Going Back to “Normal” is Not So Easy

A few weeks ago a colleague mentioned to me that the pastors he has talked to have said that the transition back to in-person worship is harder than the transition last spring to closing down in-person worship.

I didn’t quite get it.  We weren’t opening to limited public worship until May 30 and that seemed a long way away a few weeks back.  But last week with May 30 getting closer, I understood a bit more about the challenges of return.  We’ve had lots of conversations about guidelines and processes for a safe return while the guidelines change, some clamor for quicker change, while others worry about their kids and other unvaccinated friends and family getting sick. No easy cookbook solution to meet everyone’s needs.  

These aren’t unfamiliar dynamics in any time of change. But what is it about this transition that I am finding so challenging?

In the last week, I’ve been watching myself return to old habits that tell me I’m stressed. I see how I have rushed to complete things and check them off my to-do list so I could get on to the next thing to check off, instead of pausing and waiting like I do when I’m working at my best. I’ve noticed myself rushing over checking in with the people I have committed to checking in with, running to “fix” problems that aren’t to be fixed but to be with.  

For sure, the deadlines and to-do lists with yet another transition are real but I don’t deal with them as easily this time as I do at my best. What’s up?  

Perhaps its because I was only here in Boothbay Harbor six weeks before March 13 when the pandemic closed down life as we knew it. Perhaps its because “going back” feels like moving to a brand new community and new way of being together that I’ve not really experienced before. For over the past 14 months I’ve stood on the chancel preaching across rows of empty pews to the crack at the top of the sanctuary door. This coming Sunday there will be people here. What’s that going to be like?

Last Wednesday, it was two weeks since my second COVID-19 vaccine. It’s taken a while to get used to talking to other vaccinated people without a mask on. For some, its like the first time I saw them without a mask!  So strange and wonderful, disconcerting and new, to see people’s faces again.  So strange to be learning about getting together with others without the familiar anxiety of the past fourteen months.

I’ve been joking that I’ve been out “partying” the last couple of weeks.  I had dinner with a couple last Thursday night, a small afternoon cocktail hour the next day and a family party on Sunday afternoon.  As I sat at the table with the other retired ministers and their spouses on last Friday afternoon I felt how long it had been since I’d socialized with a group of people I didn’t know. It felt like an old familiar thing I once knew how to do as I listened to the rhythm of the conversation ebb and flow. An hour into the gathering I texted the friend I was supposed to be talking with to reschedule our conversation. I’d forgotten how such gatherings in person evolve and besides, I was enjoying myself.  That too, such a strange feeling, thoroughly enjoying myself, not anxious or cautious being with others as i’ve been during the height of the pandemic.  

As my social calendar filled up I wondered, How did I ever make time for doing this? What do I need to give up now to make time for it?  I actually had to say no to an invitation because I’d already committed to another invitation.  I haven’t said no to an invitation in over a year.

A friend mentioned how much better her relationship with her husband has gotten during COVID. “I realized before I was running around a lot and when I got home I was tired, worn out.  He didn’t get the best of me.  With COVID and both of us working at home and none of those things to run around and do, we had better quality time to spend with each other.” 

Listening to her, I wondered how I’ll figure out a new life-giving balance in all the responsibilities and relationships in my life.  

I wrote a friend last night whose church just opened last Sunday to public worship, “Getting back is hard!”

“You will be fine,” she reminds me, “You have done it before.”

And maybe that’s it – I have done so much of what is before me before and this time, this return, I don’t want to do it like before.  

In the isolation of the past year and a half I’ve reached out more intentionally and regularly to some of my family and friends. I don’t want to lose those connections in my busyness of social engagements and “getting back to normal.” And though its not always been easy, I’ve been kinder and better to myself as well the past year.  With not as many engagements and activities, I’ve had time to do things like this – sit here at the kitchen counter and write, ruminate and wonder.  Time to listen to the birds sing as I am doing now. I don’t want to lose this gift of time and I fear losing it in the change of season.

Here in this summer resort community, life is particularly busy in the spring and summer.  I hear from folks about their calendars filling up, about long lists of chores. I don’t know if I want that. In fact, I know I don’t.  And what does that mean that I don’t want added responsibilities?  Am I stepping away from something I should be doing or am I in fact making room for something I do?  

Last year, many of these folks like me didn’t have long lists of chores and to-do lists.  I had time last year at this time and because I had time, became a better pastor at work and more present to family and friends.  

Maybe, that’s the invitation to help meet my anxiety.  Being present to all of it.  The anticipation of a summer here like I’ve not experienced before.  The grief of putting down some wonderful ways of doing things and making room for learning some new ways.  To step out of my comfort zone and into the newness of now.  That’s how it is for me.  How is it for you in this season of yet another change?  

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