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August 2020

Remote Kindergarten: More Thoughts on Week Two

Field Club sign
Sebastian and I have gotten into a decent routine this week, and I've been able to get more work done while attending Kindergarten than I expected, but generally only stuff like answering e-mails, but nothing that requires too much creativity or focus.

Breaks are fun--light saber battles and tossing balls around.  

During bedtime this week we finished our first big boy book--The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  I had tried the book once before when he was younger, but it was too early.  He was really into listening to it this time as we've read it over a few weeks.  And it was a joy to watch his excitement responding to various plot points and particularly as we neared the end.  Which of course has a great old fashioned "The End."  Now he can't wait  to move on to Prince Caspian.  

Funny thing--I suggested maybe reading The Horse and His Boy next, but Sebastian said, " I think we should read them in the order that the author intended."  No argument here.

During non school times, he's been enjoying exploring his iPad some.  He's taken lots of pictures, really enjoys the drawing app, and yesterday, with new headphone provided by the district, was record himself talking.  "I don't want you to listen, Dadda.  It's really scary."

Last week he traded his toddler scooter for a razor that was in the church Thrift Shop.  He's taken to zooming back and forth to church with me on it and then riding around the church hallways.

I've been wondering this week what I most remember from Kindergarten:

  • The kids crying on the first day.
  • The kid who could snap his fingers, and I couldn't no matter how hard I tried.
  • Getting kissed by Kristy Holstein.
  • Having to sit in the corner a lot for talking too much.
  • Riding the bus.
  • Recess
  • PE class
  • Art class
  • the Science Fair

What do you remember from Kindergarten?

Remote Kindergarten: Week Two

So, last Friday, after I had already posted my thoughts for the day, we received an e-mail from Omaha Public Schools stating that parents had been listened to and that hours of online instruction for K-2 would be dramatically decreased.  Other changes included more breaks, a longer lunchtime, and that specials would be optional.  Some of these things our particular teacher had already been doing, but we had heard horror stories from other friends, including one couple whose son was online for seven hours the first day of Kindergarten!

For our class the new schedule went into effect on Tuesday.  The bulk of instruction is in the morning.  One downside has been that now we get one twenty minute break in the middle rather than a couple of smaller breaks, which I actually think is better.  The extra length to lunch isn't relevant for us, as his required time is over before lunch, but I am glad to not have to be rushing to get back on at 12:20, especially because we often moved from the house to my church office during the break.  Now we can have a more leisurely and relaxed lunch.

Specials have been moved to 3 p.m. and are now optional.  Of course it's not idea to label music and art as optional.  And 3 isn't the greatest time.  He doesn't have much focus at 3 even if it comes after a long break.  This week he hasn't tuned in much to the specials as I had scheduled most of my stuff in the afternoons and wasn't going to reschedule (the thing on Friday had already been rescheduled twice as OPS kept changing the school schedule).  

On Monday we tuned into "music" class but fifteen minutes in, when we still hadn't done any music, he wanted to log off, so we did.  For a kid who loves to sing, takes piano and dance, he was very much looking forward to and was quite disappointed by that experience.

I must give credit to the PE teacher for having done the best to adapt her subject to the online format.  And that seems ironic, as you can imagine she was the one teacher least likely to be using much tech in her normal classes.  He had a lot of fun with yesterday's class, but logged off after about forty minutes.  I'm not sure why they are sticking to a one hour format for these classes with the online delivery method.  Thirty minutes would be sufficient.

This week we've done more math and he's really excited about it.  He keeps wanting to work ahead though and the teacher has cautioned against that.  This made me reflect on my time, as a high school senior, serving on my school system's committee to research and implement outcome based education, which allowed students to move at their own pace with more individualized work.  Whatever became of that model?  

One thing that has been added to the schedule is one hour of one-on-one instruction a week, divided into two thirty minute slots.  I think this is a marvelous addition and look forward to that happening next week.

