In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins explains a phenomenon referred to as the Stockdale Paradox. Admiral Jim Stockdale was the highest-ranking United States military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner-of-war camp during the height of the Vietnam War. He was tortured over twenty times during his eight-year imprisonment. Stockdale lived out the war without any prisoner’s rights and without a set release date. He shouldered the burden of command, doing everything he could to create conditions that would increase the number of prisoners who would survive unbroken. At one point, he beat himself with a stool and cut himself with a razor, deliberately disfiguring himself, so that he could not be put on videotape as an example of a “well-treated prisoner.”
Stockdale survived, and he returned to his wife and children. He was often asked how he did it. “I never lost faith in the end of the story,” Stockdale said. “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.” He never lost hope.
He survived. The ones who didn’t survive, he explained, lost hope. “They were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”Some days I think I could die of a broken heart. When we originally stopped in-person services, I thought it would be for a few weeks. Maybe a month. We’d be back by Easter. Then Pentecost. Then October and November. Each time we pass a marker without returning to church in person, my heart breaks a little.
Then I finally remembered this story about Jim Stockdale. It brought a needed dose of reality to my hope. “I never lost faith in the end of the story,” Stockdale said. “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”
I’m not sure that this COVID experience will be the defining event of my life, but I’m pretty sure it will be the defining one of my pastoral career. This COVID experience is constantly challenging me to consider my faith. “Do I believe in God?” is always an easy question for me to answer. COVID makes me go deeper. Do I believe God is close, caring, and ultimately bringing Good out of this pandemic? Do I believe the Church is the people going out into the world to share compassion and seek justice, or do I believe the Church is the people gathered physically together for worship? Do I believe that the future of upRising rests totally in God’s hands and that God “who began a good work in us will complete that good work?” Is the work God gave us already complete, and will we now fade away as people feel less and less connected to each other? Does God care about any of these things or is God’s heart completely consumed by the thousands of God’s children dying from the Pandemic?
This week I was finally able to make a conscious turn away from “We’ll be back in church in person by (fill in the date) to “This online connection is what we have for now and for the foreseeable future; use it.” Not only “use it,” but “use it in a way that shows that you trust that God is with us, that God loves us, and that God’s love will prevail in the end.”
What this means, in part, is that I’m making a conscious turn towards embracing our online worship experience. We’ve been committed since the beginning to three things: one, worshipping God in spirit and truth; two, keeping you connected to our church; and three, keeping our worship participants safe. You’ve probably noticed that we’re making small changes here and there to make sure that worship is meaningful in its online format and not simply a regular in person worship service with a camera pointed at it. You’ve probably also noticed that we are doing more to keep our worship participants safe, like prerecording some of the music to keep the number of people in the sanctuary to a minimum.
Now I want us to concentrate more on the connections among our members. We’re going to start using more pictures and video of our people in the service so that you can see one another. We’re going to ask you to interact even more with each other during the live service by posting comments and questions when appropriate. We’re going to ask individuals and groups to participate in worship through video that we prepare during the week. You can help by sending me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you are willing to participate in some of these ways. And remember, you do not have to be on camera; you are welcome to send prayers or quotes or poems that you have written or found to me and I will find ways to include them in the service.
Thank you so much for the encouragement and prayers you continue to share. I pray constantly that we will be together soon, but in the meantime, I’m going to try to make the best of what’s available to us.
Always in Hope,