added, “We are beginning the fall season, and it is a fall season unlike any we have ever experienced before … Go into this fall with enthusiasm, even knowing that the ways you gather will be different. I am grateful for the ways you continue to be in ministry during this pandemic, the ways you are taking seriously social distancing, and the wearing of face coverings to keep each other safe … God is with us during this time. Ministry for Jesus Christ will continue. Thank you for the ways you are participating in that. God’s grace, God’s peace, God’s power, be with you all.”
As we wait to get back together, face to face, I suggest we continue to live in the Wesley Way, asking each other that important question, “How is it with your soul?” That question is just as important in 2020 as it was in 1750. Several months ago, I was listening to one of Andrew Cuomo’s press conferences. New York’s governor encouraged those in his TV audience to ask those around them, “How ya doin’, really?” And don’t settle,” Cuomo added, “for a trite, ‘I’m okay.’”
I believe, “How ya’ doin’, really?” And “How is it with your soul?” are the same question. “How is it with your soul?” is sort of an awkward thing to say here in the 21st century. So, I encourage you to heed the advice of John Wesley using the more familiar phrase of Andrew Cuomo, “How ya doin’? … really?” When you are with friends, co-workers, and family, ask that question often and then don’t be satisfied with a trite, “I’m okay.”
In this season of COVID-19, things are not okay. The virus has killed over 870,000 around the world, 190,000 of those in the U.S., and 6800 here in Michigan. Add to that count the grief of family and friends of persons making up those statistics. Layer on that what might be called COVID-fatigue, just the sheer stress of all the uncertainty and disinformation, inconvenience, and fear that the virus has brought into our lives. I heard a news anchor say recently, “Every day is Blursday.” Then I overheard someone in the store say, “It’s September. Only 68 more months to go in 2020.” That’s COVID-fatigue, and we all have our own experience of it. Perhaps COVID-19 is the low-lying cloud we call fog.
Claiming our place in the cloud of witnesses —made up of family, friends, neighbors, local church members, and colleagues in Connection — is a source of strength and support. We need to help each other engage, as much as possible, with what is good. Georgia Hale is a deacon in the Michigan Conference. She posted another important question on her Facebook page: “What part of your shelter-in-place have you come to appreciate most?” Rather than focus every thought and conversation on what you hate about the COVID lifestyle (indeed, there’s plenty NOT to like), give some consideration to aspects of life that have changed for the better.
There are some things to appreciate in this extraordinary season in which we find ourselves. Those things are the topic of a new Chuck Knows Church series called, “Things We CAN Do.” This episode is titled “Extraordinary Community.”
Chuck makes a vital point in that video. “Church is not a building but the transformation we offer to others.” As we wait to get back in-person, embrace your role in the cloud of witnesses and reach out to others with listening and kindness that may transform the isolation and pain they are feeling because of the coronavirus. Clouds of witnesses offer comfort and hope. But they do more than that. They get stuff done, like feeding the hungry, caring for survivors of the mid-Michigan flood, and raising the cry that Black Lives Matter.
Native American Sarah Tawai reminds us, “Your ancestor outnumber your fears. Feel their power.” Our ancestors — from the Israelites following a pillar of cloud to fledgling Methodists following John Wesley — are a source of strength for us. Thank God every day for the cloud of witnesses God has given you. Ask God every day for the grace to be a faithful witness for others. Praise God every day that God is with us as “the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”