The Death of “Normal”

“I can’t wait for things to get back to normal.”

You’ve all heard it.  Sometimes it seems as if we hear someone say it every day.    But you know what?  The old “normal” is dead and it isn’t coming back.  I’ll explain what I mean in a minute, but while the death of normal makes me a little sad, it also gives me hope.

For most of us, getting back to “normal” means that everything returns to the way that it was before COVID-19 turned our lives upside-own and sideways.  But so much has changed and, if we’re honest, we have changed, that there’s no way for us to go back to the way that they were before.  And, if we’re brutally realistic, some things are still going to get worse before they get better.  So, how is any of that hopeful?

First, let me explain why we can’t go back as if this year was a children’s playground “do over.”  Some things have changed that simply can’t be erased.  People we love have died and we can’t get them back.  Businesses have closed that won’t reopen, and more are likely to do so before this is over.  Movie theaters and other businesses are starting to close as the pandemic drags on and while some of them may have enough money to try again when things get better, most of them are gone forever as are the jobs that they created.  But, after six months, our behavior is changing too and, by the time COVID-19 burns itself out or we develop a vaccine, our habits and patterns of life will have changed as well.  People who never used the drive thru at the bank or the pharmacy will be used to it, and many of us will like it enough to keep using it.  Many of us have discovered the convenience of Zoom meetings and, while we might not meet that way all the time, some of our meetings will remain on Zoom and other electronic platforms.  People who didn’t cook at home a lot are learning how, and some of them are getting pretty good at it and are discovering that it’s a lot cheaper (and healthier) than eating out.  Families are spending more time together and more time outdoors.  And every one of those changes, from small ones to big ones, changes how we do business and how we live our lives.

Churches are discovering the same thing.  Churches have had to completely change the way that we fund our operations.  Obviously, there isn’t a weekly offering plate if there is no weekly in-person worship service.  So, with essentially no notice, churches had to find ways of either collecting a weekly offering by mail or doing so electronically.  Christ Church has been blessed to have a congregation that navigated that pivot well, thanks to your adaptability and thanks to finance and computer literate members who had the building blocks in place long before we needed to rely on them.  But some churches haven’t navigated that transition nearly as well, and many of those churches may not survive.  All of us have seen those changes in our Cub Scout pack, our weekly Community Dinner, our collections for the hungry and the homeless, our online worship, and a hundred other ways.

But, at the same time, not all those changes are bad.  Some of us are discovering how easy that donating electronically can be, and we might just like it.  Our move to online worship may have lost a few of our regular attenders but, at the same time, we’ve added a few new “faces” in worship.  Each week there are several people who are “liking,” commenting, and sharing our services online that we haven’t yet met in person.  People are “visiting” our church, and our worship services, that likely would not have physically walked in the door before we were forced to change.  And some of the people we’ve known for years have discovered that our online worship, newsletters, and “Newsy Notes” have allowed them to stay connected even when they are working weekends, sick, travelling, or retire out of state.  The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to shift our perspective.  As much as we love our church building, it’s possible that we are less likely to think of “church” as a building when we are prevented from spending so much time in it.  It might just be easier for us to think about “being Jesus” to the people around us when we don’t physically see the Outreach Committee at church every Sunday and expect them (or the pastor) to be Jesus for us. 

And if those changes help us to meet new people, share the gospel with new friends, reach out to our neighbors, get to know their names and their problems, to love them, and be Jesus to them, that’s certainly not a bad thing and it’s not something that I want to give up when this is over.

It’s time for us to accept that the old “normal” isn’t ever coming back.  But while this pandemic is still a long way from being over, now is a great time for us to think about what our “new normal” will look like when it finally is.  Church in the “new normal” is almost certainly going to remain online in addition to “in-person.”  Some of our meetings are likely to remain on Zoom simply because it’s convenient as well as easier for some of our member who don’t like to drive after dark during the winter months.  Some of us will continue to use the option of giving online. 

But how will we, as the people of God, be changed?  Will we be more loving?  Will we be more compassionate?  Will we be more aware of our neighbors, coworkers, and other people around us?  Will we be transformed by this natural disaster, and by God, into people who are more like Jesus, who love like Jesus, than we were before?  Will our church become known, even more than we were, as a church who cares about our neighborhood and about our community?  Will we, more than ever, act as if we are the ambassadors of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God?

I hope so.  I see it happening in bits and pieces and it’s growing.  We are, every day, taking baby steps in a new direction.  And, if that new direction carries us closer to Jesus, I don’t ever want to go back to the old “normal.”