I've spent all week sitting beside him at the work table, and I think that's helped.  We do lots of the activities together, and I ask supplemental questions.  Sadly, I've got some of the songs stuck in my head already; one night, I awoke in the middle of the night, with one playing on repeat in my brain!

I continue to struggle with the teachers insisting that students sit quietly and listen with nothing in their hands.  I can get Sebastian to sit and listen and participate, but he needs to be drawing, painting, building something if there's not an activity going on at the time.  But he's been called out a few times, to my chagrin.  A friend who does online corporate training messaged me about how in that world they understand even adults need things to do to occupy their hands while engaging in online learning and how much more that is true for five year olds.  This friend sent me a lot of articles and research to read on the subject.  After doing all that reading, I finally messaged the teacher about it today.

I must say I struggle with the aspects of education that try to create conformity of behavior.  I struggled with that myself as an elementary student.  It's been nice to read a few of my friends saying the same about their educational experiences (including one in her nineties).  I don't want him to associate learning with someone's definition of proper behavior.  I understand the need for classroom management, but also know how vital play, movement, and creativity are to his brain at that age.  

One more comment.  Every day the class goes over its five rules.  The fifth rule is "Keep your dear teacher happy." I get what she means by that but I also find it really creepy. Almost Orwellian.  In particular the "dear" which associates too closely in my mind to "Dear Leader."

Sebastian did turn in his first homework (see above)!

The Dark Years?

The Dark Years?The Dark Years? by Jacob L Goodson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first met Jacob Goodson more than twenty years ago when he was a brand new freshman just starting his pursuit of philosophy. He was eager to learn everything. Now he's an established professor with a few published books.

In this volume Goodson discusses some predictions that the philosopher Richard Rorty made in the 1990's about America in the 21st century. Rorty predicted that from 2014-2045 America would through dark years--gun violence and racial unrest would proliferate, a populist strongman would be elected in 2016, we'd experience a Second Great Depression, etc. According to Rorty this resulted from the failures of the academy to address the concerns of the poor, generating resentment that led to the rise of populism.

Of course, as these predictions have come true, attention has returned to Rorty's thoughts. Goodson's book discusses how we should understand and evaluate Rorty's predictions.

The second aspect of Rorty's 21st century predictions is that we would come out of the dark years with a new and renewed politics based on love. Through the dark years Americans, through reading novels and scripture, would develop sympathy that generate shame about the inequities of our system resulting in social solidarity. More of Goodson's book focuses on these predictions, finally centering on what kind of hope we might have that this outcome will materialize.

A worthy contribution to public philosophy and our attempt to better understand the moment we are living through.

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Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, and Spy

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, SpyBonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I learned so much about Bonhoeffer, about whom I thought I knew a decent amount. But what was best about this book was that it was encouraging, in the strictest sense of the word, in that it gave me courage. Right now, in the midst of our current crises, it was very good to read about how other people of faith grappled with their crisis and faced it with courage and a zest for life.

"He saw it as an act of faith in God to step out in freedom and not to cringe from future possibilities."

And this direct quote from Bonhoeffer, "To renounce a full life and its real joys in order to avoid pain is neither Christian nor human."

And also this quote from him, "It is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith."

A reminder that we are inheritors of a proud, courageous legacy.

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Remote Kindergarten: My Day "in" Class

Thank God it's Friday.

The OPS iPads come with a built in hotspot.  Ours didn't work this morning.  We ended up using our own WiFi and were late getting out and had some connection issues throughout the day.

As the week has gone on, I've tried to create greater physical distance from Sebastian's school space and where I was and what I was doing.  I didn't want to hover either to distract him or dominate him.  I wanted him to have his own experience, and, gosh, I can't imagine teachers teaching with all those adults hovering around the edges.  As an educator myself, I'd find that incredibly weird.

But I have been participating in songs and some activities.  One of yesterday's songs was an earworm the rest of the day and night.  :(  There has particularly been nostalgia involved in saying the Pledge of Allegiance together in the mornings.  And I really like the mindfulness meditation they do each day (today's involved tree pose), though, frankly, I'm doing it every day and he isn't.

