A MESSAGE FROM REV. J.C. AUSTIN: RESPONDING WITH FAITH, HOPE AND LOVE
Last Sunday, we gathered for our most recent “hybrid” worship service, in which we not only combined worship styles as we do periodically (incorporating both traditional and contemporary worship elements into one service), but also combined in-person, outdoor worship with digital worship through our livestream.
You all hopefully knew that from our communications about it ahead of time, and there was a good turnout in person despite the unusually cold temperatures at 11 a.m. for this time of year (below 50 degrees!). What I didn’t mention in the advance communications about that Sunday is that it was the first Sunday after my 20th “ordiversary.” That’s a word that pastors have made up to celebrate the day they were ordained to pastoral ministry; I was ordained to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament by the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta of the Presbyterian Church (USA) on October 20, 2000.
As the date was approaching, I was thinking about all the ways in which I had no real idea what that ministry would involve when I was ordained. Some things were very dramatic: it never occurred to me that, less than a year later, I might be leading a congregation through the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, in the hardest hit ZIP code in the city in terms of deaths, while the senior pastor was trapped in California for ten days and unable to return because of travel restrictions!
Some things were just very unlikely, such as getting involved in Middle East peacemaking both in Israel/Palestine and between advocacy factions for Israelis and Palestinians in conflict within the Presbyterian Church (USA).
But I’d have to say that the last seven months surpass both of those; terrorist attacks are improbable but not unforeseeable, and ministry takes you into all kinds of situations and activities that you never thought about before they start happening. But spending month after month worshipping, ministering, and serving during a pandemic quarantine is definitely in its own league when it comes to unforeseen circumstances!
So all of that was on my mind as we gathered for worship last Sunday when we had another set of unforeseen circumstances happen: the electrical system in the church shorted out right as the opening music was coming to an end, and we lost all power for the worship service for almost 40 minutes: no microphones, no power to the musical instruments, no power to the digital camera for the livestream; nothing.
Subsequent investigation is that the most likely explanation was some longstanding deterioration in the electrical system itself; the worship setup itself was well within the parameters that the system should have been able to handle. Our facilities team has already been working with electricians and has restored our functionality, which allows us to safely return to normal usage while we consider the long-term needs of the building as a whole.
But in the moment last Sunday, nobody knew any of that; we just knew that the electricity was out and could not be quickly restored. Yet both our congregation and staff responded not with panic or frustration or anything else negative. Our tech team went into calm and focused problem-solving that was worthy of NASA on a tough day.
And those who were there to worship in the chilly air simply turned to one another and made the most of the time, drawing close to one another in spirit and conversation while maintaining appropriate physical distancing. Eventually, we were able to restore enough power to run a portable sound system, we reconvened in worship, and finished the service together.
In reflecting on all this afterwards, I found myself thinking that this was both a fitting celebration for my “ordiversary” and a beautiful testament to the strength and resilience of this congregation’s character and mission. Clearly, none of us expected to be living through the challenges of this pandemic, whether our calling to ministry is specifically as Ministers or Elders or Deacons, or the highest and most important calling in Christian ministry: to following Jesus Christ through the power of our Baptisms.
The question, though, is how we respond to such unexpected circumstances, and we are doing so with faith, hope, and love. This is not to say that we don’t also feel anxiety, despondency, and fear; but they are not governing our actions or our identity in this time. Instead, we are following Paul’s directions to the Thessalonians: “Live in peace with each other… always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else. Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Jesus Christ” (I Thessalonians 5, selected verses).
It’s always important to remember Paul did NOT say, “give thanks for all circumstances;” he said, “give thanks in all circumstances.” And that has a new power and resonance for me these days, as I hope it does for you, because I do give thanks in these unexpected circumstances for the gift of this calling and mission that we share in this congregation, and for the beauty and grace and love of our life and ministry together, in these circumstances more than ever. Thanks be to God!
Grace and Peace,