I urge you to keep praying for Christ Church, for our church family, for the new names and new faces that we are reaching in new ways, for our neighborhood, our community, our nation, and for the world. 

The old “normal” isn’t coming back. 

Feel free to grieve its loss.

But there is hope.

We will, eventually, pass through this trial and arrive on the shores of a new “normal.”

Let us pray that when we arrive, each one of us, and our church, is more like Jesus than ever before.

Blessings,

Pastor John


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When There Are No Words

“When There Are No Words”

Blue Christmas Service

December 22, 2019

By John Partridge*

 

This isn’t really a Christmas story.  But it is a story about how God met me at a time when I had no idea what to do next.

In 2001 I was working for Lectrotherm, a company near the Akron-Canton airport that manufactured, and remanufactured, induction melting equipment for the molten metals industry.  We made furnaces that melted steel for companies like Navistar, John Deere, and other companies in the Fortune 500 as well as tiny little places that you’ve never heard of.  I was an electrical engineer doing work that I liked and I thought I had a career that would keep me interested and well employed until retirement.  But, one day I was called into the boss’s office where I was dismissed and given an hour to clean out my office and leave the building.  My termination was totally unexpected.  They tried to say that it was performance related, but since my reviews were all good, they really didn’t have a reason at all.  Later I found that I was just the first of many, as the company struggled with financial problems that would ultimately end in its bankruptcy.

I felt as if the rug had been pulled out from under me.  I had no idea what to do next.  I remember sitting on our front porch trying to pray and finding nothing to say.  I couldn’t form sentences. 

There were no words. 

And so, I just sat on the steps and groaned and cried out to God.

Sometimes we don’t have words.  And that’s okay because God understands our thoughts anyway.  In Exodus 2:23-24, we hear a story of how God heard the groans of his people:

During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God.  God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob.

And in Judges 2:18 we hear: Whenever the Lord raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived; for the Lord relented because of their groaning under those who oppressed and afflicted them.

God hears our prayers, even when all that comes out of our mouths are groans and weeping.

For me, what followed was two years of unemployment.  As I looked for a job in what was supposed to be a good economy and a solid job market, I had nothing. 

I wondered why.

I was active in my church.  We gave.  We volunteered.  We had leadership positions in the church.  And still, nothing.  I wondered why I lost my job, why I was unemployed, why I couldn’t find work, why God had allowed this to happen.  And God didn’t give me any easy answers.  And so, I began to read scripture as I had never done before.  I read books that my pastor recommended, and I struggled to discover, not only why I was unemployed, but if, somewhere in my pain, God had a bigger plan.  I wondered if God had allowed this to happen because he wanted to tell me something, or because he wanted me to change directions, and if so, where, and to what. 

The answers weren’t easy.  My prayers sometimes seemed to go nowhere. 

Job once felt as if his prayer to heaven just bounced off.  In Job 37:17-19 we hear these words:

17 You who swelter in your clothes when the land lies hushed under the south wind, 18 can you join him in spreading out the skies, hard as a mirror of cast bronze?

19 “Tell us what we should say to him; we cannot draw up our case because of our darkness.

For Job, it felt as if the skies were as hard as a mirror of cast bronze and his prayers just bounced off.  And even if they got through, he had no idea what he would say to God or how to make his case.

But we know that God heard him, even when it felt like he didn’t.  Behind the scenes, God knew Job’s character. God knew the future.  God had a plan.  It took a long time, but eventually Job began to see a small part of God’s plan and, over time, God restored to Job all the things that had been taken from him.  For me, after a lot of time, prayer, pain, confusion, and struggle, it began to seem as if God had a new plan for my life.  And as I began to explore that possibility, things began to get better.  It seemed less and less like I was swimming upstream and more and more like I was going with the flow and was a part of God’s plan.  With the help of my pastor, I explored something different.  That exploration led me to seminary, and to here as a pastor, and no longer as an engineer.  I am certain that, for now, this is where God has led me, but I am still keenly aware that this might not be permanent.  At some point, should God have a new and different plan for my life, someday I could pivot and start doing something else.

My life has been nothing like Job’s, but I learned a lesson that was similar to something that Job saw.  Even when it seemed that God was far away, even when I had no words, even when everything seemed to be confused and senseless, even then God was a part of my life.  Even then, God had a plan and a purpose for my life.  Even then, God was leading me toward something new.

No matter where you are in your journey, I hope that you will hear me when I say that I am confident that the same is true for you.  Regardless of your pain and confusion, regardless of who, or what you wrote on your star today, God knows where you are.  God hears your groaning.  God has a plan.  God is working in you, on you, and through you so that you can become the person that he created you to be.  Even now, God is leading you to a new place, and possibly to a new mission.