Today, after hanging around for a bit (in the easy chair drinking coffee and reading the paper), I was doing a few chores (like hand washing and hang up masks to dry) before my plan to settle down and read in my bedroom.  Yet, each time I checked on Sebastian, he was away from the computer.  The last time, he was hanging upside down from a living room chair.  He had already this morning said he didn't want to do school, that it was too boring, so quick rethinking was needed.

I decided that maybe I should try sitting right there beside him?  I got my laptop out and some of my books and plopped down on my great-grandparent's table right next to him.  He was really excited about it.  

And, it worked. He stayed much more engaged the rest of the day.  Of course, this was my day off from church, so I don't have that kind of freedom every day.  We'll see what might work next week.

But, it did mean, I was attending and observing everything closely.

Early in the morning, one of the girls in his class just asked the teacher, "We did letters yesterday. Why are we doing them again today?" And I thought, "Oh honey, you're going to have a long thirteen years of school."

So, one of my concerns for weeks has been that I think the entire structure (including such things as quarters and semesters) needs to be thrown out and the whole enterprise reimagined with this different delivery method.  That includes the normal structure for a school day and how many things are taught.  Which is probably way too big a demand, but, it's where we find ourselves.  My Associate Minister says about her church children's programming, "What works in person can't just be videoed or livestream."  Agreed.

One thing the teachers are relying on is using videos.  But it doesn't always work or work well to share a screen to a huge class of kids and play a video.  For example, during an alphabet song this morning, when the sound was on letter M the image was still on J.  At least for us.  That just sows confusion.  And later in the day the art teacher played a video about primary and secondary colors, which was completely unnecessary.  Plus, the first time through, she forgot to share her screen and then played it a second time.  We had already heard the audio and did get to see the images (again, with a delay).  Why not just talk about primary and secondary colors and hold them up?  Why use a crutch?

But this delay also works during the live instruction.  Often the teacher's video would freeze while her audio didn't.  One time this afternoon she was asking for kids to point out the difference between two pictures, and our screen didn't have any pictures on it, just the frozen face of the teacher.  

Overall, it was a good day.  There were more activities, more actual things to do rather than listen to, and he was more engaged.  Though, he's not going to sit there and stare at a screen without having something in his hands to occupy him, and I really wish they would surrender that expectation.  He even got called out a couple of times, and if that continues, this fierce advocate of his child will say something.

When it came time to color the sheet for the letter B, I had already spent time laying the groundwork for following the instructions.  In the moment I decided got get out the sheet and another piece of paper and asked him to follow the instructions for the sheet but color the other paper with all the colors like he wants.  That worked.  Also having me right there to help with it as well.  And as he finished a task and was waiting for the class to move on, I'd fill the space by us doing something else.

We also did some math (which he really liked ), some activities with play-dough (which were a lot of fun), and a fun game where she sent them searching in their house for objects of various colors.

Art project

Sadly, the great disappointment of the day was art class.  That was the post-lunch specialty, and we were all excited for it.  Of course there were initially some tech issues.  Then, because this was the first time with this teacher, she wanted to go around and have everyone introduce themselves.  I get it.  But we've been doing that all week, it takes up too much time, involved too much technology troubleshooting, and bores the socks off of my kid.  So I quickly grabbed our own paper and paints and we started painting while respectfully listening and watching.  But thirty minutes into his first Kindergarten art class, they hadn't done any art.  They'd spent most of that time on the intro, then the completely unnecessary video (twice), and now he was basically done with that segment, though it still had twenty more minutes to go.  That time was spent trying to teach them how to open one of their apps for drawing.  So the session was mostly about how to use your iPad and almost nothing about creativity (teaching kids how to open and use other apps while the tablet is necessary for the live instruction is puzzling and weird in its own right).  He did enjoy the app once they were finally actually using it.   But the whole thing seemed damned absurd and mostly a waste of time to me.

