Like Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, during this pandemic we are in a wilderness being tempted by fear, worry and sorrow – but we do not walk alone. God is doing a work of transformation in us, and guiding our journey forward into the new church, the church that God needs us to be. (Time: 8:42.)
This is Bishop Hughes in the Diocese of Newark. And I want to talk with you about these past nine weeks, this journey that we have been on – in particular the way in which this journey is viewed by me as the spiritual leader of this diocese.
Very often in the beginning I talked about the wilderness – that we were in a place that was so strange and so different than anything that we had known, and that it felt very much like we had taken a walk into the wilderness. But not just that we'd taken a walk, because we didn't choose. The needs for safety of our people and of our neighbors and of the people that we loved drove us out of our churches into our homes, into a physical distancing that often felt like a lonely isolation. It was as if we were driven into a wilderness and those words resonated with us because it all began while we were in Lent, a time that we often talk of as being in wilderness, the way Jesus was in wilderness.
In Mark, the first chapter, verses 12 and 13, it talks about Jesus being driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit and there he was tempted by Satan and wild beasts. And in some ways it feels that this time that we've experienced in the wilderness, we too have been tempted by God's enemy and the wildest of beasts, by all manner of fear and worry, by true sorrow. We have had people near to us and dear to us sick, and some of them have died. And it has been heartbreaking to know of those deaths and to not be able to stand with their families, put our arms around them, hold them as they cried and let our tears mingle with theirs. We did all of that from a distance.
That same set of verses, at the very end of verse 13, also says that he was with the wild beasts and the angels tended to Jesus. And we've experienced that in this time. I know I certainly have. It has been a blessing to be the spiritual leader of this place in this time and to walk with people who are so faithful. Who have tried new things. Clergy who have walked outside of their comfort zone. Who have been tireless in their ways, tireless in their desire to meet the needs of their congregations right now. To see our laypeople embrace the ability that God has given them to pray for others, to take care of others, and to teach others. It's as if we became a diocese full of pastors. We still have priests, but we have priests who are shepherding pastors.
We also became evangelists. I think that the angels really tended to us on that one. We learned how to share our faith and interestingly we learned that we could do that in ways that were not overt. We could simply plug into our church's worship service on social media and other people would see what we are doing. We had a way to invite people into the spiritual life that is so important to us. And in the wee small hours, in the lonely times, in the darkest of times, we have known that we are deeply connected to each other and that we do not walk alone. That it is okay to cry. It is okay to be sad. And it is a good and healthy thing to ask for help.
All of these are things we have learned in this journey, this first part of the journey that was very much in wilderness. And now I believe that we are at a turning point where our journey goes forward. As I talk with more people in the diocese, laity and clergy, one of the things that seems strikingly clear is that God is doing a work of transformation in us. In us as individual believers, in us as congregations, in us as leaders of ministries, in us as a church and in us as a diocese. It's as if God said, "Since you're out of those buildings anyway, let me show you how to be Church. Let me show you how to be the people that Jesus has sent to bring my message of love into the world."
I wish I could say all of this has been easy. I wish I could say that every bit of it has been filled with grace and good times. But we've had to hold both things in the Diocese of Newark and in northern New Jersey, both delight and deep pain have come together over and over again in this journey. And as we journey forward, I suspect those things will continue along with us.
It may be weeks and months before we are able to worship and gather in any kind of way on a regular basis, face to face. I am grateful that we can gather on the phone. I am grateful that we can gather via teleconferencing. I'm grateful for all the communication that people are doing in newsletters. I'm grateful for the many ways that we stay connected by prayer – the messages that I get from others that they are praying for me, and the great honor that it is for me to pray for others. But in all of this, God guides our journey forward into the new church, the church that God needs us to be.
There's a chance that that church is going to be very different than the church that we have been in the past. And for some that may bring sorrow. But for most of us, I hope it brings hope – the hope of knowing that no matter where we are, we are still the people of faith. We gather the way that we can right now virtually. We gather for prayers, we gather to study scripture, we gather to support each other, and every time we gather Jesus is with us.
We find ways to reach out in our community, and we take seriously this love of our neighbor, recognizing that right now some of our neighbors are doing work that puts them in harm's way, and their very work keeps the rest of us safe, comfortable and with food in our houses. It is not enough simply to say thank you. We must also find a way to say their lives are important, and their lives need to be protected.
So there is much ministry for us to do. And it may mean that as we minister we experience times of sorrow, and times of hopefulness, and through all of it, God will be with us, and the angels will continue to minister to us.