My prayer is that you will hold tight to Jesus.  May you will trust him with your journey, even when the journey is hard, even when there are no words and your prayers are only groans.

Merry Christmas.

 

 

 

 

 


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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org.  If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online).  These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

You Do Not Grieve Alone

Reflections for A Celebration of Memories

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Cassaday-Turkle-Christian Funeral and Cremation Service

 

Let’s be honest with each other.  In a perfect world, all of us would have something else to do today.  But it is precisely because this isn’t a perfect world that we’re struggling.  We’re here because someone that means something to us is missing this Christmas.  Four years ago, our family buried my father just before Thanksgiving and this summer we unexpectedly lost my second oldest brother, Dean.  But all of us are here because the world we live in is, obviously, not perfect.  But even in an imperfect world, those of us who are struggling can come together and struggle together.  In a lot of ways, struggling together can be a like a club for lonely people.  When lonely people come together, they become just a little bit less lonely.  Loneliness shared weighs us down just a little bit less.  In the same way, people who grieve together, and share their grief with one another, discover that their burden has grown a little lighter, the room has become a little less dark, and the future filled with just a little more hope.

And so, I’m glad to be here with you, I’m glad that you could be here with me, and I hope that together we can shine some light into a dark corner of our lives. 

I want to share a couple of stories with you this evening.  The first begins with an American hero who served in both WW2 and in the Korean conflict, flying 100 combat missions in six months’ time, and earning the distinguished flying cross and the Air Medal with an oak leaf cluster before eventually becoming a NASA test pilot, Mercury and Gemini astronaut, and was ultimately killed in the Apollo 1 fire during launch testing.  Of course, I’m talking about Gus Grissom, but that’s not the story that I want to focus on.  Instead, I want to think about the widow of Gus Grissom, Betty Moore Grissom.  But the funny thing is, I really can’t tell you a lot about her.  I spent a considerable amount of time searching for information about what Betty did and how she lived after Gus’ death, but other than her obituary and a few comments about Gus’ infidelity, the only thing that anyone seems to remember about Betty is that she raised her two sons, got them through school at  Gus’ alma mater, Perdue University, and that she successfully sued the manufacturer of the capsule that was responsible for the Apollo 1 fire.  It’s quite possible that Betty got stuck but it might just be that she preferred to live her life in private.  From what we know, Betty still raised two sons, kept watch over Gus’ legacy, and did what she could to make sure that people remembered the good that Gus had done.  You see, when someone once asked Betty why she stayed with Gus even though everyone knew he had girlfriends on the side, she basically said, “I knew he loved me most.” 

Just last year, only months before she passed away, Betty made one last trip to the annual memorial for the Apollo 1 astronauts.  You see, after the fire and the ensuing investigation, some of the launch pad was torn down, but much of it was left intact, and officially classified as “Abandoned in place” as a memorial to the three men who died there.  And every year, family, friends, guests, astronauts, NASA officials, and a few others visit the brass marker there, remember the legacy of those men, and honor their lives.

So, what’s my point in all of this?

Even if Betty Grissom got stuck in her grief, she knew two things.  First, although Gus Grissom was human and had flaws, although he was far from perfect, Betty chose to remember the good.  Betty Grissom never focused on the pain, but instead focused on Gus’ legacy, his memory, and on raising two sons that would make him proud.  NASA, as an organization, did something very similar.  Although NASA had disagreements and arguments with both Gus and with Betty, some very public, NASA didn’t focus on that, instead they chose to focus on moving forward into a brighter future while remembering the legacy of the Apollo 1 astronauts and their contributions to the program.

Honestly, this is healthy, and we do this all the time.

We remember that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, we remember that nearly half of the delegates to the first Constitutional Convention were slave owners, and we remember that Winston Churchill was a racist.  But those aren’t the things that we dwell on.  Instead, we choose to remember their legacies and their positive contributions to history.

We honor their lives and remember the good.  We shouldn’t forget that our loved ones were flawed, but we choose to remember the best of them and keep alive the memories of the good that they did, the legacy that they left, and the reasons that we loved them.

Let’s take a break for minute.

Here’s what I want you to do.

Close your eyes and remember.  Remember the people that you’ve lost.  Picture them in your mind.

What did they do, what action did they take, what words did they say, that told you that they loved you?

What did they do that allowed you to experience joy?

What did they do that made you laugh?

What did they do that inspired you, or encouraged you, to become a better person?

If you had 30 seconds to tell me who and what they were, what words would you use?

Remember their love, remember their passion, their forgiveness, their laughter, remember those things that make their memories shine and which make your heart warm.