One of the final segments was the guidance counselor and she seemed fun, but as with many of these things, the time slot is too long for the attention span for remote learning.  Not sure when that is going to be figured out, because we parents knew that in the spring.  Halfway through what was otherwise a good and engaging lesson, he was standing up, looking out the window at a flock of birds in our front yard, so we walked away from the table and went to watch the birds and grabbed our Birds of Nebraska book to identify and learn about them.

Remote Kindergarten: Day Fifty-Seven . . .

Fresh flowers for school
. . . It's only day three?

So, I don't know that I'll blog every day this entire experience, but it is a strange, weird, unique time in human experience, so if I've got stories to tell and any time or energy to tell them, I'll keep sharing.  Today I've been relatively unproductive on what I really needed to accomplish (sermon writing), so why not.

What was good today?  Morning routine with a nice walk worked.  I decided to cut some fresh flowers for his work area.  He can handle more of the technology, so I moved farther away (all the way upstairs after a leisurely read of the paper and drinking of coffee).  There were more activities to engage him.  The teacher had learned a few things to help the tech (in the morning).  And this time when they sang they all unmuted, which was more engaging and fun.

But the morning session had fewer breaks.  At one hour he was begging me for a break,but right then they were actually doing something, so I sent him back.  

Later he said the dreaded, "I'm bored."  Some activity he had finished quickly and didn't want to sit while others were finishing it.  He kept coming upstairs the rest of the morning.

It's SO odd getting to see this side of your kid when usually you leave it to the professionals.  

The most interesting experience of the morning came during an activity when they were working on the letter A.  They had a sheet to color.  All the spaces with a capital A were to be colored red and those with a lowercase a were supposed to be green.  Sebastian brought a vivid rainbow colored page to me.  Me: "Your teacher knows you can color a picture, she wants to see if you can follow directions." S: "I can't JUST color with red and green. I HAVE to use all the colors."

There are sheets for every other letter in the folder.

So, what do you do here?  I'm sure an experienced Kindergarten teacher knows how to thread this needle been achieving pedagogical goals of teaching letters and following directions without snuffing out individuality, creativity, artistic expression.  

When we logged onto the afternoon session, there was some technical issue--everyone's mics were working and the little boxes where there where everyone's face should have been, but no one could see anyone else, including the teacher.  After a few minutes of them trying to troubleshoot this problem, I just logged him off.  

He ended up watching Super Why this afternoon, so that seems educational enough?

I poured a glass of wine and took a nap.  When is summer break?

And thank you to the clergy colleague who said, "Covid parenting sounds so hard.  I think if you got up, got dressed, and brushed your teeth, that's an accomplishment."

Remote Kindergarten: Day Two

Hey, that was better already.

Plus, Sebastian's really enjoying it.

First tweak to the day we did on our end--we got around early and fast enough this morning to go for a short morning walk before virtual class.  It was a lovely 66 degrees outside.  Will try to make that a routine as much as we can, though will also try not to sweat it when getting ready, eating breakfast, etc. uses up all the time.

Already today required less parental involvement as he's already better with the tech and it seemed that many classmates were too.  But he was still running in to ask and tell me things all the time.  He had more difficulty just sitting there particularly when they were only listening and not actually doing anything.  They don't want the kids distracted with things, but I think Sebastian sits quietly, listens, and even engages when he keeps his hands busy. 

He's really itching to do things, and it's still early with them going over some basics.  I think he's used to all the activity of his preschool where he's already learned a lot of things.  When they were actively doing something he was engaged.

Also, early in the day I, while I was working in the kitchen, I overheard him ask the teacher if they could have more songs today.   She said she had already planned that.  He had mentioned it to me last night, and I had told him that he should simply ask.  So proud that he did.

Another humorous moment.  Yesterday they did jumping jacks.  He's been in dance class, so he said, "That's echappe."  Today when they did them again he asked, "Why are they using the wrong word?"

Some good news--neither the kid who constantly raised his hand yesterday nor the kid who constantly was unmuted during conversation with an adult did that today!  We heard from a lot more kids, which was fun.

