I bet you have the same four categories.
There have been movies I could not wait to see; and when I saw them, I was not disappointed. I can still remember when I was a teen going to see The Three Musketeers and sitting there before the movie saying, “This is going to be great.” And it was. It had a great story. It had great swashbuckling action; and it had great actors with Michael York, Oliver Reed and Raquel Welch. At least, IMDB says York and Reed were in it. I only remember Raquel. The same was true about the first Lord of the Rings movie. We could not wait to see it; and from scene one, we loved it. But the opposite experience has also been true. There have been plenty of movies that I wasn’t expecting to be any good whatsoever, that turned out to be spectacular. I went to see Finding Neverland under protest, but now I am so thankful that I did because it is one of my favorite movies of all time. Same with JoJo Rabbit. I thought it would be okay, but far from great; but I was way off. In my opinion, it is almost perfect film-making. And The Princess Bride has to be in this category. I went because Andre the Giant was in it, but it turned out to be a giant hit on every level (if you haven’t seen it, please do; but just disregard when Fezzik says, “Be careful. People in masks cannot be trusted.” That may have been true back then, but it is not true today!). Category three moves in the opposite direction. There have also been movies that I could not wait to see, only to realize that the very best thing about them was the popcorn. Think 1917; what an utter disappointment! Think Avatar; they were all blue, for goodness sake! Think La La Land and The Shape of Water and, well, hundreds more. Unfortunately, this is my most popular category. And that leads me to my last category. There are some movies I couldn’t wait to see; but because I had such high expectations for them (some may say, impossible expectations), they fell flat. You may disagree, but for me they were complete failures. After hearing everyone rave about Titanic, I couldn’t wait to see it. Halfway through, I realized I was rooting for the iceberg. Forrest Gump got rave reviews; and so, we went, hoping to be deeply moved. Here’s what I discovered: movies are not like boxes of chocolates. When you open up a box of chocolate, there is always going to be something good inside. Not so with movies. And after hearing for years about how great The Godfather series was, I finally watched it; and as a result, I refused to eat spaghetti for a month. Now, I am not sure any of these movies were as bad as I thought they were, even though I dislike them all. I think what happened was I had heard so much about them and was so looking forward to seeing them, that my high expectations torpedoed the movie from the first frame. As Alexander Pope said: “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”
Here’s what I fear. People are going to like pajama church a whole lot better than real church when we reopen. And they may be right. With wild expectations running out of control, with visions of rapture dancing in our heads, with the joy of being together once again, we will reopen and launch “RE revisited” and, within seconds, hit the iceberg of reality and sink into a huff of titanic disappointment. My prediction is that many of the people who come to our grand Reopening Sunday will walk away saying, “We’ve waited all this time for this?” You may think I am joking, but trust me, I am not. With high expectations for being back together at an all-time high, I feel it is my job to tell you that when we first reopen (and we still don’t know when that will be), whatever your expectation is, our reality will not match up. That’s right. You’re going to hate me; but in this blog, I want to lower your expectations considerably. Say it with me, “Ugh!”
Let me put this into a context I think will make sense. Last Monday, our older son, Dan and his wife, Dana, came over for a socially-distant Memorial Day dinner on the deck (they even brought their own food to be extra safe). After dinner, we played an enthusiastic game of Kubb (our Kubb court is 24 feet long, so we were never closer than 10 feet). And then they left. They didn’t even stay for dessert. Now, it was great to be with them; and it was a lot of fun. But at the same time, it was miserable. Everything we did was a reminder that we couldn’t really be together. I felt we were in an episode from Arrested Development: “No touching! No touching!” While we could talk at a distance, we couldn’t hug. While we could eat together, we had to sit at different tables. While they were here, they never came inside. And in the past when Dan came over, he almost always made time to play some music, but not this time. As a result, our time together just felt a little strained and awkward. To say it another way, it was both wonderful and awful.
