Bishop David Bard reflects on the coronavirus pandemic and catastrophic flooding in this Pentecost message to the Michigan Conference.
Dear Friends in Christ in the Michigan United Methodist Church,
Thank you for being who you are in ministry for Jesus Christ in this challenging time. Thank you for your creativity, your good spirit, your care for each other, and the wider public.
I want to speak with you about our on-going response to the coronavirus pandemic, but need to address another matter first. On the evening of May 19, the Edenville dam on the Tittabawassee failed, and the Sanford dam was breached, sending torrents of water downstream and causing catastrophic flooding. Over 10,000 people evacuated their homes. The streets of downtown Midland filled with nine feet of water. The hearts of all Michigan United Methodists break in the face of such tragedy. Conference staff and volunteers have been working to begin to coordinate a United Methodist response in cooperation with UMCOR and state and local agencies. I know you join me in prayer for all those affected. I know you will want to reach out to help. The best ways to do that right now are: (1) give a donation to the Michigan Area Disaster Response fund either through our web site or by sending a check to the Michigan Conference Ministry Center North, the address of which is on our web page; and (2) begin to put together flood buckets and hygiene kits, directions for each can also be found on our web site.
My heart is heavy as I think about lives disrupted by this flooding. It remains heavy because of the sickness, death, and disruption created by the coronavirus pandemic. I cannot help but think that we should be gathering at Annual Conference May 28-31, we will not. I grieve. I miss not being with you. I will miss handshakes and hugs and photos. I will miss worshipping with you and doing our shared work. We would have celebrated ordination and commissioning on Pentecost Sunday, a true rejoicing in the Spirit, but we will not.
Take a moment to listen to these Scriptures about Pentecost. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth…. When the day of Pentecost has come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven, there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”
Pentecost Sunday is May 31. It marks the end of the church season of Easter. Yet, for many of us, we feel as if we are still waiting to celebrate Easter with the kind of joy and enthusiasm we would like to express. Nevertheless, the change of church seasons is happening.
We are also experiencing a change of seasons as we continue to live with the coronavirus and COVID-19. We are moving from direct appeals to refrain from in-person gatherings at our churches to increasing opportunities to gather together. Let me offer a few thoughts.
We have already been learning to speak in tongues: ZOOM, Skype, PayPal, Go-to-Meeting, Google Chat, YouTube – speaking in tongues. Social distancing, mitigation, flatten the curve, face coverings – speaking in tongues. You have found ways in the midst of this all to worship together, to pray together, to learn together, to minister to others together, to be witnesses together. All that without necessarily gathering together, or when you do, gathering with masks and keeping your distance. God’s Spirit has been swooping, whooshing, descending, offering us the power to witness in new and unique ways. Keep it up. Even as we might be able to gather more in person, don’t leave behind such speaking in tongues, such new ways to connect and minister in the name of Jesus and the power of the Spirit. Some have been just waiting to hear the good news of God’s love in such ways. More are waiting still. Those who should not return to in-person gatherings for a while due to their health still want to hear the good news.
Even as we enter this new season, remember that re-opening does not and cannot mean opening again as if there is no virus. We cannot go back to a time before COVID. As we re-open our buildings for gathering attend thoughtfully and carefully to public health, the common good, and the well-being of others. The Michigan Conference issued a principles and directions document last week that can also be found on our website. It contains our best thinking to date about what re-opening might look like for our churches. I commend it to you and commend the other resources on our webpage. In this season of Pentecost, we need the gift of discernment in each of our ministry settings to determine how and when and in what ways to re-open our buildings as tools for ministry. We need the fruit of the Spirit that is patience as we make our way into the future together. While I am always willing to offer my best thinking as part of your discernment, we are entering a season where decisions need to be made more locally. Again, keep public health, the common good, and the well-being of others uppermost. In the words of Paul, “let all that you do be done in love” (I Corinthians 16:14).
Finally, in this season of continuing to speak in tongues, in this season of discernment and patience, I implore you not to let your decisions about opening your facilities be influenced by politics. In other words, written by Paul, “do not be conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2). Don’t be conformed to this world by letting decisions about how to re-open church buildings be decisions about the President or the Governor or any political affiliation. Public health, the common good, the well-being of others, patience, love. Let those guide you as we move forward in the Spirit together, as we in the power of the Spirit witness to God’s love in Jesus Christ.
The peace, power, wisdom, and patience of the Spirit be with you all.
Grace and peace,