The one extended activity of the morning was the teacher having them draw a picture of themselves following some directions about colors to use and how to draw various body parts.  Sebastian didn't seem to have much patience for that.  He did draw a picture of himself, but on his own terms and not following directions.  It's odd as a parent to be so aware of what's going on in the classroom and then to puzzle over the approach.  He's always been used to art time being an expression of creativity and not following rules. He made his don't want to face when I tried to encourage him to do it the teacher's way.

They had a MUCH longer lunch and recess break, which was great.  It was also enough time for us to move down to my office, which has been our current plan--at home in the morning when they were doing their primary instructional work and at my office in the afternoon when they have special classes and close out the day with story time and songs.

Today he occupied his break times with a lot of ball playing, swinging, and riding his scooter.  A good balance of activity and screen time.

The special class today was PE and that actually worked quite well remotely.  Kudos to the PE teacher!

Remote Kindergarten: Day One

Pour me a beer.

Overall, it went well, and Sebastian was excited and seemed to have enjoyed himself.  I like his teacher, and she did a marvelous job of understanding the limits of what the kids could do today and how to structure breaks.

How weird to have parents and other adults hovering around the margins, aware of everything going on.  I really feel for the teachers.

The day began with having to instruct kids on how to use the technology.  Something that wasn't mastered today.  For some reason, particularly in the afternoon session taught by the computer teacher, she wasn't able (or just wasn't) to mute individual students.  I lost track of how often I heard, "A--- your mic is on" as we all listened to him and an adult converse with one another.

The most exciting part of the morning for Sebastian was going over all the books and supplies in the bag sent home from school.  He was so fixated on the math book that he didn't necessarily get what came after that.

We also learned which kid raises his hand with something to say to everything (fortunately, it wasn't my kid).  

One struggle was how to introduce so many kids.  It is going to be difficult to do remote class with a full-sized classroom.  They should really think of how to break them up into smaller groups.  Because going around and having each kid share something took an exorbitant amount of time, especially when almost every single time that also involved reminding them how to use the technology (which was clearly also part of the point).  But it was easy for my kid to zone out listening to all of this from kids he's never met.  I thought of how bored he could get with Preschool Zoom share time, and that was with kids he'd known for years.

Lunch seemed too short and rushed.  It was supposed to be lunch and recess.  We headed outside to play, then saw a beautiful butterfly and spent minutes watching it, then we came in to prepare lunch together, and almost didn't have time to eat it.

The afternoon session with the computer teacher was not as successful.  For one, it began with almost fifteen minutes of her having an IT issue that she was troubleshooting live with all these five-year-olds sitting there.  Nor did it help that she used a powerpoint (not very effective in this setting).  And then she followed it up with having each kid share something.  Which they had already done that morning.  Sebastian completely checked out at that point.  So, this special class really needs to be much shorter in length in this format.  One of the struggles with all of this how much almost everything needs to be reconceived from the ground up instead of trying to simply taking what one normally does and moving it online (this is really, really hard).

The afternoon share time, in particular, was troubled by the kid who kept unmuting his microphone but also multiple distractions.  When it was a kid's turn to share and they unmuted their mic you heard all sorts of things (and I was in another room, not even the person actively engaged in the class).  We heard screaming babies, loud television being watched apparently by someone else in the house, dogs barking, conversations, and even some sibling's teacher as that sibling was sitting nearby also on their remote class.  All that distraction drove me batty, and I'm not a five-year-old trying to learn.


It was also interesting getting some sense of the variety of accommodations parents are making for this to work.  Some kids had a quiet work space and an adult reasonably nearby to help.  Others didn't.  Others were clearly sharing space with siblings.  Some were in daycare situations.  One distraught daycare worker interrupted the afternoon session thoroughly confused (we all need lots of prayer and alcohol).  Fortunately no parent inserted themself in what was going on; I had worried about that.

I think the parents/guardians might need to find a way to connect and brainstorm our ways to support what's going on.  I know that we preschool parents really pulled together in the spring and that helped a lot.

