July 27, 2020

A letter to the good people of the Diocese of Louisiana

“Have mercy on me, O God, for my enemies are hounding me;
All day long they assault and oppress me.

They hound me all the day long;
Truly there are many who fight against me, O Most High.

Whenever I am afraid
I will put my trust in you.

In God, whose word I praise,
In God I trust and will not be afraid,
For what can flesh do to me?

All day long they damage my cause;
Their only thought is to do me evil.”
Psalm 56:1-5

This Psalm was part of the reading for Monday’s morning prayer.  As I read the words out loud they washed over me like tiny pebbles in the rushing water.  It is not difficult to feel the movement of one stone, but together many can curve a river or smooth a jagged boulder.  The surge of overwhelming odds can so damage nature where the only right action is to bend or retreat into a place of refuge.  The psalmist has chosen to find a resting place in God’s presence where healing can take place and possible right action can be attained. 

The reason this Psalm spoke so powerfully has to do with the voices I’m hearing from clergy and our school administrators.  COVID19 has presented us with almost untenable decisions.  When we had to shutter our church buildings the thought of not having “in-house” worship was almost too much to bear.  Only once in my entire 39 years of ordained ministry have I closed the church, one Sunday due to an ice storm.  To shut down “in-house” worship is unthinkable, yet for the sake of our health we followed the guidance of the medical experts and we adapted.  One of the most significant outcomes is we learned that “church” is not a building.  “Church” is the body of God’s children. We miss in-person moments but “church” continues in new and creative ways.

Our schools met the same lot as our churches.  Our schools were forced to dispense with in-person teaching and adopt an on-line formation.  Was it what we wanted?  No, but it was what was asked of us for the health of students, faculty and staff. 

Since the beginning of the virus, the ebb and flow of COVID19 has been hard on all of us.  It seems we take one step forward, then two steps back.  We open and then are forced to close.  We are learning to be nimble.  It isn’t fun, but it is what we need to do for the health of ourselves and our neighbors.  This brings me to the issues at hand, the affect COVID19 is having on us as people of God.

I have spent the last few months listening to clergy and school administrators speak about how difficult the movement of the virus has been on them emotionally, spiritually and physically.  They are being asked to shift gears in mid-stream. They make plans to open only to be told to change those plans.  They hear from one person that he/she will leave the school or church if things aren’t opened up. The next phone call is from another person who says he/she will leave if the church or school is opened.  One teacher says he will leave if he has to teach in person, while another teacher says she will leave if she is not allowed to teach in person.  And so it goes.

In the Episcopal baptism covenant one of the questions asked of everyone is, “Will you respect the dignity of every human being?” The answer is, “I will with God’s help.” One could argue that this is the core of what it means to be an Episcopalian and the mission of our Episcopal schools.  One cannot say they love God if they don’t love and respect the dignity of their neighbor.  If we can’t live this question what are we desiring to live?  Some of the conversations I’ve had with individuals fall short of this way of being.  The anger of individuals towards clergy and school administrators has, quite frankly, been dreadful.  I realize the pressure and uncertainty everyone is under, but when we begin to vilify others because they are not doing what we see fit, we need to take a step back and reflect, am I being the person God desires me to be?

The Psalmist ends the psalm with these words:

I am bound by the vow I made to you, O God,
I will present to you thank-offerings;
For you have rescued my soul from death and my feet from stum
That I may walk before God in the light of the living.

My friends, we are in the midst of a difficult and fearful time. Our clergy and school administrators are doing the best they can.  Let us give thanks to God for their presence and the leadership they bring.  They have made a commitment to care for everyone under their charge.  Let us all be mindful of the vows we made to God and live them fully.

I am as always

Your servant in God,
The Rt. Rev. Morris K. Thompson, Jr.
Bishop of Louisiana

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