Scripture tells us that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses.  Our loved ones are watching and they don’t want us to get stuck.

You can open your eyes now.

But that isn’t all that there is.  There’s another message that we need to remember, and for that I want to tell you the story of Elisabeth Elliot.  Some of you may have heard of her, but the odds are that many of you haven’t.  Back in 1956, Elisabeth Elliot’s husband, Jim, along with five other missionaries, made contact with the Huaorani people in the jungles of eastern Ecuador.  While they had spent months exchanging gifts and building trust between them, at one meeting along the river, tribesmen attacked the five missionaries and killed all five men. 

Elisabeth Elliot was faced with a choice.  She could, along with several of the other widows and their families, take her daughter and return home to the United States or, she could stay and do what she could.  Despite the urgings of her family and many of her friends back home, she chose to stay.  Two years later, Elisabeth and her daughter Valerie moved into the Huaorani village with the same men who had killed her husband and she eventually befriended them.  In 1969 she remarried, in 1974 she became an adjunct professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, about the same time, she also worked as a consultant on the project to write the New International Version of the bible, and from 1988 to 2001 she could be heard across the country on her syndicated radio show, “Gateway to Joy.” If that wasn’t enough, in 1957, Elisabeth Elliot wrote a book, “Through Gates of Splendor” about their missionary journey and her husband’s killing, and over the course of her life followed that up by writing more than twenty more books, as well as making book tours and public speaking engagements all over the world until her death in 2015 at the age of 88.

So why am I telling you all this?  Why should we care about the widow of a missionary who died in 1958?

Because Elisabeth Elliot knew something important.

Elisabeth Elliot knew that despite her loss, and despite the trauma that she had suffered, that her work wasn’t finished, that there was more that God intended for her to do with her life.  It wasn’t always easy.  When I heard her radio show, I remember her telling someone who was experiencing grief and loss that during some of the hardest times of her life, when it she didn’t know how she could go on, she remembered a piece of advice that had been given to her.  She remembered to “Do the next thing.”  Don’t stop.  Don’t get stuck.  Do something.  Do the next thing.  In fact, so important was this piece of advice, that Elisabeth Elliot often quoted a poem about it entitled, not surprisingly, “Do The Next Thing.”

 

Do The Next Thing

(a poem quoted by Elisabeth Elliot)

 

At an old English Parsonage down by the sea,

there came in the twilight a message to me.

Its quaint Saxon legend deeply engraven,

that, as it seems to me, teaching from heaven.

And all through the hours the quiet words ring,

like a low inspiration, “Do the next thing.”

Many a questioning, many a fear,

many a doubt hath its quieting here.

Moment by moment, let down from heaven,

time, opportunity, guidance are given.

Fear not tomorrow, child of the King,

trust that with Jesus, do the next thing.

 

Do it immediately, do it with prayer,

Do it reliantly, casting all care.

Do it with reverence, tracing his hand,

Who placed it before thee with earnest command.

Stayed on omnipotence, safe ‘neath His wing,

Leave all resulting, do the next thing.

 

Looking to Jesus, ever serener,

working or suffering be thy demeanor,

in His dear presence, the rest of His calm,

the light of His countenance, be thy psalm.

Do the next thing.

 

Sometimes, in the midst of our grief, all that we can manage is to… do the next thing, to survive.  But the thing that the life of Elisabeth Elliot should teach every one of us is that as long as we draw breath, our life isn’t over.  Our grief isn’t the end. We cannot get stuck and wallow in our grief. 

Do the next thing. 

And keep on doing the next thing, and the next thing, and the next…

God has plans for you, your family has need of you, your life still has purpose, there are still things for you to do.  Yes, we should honor the memories of the ones that we have lost, but we don’t honor them by getting stuck.  We also need to explore and to discover what’s next.  What does God, what does life, have in store for us?  Regardless of the past, regardless of our grief or our suffering, we hold in our hands the keys to our future and it is never too late to begin writing the next chapter. 

You are the hero of the story that you are writing every day by living your life.  The next chapter of your life has not yet been written.  Don’t you dare write a story about a hero who got stuck and stayed at home and never did anything interesting ever again.  Don’t write a story about a hero who got stuck.  Discover, explore, become who you were made to be tomorrow.  Imagine who you could be, imagine what the hero of your story would do, imagine what your legacy could be, imagine what you would like to be remembered for.  Get out there, travel, explore, write books, tell stories, paint pictures, dance, live life, invest yourself in others, and don’t forget… to love.

Merry Christmas.

 

 


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Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages, in print r electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org.  If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online).  These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.com/.All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.