My spouse’s congregation’s Easter theme has been “Gratitude and Grief.” It is a theme that speaks not only to the gospel stories of the Easter experience for the 1st disciples but also to our time of COVID-19. While living on the happy side of Good Friday it is tempting to turn Easter into just one more party and forget the uncertainty of the disciples even after witnessing the risen Christ. Reading the stories of the walk to Emmaus, the appearances of Jesus to the disciples in locked rooms and by they sea, it is clear they were caught in the midst of gratitude and grief.
This unique Easter Season of 2020 has been also one of change, dislocation, and frankly grief. Grief for the hundreds of thousands who have died from this virus, for the millions out of work, celebrations not held, communities unable to gather. Grief over the cracks in our civil society that this crisis has only made more clear. We have identified this grief in NT-NL and in our work with Briarwood Leadership Center. Blog posts have been written, including developing the theme of “Societal Chaplaincy” by our director, Dr. Robert Smith. We hosted a grief coaching webinar attended by 125+ leaders from across every part of our church. We are engaging the reality that our roles are expanding and challenges, many of which we never considered even months ago, are now a daily part of our life. And while they bring also opportunity, we must admit the grief.
As I reflect on my birthday on what I hoped to be true in 2020, I also experience a significant amount of grief. I grieve for lives lost to COVID-19 in our NT-NL congregations and the many other life passages disrupted or cancelled. I grieve lost opportunities. 2020 was to be a big year for our work together as synod. Our assembly, to be held at Paul Quinn College, the oldest HBCU in Texas and a college of the AME church, with Bishop Vashti Murphy-McKenzie preaching, was to be a culmination and statement of our commitment to cross borders and barriers across our territory. We had three ordinations scheduled for June and July, all candidates from NT-NL to serve NT-NL. In 2019, Briarwood had its most successful year ever, both in number of retreats hosted, as well as in positive revenue vs. expenses, and the vision of the leadership center was coming into focus. All of these important parts of the goals I had set for our synod are postponed or, in the reality of Briarwood’s ministry, changed significantly.
I think it is important for leaders to be appropriately transparent and honest with those they serve. As bishop I am called to be the pastor to the people of the NT-NL synod. As such it is important that I am honest in sharing my grief with you all as I also give thanks for another year of life and ministry. Grief comes with gratitude. So much good has happened in the past year. In my family life we are healthy and well. Congregations have responded with maturity and patience to the crisis of COVID-19 and the guidance I and my partner bishops in TX/LA have shared with you. This shows the trust we have developed together and for that I am grateful.
In 2020 there will be good moments to come. We are developing themes around Christian Freedom and social responsibility through our leadership center at Briarwood that reflect well with current debates about Religious freedom. Our fall leadership conference’s theme on religious freedom is timely and important. Your NT-NL synod staff continues to work diligently to care for congregations and leaders. First call leaders now meet weekly with the Rev. Kris Totzke for conversation, and our Thursday check-in/prayer time has created a new community of mutual support. Our stewardship team and new and renewing tables led by DEM Irma Banales are focused and providing resources for you. In the midst of the challenges we learn new ways of being, new ways of gathering, that will enhance our life together as we move forward.
Gratitude and Grief. They go together with Easter. And they go together with COVID-19. For your faithfulness I am grateful. May God bless you this and every day, and may the remainder of 2020 continue to provide us opportunities to grow, serve, and live as disciples of Jesus.