If that makes sense to you, you will understand what church will look like when we reopen in Phase One. It will be great, and it will painful. First, the painful parts. Our first services, weather permitting, will all be outside. If we are not able to be outside, we will have to cancel. On the plus side, you won’t have to sit in a metal folding chair because we will be asking everyone to bring their own lawn chairs and sit far apart. We will all be wearing masks (I’ve always loved the Lone Ranger look). There will be no singing and no music team. We might have a keyboard or we might have recorded music; but mostly, we will do without. There will be no children’s classes or nursery (ugh!). And worst of all, not everyone will be there. But that is a good thing. We feel it is best to keep our attendance somewhere south of 35. And how do we plan to make that happen? I am going to strongly urge people who are elderly, people who have any preexisting conditions, people who have little kids and people who are a little nervous about restarting their public life in these days, to feel free to stay home. That’s right, this blog is your “Get Out of Church Free” card. And you should absolutely stay home if you have even a touch of a fever, are feeling “off” or are hallucinating (I don’t know what it would mean if you were hallucinating, but, dude, what’s up with that?).
Now, if you do stay home, you can still attend our virtual worship service because our main service will still be on YouTube just like it is now. Our time together at the Community Center will start at 11 am (giving you time to watch the YouTube service that morning) and will consist of two main parts. First, we hope (although this can change at any time) we will have a brief communion service (with prepackaged communion elements that have been untouched by human hands). Second, we will get to enjoy a time of socially-distant “Interact” (back to those Arrested Development prison guards, “No touching! No touching!”). And then, after a short, but sufficient time has passed, we will kick you out and send you home. Why? Because close proximity and time of exposure both increase risk. Our goal is to avoid anyone ever having the opportunity to say, “I came to River’s Edge and almost died.” It’s just bad for business.
Now, we are not doing these things frivolously or without thought. Just the opposite. We have listened to the advice of our denomination, the wisdom of national church leaders, and the counsel of respected experts and have come up with this plan that we think will both keep people safe and allow us to worship together physically. Our session has thought through many options and has concluded that job number one when it comes to reopening is not to rebuild our church, but to keep you safe. And therefore, all throughout this process, we are going to err on the side of an abundance of caution.
Can things change in a week or two? Absolutely. But my job is to keep your expectations low. And the harsh reality is what I have described above is almost certainly going to happen. I have read of two churches (in other denominations and in other states) that reopened with a full worship service one week and closed down again two weeks later because the virus had spread throughout their church. Being together is not worth that! We would rather you be upset at us for being too safety-conscious and yet have you stay healthy, than for you to be thrilled with our audacity and sick.
Here’s the good news. It will still be great to be together even if we can’t do everything we want. And don’t lose hope. There is coming a day when there will be no more masks. And in that day, hugs will be given freely, songs will be sung passionately, communion wine will be poured richly and the children will dance. That will be a great Sunday, and I can’t wait (but for all of our sakes, I will).
Antonio Banderas once said, “Expectation is the mother of all frustration.” I know everything I have said in this blog is disappointing; and I feel bad about being the bearer of such bad news (by the way, if you are looking for an example of a “fauxpology,” you just saw a great one!). But let me leave you with a great piece of film advice to make you feel better. In The Princess Bride, the masked Man in Black has climbed the Cliff of Insanity and has reached the top, only to find Inigo waiting for him with a sword in hand. As they engage in one of the great swordfights in recorded history, Inigo begins to realize that the Man in Black may actually be a better swordsman than he is, which is “inconceivable”! And so, Inigo asks the Man in Black the question we all want answered. He queries, “Who are you?” The Man in Black replies, “No one of consequence.” Inigo responds, “But I must know.” And the Man in Black says (and this is the point): “Get used to disappointment.”
That’s my piece of advice for you: Get used to disappointment. Reopening church will not be the best day ever, nor will it feel even close to “normal.” But it is a start; and hopefully, if we pace ourselves, we will finally get to the place where we can celebrate being together just like old times. And if we have to go through a time of severe disappointment to get there, then that’s all right with me. I’d rather be safe, than sorry. Of course, when we are ready to reopen, we will let you all know and give you all the details. In the meantime, have fun storming the castle!