I imagine even after one day, teachers are rethinking a handful of things and adapting what they had already rushed to plan.

So we can prepare for lots of distractions, boredom, lots of breaks.  But Sebastian is also really excited to learn and is very excited by having his own tablet.  He seemed to have a good day.

Pandemic Philosophy

Cross posted from my church column.

Back in March the Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben criticized the approach to the virus then taking hold.  He wrote,

The first thing that the wave of panic that has paralyzed the country obviously shows is that our society no longer believes in anything but bare life. It is obvious that Italians are disposed to sacrifice practically everything — the normal conditions of life, social relationships, work, even friendships, affections, and religious and political convictions — to the danger of getting sick. Bare life — and the danger of losing it — is not something that unites people, but blinds and separates them.

His was one of the first philosophical writings on the pandemic, but since then philosophers have been very busy commenting on the metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical implications of this crisis.  Some have also been involved practically—for example a group of philosophical ethicists in Sweden helped to devise that nation’s triage criteria for ventilators. 

Let me draw attention to three of the ethical writings I’ve found provocative and worthy of consideration as we all do our best to think well and wisely during this crisis.

First is an article from May by Dalia Nassar, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Sydney, that developed Agamben’s ideas and responded to some of his many critics.  Nassar points out that

the COVID-19 shutdown infringes on every aspect of our selves: not only our biological lives, but also our psychological or emotional lives, our social and political lives, our intellectual lives, and so on. That the shutdown affects every aspect of our lives should mean that every aspect of our lives should be taken into consideration when decisions about restrictions or easing restrictions are being made. It means, in other words, that ethicists, psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, economists, philosophers and theologians should be part of the decision-making process concerning the right response to the crisis.

I agree with Nassar that trying to reduce the human person to biological health is wrong and that the full richness of the human person and human life must be weighed when we are making individual and communal decisions during this crisis.  She goes on to encourage democratic processes of decision-making:

The ideal response to a crisis must be capacious, context sensitive and democratic. It must take account of the complexity and many-sidedness of life and of the concrete lives of all living beings. It must consider differences across regions and cultures. Only in this way can we develop an adequate response to the . . . crisis: one that aims not to neglect, leave out, or put in harm’s way any of the beings that share this planet.

In June I read “Surging Solidarity: Reorienting Ethics for Pandemics” by Jordan Pascoe & Mitch Stripling, in which they argued that our ethical frameworks must be revised in response to the pandemic.  They offered their alternative:

We develop a pandemic ethics framework rooted in uBuntu and care ethics that makes visible the underlying multidimensional structural inequities of the pandemic, attending to the problems of resource scarcity and inequities in mortality while insisting on a response that surges existing and emergent forms of solidarity.

I thought their paper provided the most robust, interesting ethical analysis I’ve read.  They emphasized relational approaches rooted in the South African concept of Ubuntu and feminist care ethics.  I liked this claim, “Our framework understands disasters as producing networks of interlinked people who need care and are giving it; the ethics we propose will help to surge and sustain that entire network, not force us to break it apart and choose between the pieces.” 

They too were advocating a more holistic approach to the human person, not settling for reductionist accounts.  And by doing so were able to explain in one theory the importance of public health measures while also criticizing how they violate core aspects of our humanity:

The tragedy of our dangerously overwhelmed health care system is not only that there are not enough ventilators to go around. It is also that people must suffer alone, must die alone, must give birth alone; it is that our system is so broken that even a basic right to human company must be surrendered (Goldstein and Weiser 2020). Many of us fear not just getting sick, not just dying, but dying alone. Many who are grieving are grieving because they could not be present for a person essential to them, for birth or for death or for suffering. We are grieving not just the inevitable moral failures that will come from lack of resources, but from the lack of humanness, of being human with and through one another. These, too, are moral failures.

Yes.  That people were not able to be with their sick and dying loved ones was one of the most cruel and inhumane aspects of this year.  Which should compel us to imagine and develop different approaches in the future so that such inhumane burdens can be prevented.

