By the Rev. Dr. Lorraine Ljunggren
July Newsletter (Download)
When I stop to think about it, December 1st of 2019 seems as if it was only yesterday. That day marked the beginning of our time together as priest and parish – as priest and community of God’s people here at St. Stephen’s in Oxford.
You may have heard the saying, “The older you get the faster time goes.” Of course, as a child or teenager I chuckled at such an observation. I thought, “Of course, time is time and it passes in its normal rhythms. It doesn’t go any faster – not really.” Though I had to confess summers seemed to fly by between school years!!
But, time itself? It remains measured by seconds and minutes, hours and days… Until! Until the ‘normal’ rhythms of our common life are interrupted by events seemingly beyond our control. We are living what everyone is call- ing ‘the new normal.’ Which, of course, isn’t ‘normal’ at all.
Yet, when I look back over the months we’ve been journeying together, it is worth noting that we have experienced the essence of the church’s year! We have worshipped in each of the Seasons of the Church Year: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and even part of the Season after Pentecost!! When my time as Interim Rector comes to a close on July 31, 2020, the only ‘big day’ we will miss sharing is All Saints’ Day on November 1st. Of course, it is exciting to anticipate observing All Saints’ with your new Rector – whoever she or he might be!
I’ve been contemplating the themes the Church Year presents. In Ad- vent we live with anticipation and waiting. Christmas brings with it new life in the form of Jesus who is born anew each year in our hearts, minds, and spirits. Epiphany arrives in a burst of light as we recall the expansion of God’s cove- nant to include those of us who are gentiles.
As daylight lengthens we find ourselves confronted with our mortality on Ash Wednesday which, in turn, invites us into the observance of a Holy Lent. Of course, Lent of 2020 proved to be incredibly more challenging than we ever expected! The arrival of a tiny, virulent virus interrupted our normal rhythms of wor- ship. In the blink of an eye we found ourselves physically separated from one another, from our sacred spaces, and especially from God’s Holy Table!
As I write we are still missing the Holy Eucharist – one of the most important sacramental actions we cele- brate! I cannot imagine my time with you coming to a close without celebrating the Eucharist once more.
For the vast majority of us this was the first time we lived the experience of Holy Week in virtual reality – online – through cyberspace. But experience it we did! We waved our palms, we remembered Jesus washing the feet of the disciples accompanied by the breaking of bread and sharing the cup. The terrible events of Good Friday rang through time and the silence of Holy Saturday enveloped us.
Then, Easter!! Easter still came – our Alleluia’s returned and we celebrated the Rising to New Life of Jesus the Christ! The Great Fifty Days of Easter were still filled with meaning. And the Holy Spirit was with each and every one on the Feast of Pentecost and beyond.
We are still the community of God’s people known as St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. Our essence – our identities remain. We are united one to another. No amount of physical distance can undo that!! It is not possible because God is still God and love is still alive and well. God’s love continues to invite us into relationship each and every day. On the days in which we may feel as if even God is far from us, the Spirit of the Risen Christ surrounds us. We can close our eyes, take a deep breath, and trust that is the truth.
Our ministries of service in the world have continued, though in more careful and measured ways than in the past. People are still being fed – literally and figuratively. Our young people and children are still grow- ing into the amazing persons God is creating them to be. New ministry has emerged – who could have imag- ined making face masks would prove to be an opportunity to save even one life and thereby save a world!
While sheltering in different places we have experienced the loss that death brought to members of our community and extended families. Loss is loss in every circumstance. Grief comes to us as proof of our love for one another and we still celebrate lives well lived. We cling to our faith as loved ones move from faith to knowledge that dying to this life brings.
I continue to give thanks that we spent three and a half months together before the coronavirus drew a line in the sand, threatening to take more from us than we are willing to give. I discovered – and I hope you did as well – that it doesn’t take long for a priest and a community of God’s people to love one another! I can speak for myself and witness to the reality that love is more powerful than the distance between our dwelling places.
My sojourn with you has been supported with faithfulness by our Vestry, Wardens, and our Staff members. My sincere thanks to them each for working as a team to help navigate the strange waters in which we find ourselves! I am grateful for their prayers and presence and commitment to serving the whole of our community.
Of course, I have to say when I arrived in Oxford I never, ever anticipated that I would become a ‘televangelist’ – I hope in the very best sense that is possible, of course!! I did not anticipate learning how to edit videos and post them to YouTube, of all things! I did discover that through the lens of a camera I can still imagine where you sit on Sundays and what it sounds like when you laugh. The peal of our bells calling us to worship still gives me chills. And, yes, seeing your faces on a computer screen in a ‘zoom coffee hour’ is the next best thing to being together in the same space!
When I imagine our last month as priest and community of God’s people, I find I am taking more deep breaths than usual. It will be sad to empty the Rectory of my remaining things. Putting my vestments in the car will feel strange. Praying my good-byes in our beautiful sanctuary will seem surreal, I’m sure. I will carry with me the feeling of facing you from the altar and offering to one and all “Holy Food for the Holy Journey of Faith.”
When I do head south from Oxford towards Raleigh at the end of July, I will do so giving thanks for our time together and looking forward to hearing how wonderful it is for you to welcome your next Rector! That is such an exciting prospect!
Thank you for calling me to serve as your Interim Rector. Thank you for giving of yourselves and your spaces a time and place in which to live my vocation as a priest in God’s church. I will always be grateful that together we endeavored to “be the love the world needs now.”
Blessings and love in Christ,