A War with no End?

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, September 16, 2021

A War with no End?[i]

 In recent weeks the U.S. has withdrawn its troops from Afghanistan, marking the end of our nation’s longest war. It had gone on twenty years, and there was no end in sight. So, we withdrew without winning; by default, we lost the war. Regardless of whether they support the way in which we withdrew, most Americans were against perpetuating that endless war.

The war against Covid has seemed winnable from time to time. Some believe it will go away if we just ignore it, while others have thrown everything at it that they can muster. Regardless, it persists. Despite all our work at distancing, masking, and vaccinating, weekly totals of Covid cases nationally are more than three times higher than they were a year ago. More than ten times as many children have Covid today than at this time last year, and those number escalating.

Will our battle against Covid ever end? Will it remain with us indefinitely as a persisting dangerous enemy?

As a result of the unexpected recent surge in Covid transmissions, many congregations are returning to more stringent gathering protocols. For the same reason, today’s presbytery meeting will be very different from what we had anticipated and planned.

A year ago, with great regret, we pulled the plug on our annual September presbytery celebration at Crestfield Camp, due to the burgeoning Covid pandemic. In its place, presbytery “met” last September for the first time by Zoom. Just like our congregations, presbytery had to figure out a way to meet when the pandemic forced us to set aside our normal gathering pattern.

Getting together is inherent to Christianity. It is in the gathering of his followers – even just two or three! – that Jesus promises to be present. Congregations assemble for worship and mutual encouragement, and councils come together to discern the mind of Christ. For the church, gathering is indispensable. Which is why we had to find new ways to do so when the pandemic struck. Forsaking the gathering of the saints is just not an option. Even General Assembly adapted, as it met via Zoom in place of its regular in-person meeting – no small feat with more than seven hundred people involved!

Earlier this year presbytery’s Executive Committee determined that presbytery would gather in person once again at this September meeting. All signs were pointing to a significant downturn in, if not an outright end of, the pandemic’s ravages. We would be vaccinated, no longer susceptible to the worst of Covid’s terrors. For those still reluctant to gather, we would provide an option of signing in online. We called it a “hybrid” meeting – some would gather in person, and some would participate online. Those who gathered in person would be together for the first time in 20 months.

But it hasn’t worked out that way. The delta variant, mask resistance, and lower-than-expected vaccination rates have conspired to cause a dramatic rise in Covid infections over the past several weeks. This has led our Executive Committee to reverse its earlier decision to open this meeting to in-person attendance. And so, today’s meeting is, once again, Zoom-only. The decision about whether we will gather in person at our December 9 presbytery meeting will be made later this Fall.

The CDC currently counsels both vaccinated and unvaccinated people to avoid large indoor gatherings. Other health experts believe that such gatherings are safe, so long as all are masked.

This is not what we want to hear.

Most churches that have relaxed their distancing and masking guidelines are loath to reinstate them. We yearn to sing. We want to embrace or at least shake each other’s hands. We long to see each other face to face. Pastors don’t like preaching to worshipers whose reactions are masked.

Yet we are still in a war with no end in sight. Are we able to continue the fight, or has it become more than we can manage? If we withdraw from the battle on one front, it may well come to back to do us harm on another. It is a war we did not choose, yet whose consequences we cannot avoid.

If church leaders ever needed wisdom beyond our natural capacities, it is now. “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.” (James 1:5) God does not promise to give us relief from our struggles, even when we grow weary of them. But God will not abandon us in them either. Everything we need to make it through is at our disposal. That is the Bible’s promise. We can count on it.

Hanging in there with you,

Sheldon

 

[i] Today’s letter is an expanded version of the cover letter for today’s Presbytery Packet, which can be accessed here.

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