A final essay from July with the very academic title “Virus interruptus: An Arendtian exploration of political world‐building in pandemic times” by Rita A. Gardner and Katy Fulfer develops from the philosophy of the ever-more-essential Hannah Arendt.  In their abstract they describe their project:

We explore the ways in which we can engage in political world‐building during pandemic times through the work of Hannah Arendt. Following Arendt’s notion of the world as the space for human togetherness, we ask: how can we respond to COVID‐19’s interruptions to the familiarity of daily life and our relationship to public space? By extending relational accounts of public health and organizational ethics, we critique a narrow view of solidarity that focuses on individual compliance with public health directives. Instead, we argue that solidarity involves addressing structural inequities, both within public health and our wider community. Finally, we suggest possibilities for political world‐building by considering how new forms of human togetherness might emerge as we forge a collective ‘new normal’.

Their discussion focuses on togetherness as essential for responding to a crisis and yet the paradox of our traditional modes of togetherness being impossible.  They are critical of judging those who are non-compliant with public health measures, arguing that individual compliance is not the true crisis of solidarity revealed this year, but rather the larger systemic inequities.  Our frustration and anger should be directed at those concerns.  One reason they resist too much judgment of individual behavior is that the only way out of this crisis is to develop greater trust in one another:

Indeed, it seems as if many societies are at a serious juncture where we have the potential for making new choices about how we want to live together. The COVID‐19 crisis has also shown us that we too have a choice in that we can live our lives in fear and isolation, or we can start to trust one another again as we move back to our public spaces. Establishing trust will be important in helping people learn to adapt to the new normal in organizational spaces and other public places.

They conclude that the virus creates an opportunity to rethink human social and political relationships and to address the inequities and lack of trust we’ve seen: “An Arendtian politics is concerned with how we share the world in such a way that it becomes a place of belonging, not just for a few, but for humanity.”

These essays all share a robust vision of the human person which leads to an emphasis on relationships of solidarity, care, and trust and the opportunity to create new and better institutions and systems. 

This crisis does compel us into deep, visionary, and careful thinking as we use our best judgment to make wise and good decisions for ourselves, our families, our institutions, and our society.  We don’t want “bare life;” we want to belong to a flourishing humanity.



Psalm 84

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

16 August 2020


            So, here we are.  A few of us, at least.  For those of us who’ve been the faithful remnant here each week for the last five months, it is good to look out and see other faces, even if they are masked and distant.

            Today is a festive day.  Even if our festivity is muted, but more especially because it is only a foretaste of the truly big party that awaits—the longed for day when we can all gather together again with the hugs and handshakes and coffee hour.  That day is not today, but we continue to pray and hope and do our best to follow the health guidelines so that we might hasten the coming of that day.

            For today we are diverting from the Book of Genesis and chose Psalm 84 as our text.  This is one of the Zion Psalms, used by God’s people as part of a pilgrimage to the holy site in Jerusalem where they join together in worship.  Walter Brueggemann writes, “This psalm articulates anticipation of being in that place and envisions arriving there.” 

            As we continue our pilgrimage through this calamitous time, we turn to these ancient words to help us explore our longing, and also to recognize the importance of this day, when we begin to gather in new ways as a God’s people at worship.

            Walter Brueggemann points out that the psalm begins with “an exclamation of the beauty of the place of [God’s] presence.”  The pilgrims have seen the city or the temple from afar and respond with joy.

            Why our attractions to specific buildings?  For one thing, they become central to key parts of our stories—where we and our children are baptized and married, where our family and friend’s lives were celebrated and mourned, where we mark the significant turning points of the years. 

            But, of course, God does not need buildings to carry on the work of the church.  They aren’t essential in that way.  Yet, through the centuries we’ve realized the importance buildings can play for carrying on that ministry over time.  N. T. Wright describes them as “bridgeheads into the world.”  And adds that we should see our buildings of public worship as “advance signs of the time when God’s glory will fill all creation.”  This is what they are designed to do, the role they play in the wider society.  And he describes these last few months as an “enforced exile” as our buildings have been unable to fully serve their purpose, to the glory of God.

