Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson and the North Georgia Conference appointive cabinet share a video message to clergy and church leaders as we approach Christmas. Watch the video at https://vimeo.com/486960215 and read the transcript of the message below.
Greetings clergy and laity of the North Georgia Conference, I am Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson, and I’m here with the entire Appointive Cabinet today to make an appeal to you and to talk about the next couple of weeks and how we worship in a time of COVID.
First, I want to share with you scripture. This is from the third letter of John, verse two: “Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you, and that you may be in good health just as it is well with your soul.” Our goal is that bodies and souls will be healthful this Christmas season.
I don’t know about you, but COVID has touched me personally. My nephew, Kenneth, is 26 years old. He has no underlying health conditions yet he spent a week with high fevers and muscle aches and fatigue (he’s still fatigued), and went to the emergency room two nights in a row with shortness of breath.
He’s on the mend now, but he told me how terrifying that was. COVID is not a danger just for deaths or long times in the ICU. I don’t want anybody to be sick and to have this kind of terror. Or the terror of all who came in contact with him, wondering if they would get sick too. As we enter into the Christmas season, I have several people in my inner circle who have been exposed to COVID because folks at their Thanksgiving tables have tested positive. It’s a huge problem. And they are now wondering how bad a case they are going to have? And what are the next couple weeks going to look like? I don’t want any of you to live in that uncertainty. So we, your cabinet, have had frank discussion about how we approach worship, especially over Christmas.
We don’t want to issue edicts. I’ll be really upset with any of you who post on social media that it’s coming down from on high, and we’re forcing your hand, and we are policing this carefully. That is not who we are, nor how we want to be perceived. We are your brothers and sisters in Christ, we have great concern for you, clergy, and your parishioners. And we do not want the church to add to the heartache and the turmoil and the heartbreak of 270,000 families in this country right now.
So as we approach Christmas, I first want to say thank you. I thank you for how you have planned carefully, how you have carefully thought about this, how you have used our guidelines to keep every person who attends the United Methodist Church safe. (Read those guidelines here.) But we have new concerns about Christmas that I wanted to share with you.
First of all, having been a pastor, I’m always amazed at my congregations, how on Christmas Eve two-thirds of the congregation I didn’t know, because folks would travel to be with their families. There would be this huge fruit basket turnover of folks. A third of the congregation would travel all over the country, and two thirds would come to Florida to be with us. So I’m concerned because of the travel and because there’s hardly a place in our country now that is not rife with COVID.
And so my first appeal to you is to stay home. Please stay home. Don’t travel, don’t subject other parts of the country. Don’t bring back. That’s a big hazard. So I hope you will, just this year. The beauty is, the joy is, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Hopefully, we can all be vaccinated this year and gather in the fall and next Christmas and really appreciate it like we never have done before, but let’s not, in these last horrible days before the vaccine is distributed, let our guard down. It is absolutely dangerous. And so one of my concerns does travel for this holiday.
My other concern is I know the nostalgia and the deep appeal of Christmas Eve and how we so want to gather, but I would ask that you even be more careful with Christmas Eve, and if you can do it virtually and not gather, I would recommend that. I plan to sit with my daughter and Allen and watch a great online service. I might watch two or three! And then we will light candles and sing Silent Night together and look forward to next year when we gather again. I hope you will do that.
If your churches are gathering, though, please, please be extremely careful. Even outside, I think singing is a problem. Be careful because we have great love and concern. And this is about “we.” So I say, especially to the leaders of the churches and the clergy, don’t listen to the loudest voice. Don’t listen to the extremes. Don’t listen to the one person who disagrees with all of this and speaks with great authority. Listen to the guidelines and pay attention. I want to remind you that the governor has said that no more than 50 are to gather, but even that is a lot of people.
Around North Georgia, hospitals right now are working on their protocols for what they do if the intensive care beds are full. That gives me great pause and great concern, and it should give you great pause and great concern. If we don’t do this right, if we don’t avoid gathering and avoid crowds and avoid the spread of COVID, we could not only jeopardize the lives of many who get COVID, but we could also jeopardize the lives of those who would otherwise need those ICU beds. So this is a matter of grave public health importance.
I also say, continue to watch your areas. Most counties in North Georgia are red. Most counties in North Georgia have a widespread incidence of COVID, and it is a very dangerous time. If it gets even worse, and it probably will, as those who have been exposed over Thanksgiving have complications or need higher levels of medical care, please pay attention and watch and hear us, your Bishop and cabinet. Clergy and leaders, if you need to change your plans, even if you’ve carefully planned out Christmas Eve, we want to give you permission to reconsider that and to do something in which nobody will be threatened with COVID.
Let’s just honor that. I love how Jesus says anybody building a tower is going to weigh how many materials you need, any King going to war is going to figure out how many troops. All of you, God gave us reason. God gave us medical professionals, God gave us these guidelines, and God gave us brains to think about the best course of action.
Something I’ve heard a lot is “but the Baptist church down the street is meeting, but the Catholic church down the street is meeting …” That should not weigh in your determination. Every time I hear that, and I think about my mother’s saying, “Well, if somebody jumps off a cliff, Sue, are you going to follow them?” You need to have your own sense of what is safe and stick to it and be good with that.
Finally, we do not need you to meet as a show of your faith. I trust that you are faithful people. I don’t go run across eight lanes of the highway at rush hour to show I’m a faithful Christian. In fact, Jesus said he wasn’t real crazy about those public shows of piety. He said, go get in your closet and pray. And maybe this Christmas Eve, that might be the safest and best course of action.
I invite you, and I thank you in advance for your careful attention to the guidelines, for carefully thinking this out and listening to medical professionals, for having a healthy regard for the real danger that this virus represents, and a healthy sense of better days are on the horizon.
I love how Paul said, let’s throw down the anchors and wait for dawn. So let’s hunker down at home this Christmas Eve, throw out the anchors and wait for the dawn, because it’s coming, better days are coming and we will rejoice and gather like we never had before, and I guarantee we’ll appreciate it more than we’ve ever done. Perhaps the best way to incarnate Christ this Christmas is to have healthy regard for our brothers and sisters, our siblings in the faith, and to not expose them to disease.
Thank you again. It is an honor and privilege to be your Bishop. I give thanks for you at all times. I pray for you at all times. If you have individual concerns or just need to talk these out, please talk to your really gifted District Superintendents here or your conference staff. We are all here to help you through these difficult decisions and these hard times.
I pray that you will have a blessed Advent and a wonderful Christmas, although different, as we celebrate the birth of Christ. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. Amen and amen.