            If our buildings are signs of God’s intention for the world, that explains why we want them to be inspiring, comforting, and beautiful.  And why being absent from them, and the worship that takes places in them, is felt as such a significant loss.  I, for one, have felt so unmoored these months.  Like many of you I have attended worship almost every week my entire life, and only when it was absent did I realize how vital it is for my well-being, my identity, my morality, my very sense of self.

            Which grasps the sense of the next section of the psalm, that begins with a beatitude-“Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise.”  The psalmist reminds us that God’s people are strengthened and comforted through troubled times by God’s presence with them.  Brueggeman writes, “Those who anticipate a pilgrimage to worship and those who are in worship . . . know joy in life.”  He adds, “The journey may be long and difficult, but the anticipation of encountering the presence of God in Zion brings hope and expectation.”

            William Bellinger points out that it “is the encounter with the divine presence that makes the event and the place so significant.”  Fortunately, we worship a God who is not confined by a specific place.  Our worship is not confined to this building.  We have shown these last few months the power of our spiritual connection, drawing people together across vast distances to worship God.  And as we move into this new season of the church’s worship, we will never only gather here in person—we will always gather as a hybrid people, some physically present and some participating digitally.  And in this way we will be more faithful as God’s people, better able to minister to those who are stick, staying home, traveling, or living away from us.  For it is God’s presence which sanctifies the moment and the place, and God is present with us in all times and all places.

            Verses 8 and 9 of the Psalm include a petition for God to support the leaders of the people.  We have been reminded throughout these months of the centrality of prayer to sustain us.  Let us keep praying.  Let us pray for our leaders—political, medical, academic, scientific, moral, religious, etc.—that they be given wisdom, courage, and discernment.  Let us continue to lament, being present with the world and sharing in its pain during this season of illness, death, and grief.  Let us continue to pray for justice, as the pandemic reveals the long-standing inequities of our society.  And let us continue to pray for the end of the virus, imploring God to deliver us, to bring salvation to the world.

            The psalm concludes with another moment of anticipation of being in the divine presence and the grand blessings that bestows.  What are those blessings?  Walter Brueggemann describes them as “whole, healthy, complete life in all its dimensions.”  Sounds like something we all desire right now, doesn’t it?  And worship is one of the vital ways we receive those blessings.  Brueggemann writes, “Encounter with the divine presence in worship can make possible an integration of the various dimensions of life and its hopes.”

            Four years ago for my sabbatical I did a lot of reading and exploration on worship, so I turned back to some of those writers this week as I was pondering the importance of this day and why worship is vital to us humans.  James K. A. Smith writes that beauty is the Gospel’s power, as Christian worship presents “a winsome invitation to share in this envisioned good life.”  Worship does this by presenting a vision of the good life, of what it is “to flourish and live well.”  We do that through words, songs, visuals, etc. 

            Part of the struggle these last months has been how to do that faithfully through digital media, and I hope you believe we’ve done our best, because we really have tried.  It is a struggle, because, as Smith writes, “One of the first things that should strike us about Christian worship is how earthy, material, and mundane it is.  To engage in worship requires a body—with lungs to sing, knees to kneel, legs to stand, arms to raise, eyes to weep, noses to smell, tongues to taste, ears to hear, and hands to hold and raise.”  So we’ve encouraged you to light candles, draw pictures and tape them in your windows, prepare communion to share together, etc. 

            This is one of the many reasons why regathering is so vitally important to our faith.  As Smith adds, “Historic Christian worship is fundamentally formative because it educates our hearts through our bodies.” 

            Worship, then, engages us in a holistic view of life, integrating our various dimensions.  We believe that Christian worship is vital to health, wholeness, and well-being.  These are the blessings of God we receive together in this time of praise and thanksgiving. 

            So, with praise to the living God on this festive day that is itself only a foretaste of the yet more festive day that we anticipate together, we sing with the ancient psalmist, “My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord.”