In common with many religious, Reverend Alison Gallagher, Donegal Methodist Minister said she had fielded the question, 'How do you make sense of what is going on?' many times since the outbreak of coronavirus.
Speaking to Donegal Live for the second 'Faith Feature' from her home in Moville, Reverend Gallagher said: “I don't have an answer to why this is happening.
“My way of making senseof it is to trust God and to hope that it will lead to positive changes in the Church and the wider world by helping us to see that much of what we thought was important isn't really, and by causing us to refocus on what really matters, so we take greater care of one another and our environment.”
With her congregation largely in lockdown, Alison has embraced WhatsApp as a way of connecting with her flock.
She said: “I am currently using a WhatsApp group for each congregation, to send pastoral messages, scriptural and other encouragements, prayers and prayer requests, and for information. We also have a Facebook Page.
“I am carrying out pastoral visits through Whats App video calls or traditional telephone conversations. Up to now my use of digital / social media has been basic. However, this is an opportunity to upskill, so I am on a learning curve.
“Last Sunday, through the WhatsApp groups, I sent out written material with a simple act of worship for families to use together at home, in place of gathering at a church service. This Sunday, I am planning to record a short message to post on WhatsApp. I hope to have a go at livestreaming or skype groups.
“Some of my colleagues are much more digitally skilled already, so I've been directing congregations to use livestreams from other ministers, and those who don't use technology are being encouraged to tune into services broadcast on radio or TV,” said Reverend Gallagher.
According to Alison Gallagher, her congregations have embraced digital worship.
She revealed: “Many people are engaging with the Whats App groups to stay connected and encourage one another. Some are sharing Scripture verses and other encouragements they come across. One lady is posting a daily thought for the day, a Scripture verse with a short prayer, which many are finding helpful. Members of the groups are also sharing postings with people outside our groups too. They could be in other parts of Ireland or the world. In fact, I have shared some postings from other members of the groups with people in other parts of Ireland.
“This new form of outreach is definitely different. In some ways it's encouraging, as I'm seeing people making a real effort to stay connected and encourage one another.
“As a pastoral leader, it's lovely to see people connecting spiritually, outside of religious gatherings and taking initiative themselves to do that. I'm noticing much more spiritual connection.
“Many verses in the New Testement urge us to encourage one another and build one another up, and this is happening. Often God can bring good out of difficult situations. Ironically, thinking beyond our own church members, I think he is giving a greater sense of community, one that has been lost in many parts of the world, especially in towns and cities, as people are looking for ways to help and encourage one another. There's a sense of 'We're in this together and we need to work together,' said Reverend Gallagher.
Of 'afterwards', Reverend Gallagher reflected that “sometimes forced change can bring about change for the better.”
She added: “The scripture verse that came to my mind when this social distancing / isolating began is, 'Be still and know that I am God (Psalm 46.10).
“Without all the usual meetings and rushing from one activity to another, we have more time to actually be still with God, to listen to him and reflect.
“This is an opportunity for pastoral leaders to reevaluate what it means to be church. And for our church members to reflect on what it means to be church and which aspects of church life are important. Every cloud has a silver lining - normally our lives are so filled with busyness but now we can all think about what’s really important; think about what should be stripped away permanently and what needs to be preserved.
“Many years ago I was part of a team helping a church in Togo (West Africa). Living in very basic conditions with the normal comforts of life that we enjoy here stripped away, it hit me in a new way what Jesus meant when he said the greatest commandments are to 'love God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength' and to 'love your neighbour as yourself.' Because when everything is stripped away, all that really matters is God and people, loving God and loving people selflessly. This is an opportunity to refocus on our relationship with God and our relationships with those around us,” said Alison Gallagher.
Thankful for the reach of digital technology during the coronavirus pandemic, Reverend Gallagher nevertheless concluded it could “never be a substitute long-term for being with someone in person.”
She explained: “Technology can be a force for good, when used well. However, when this is all we have, I think it reminds us of the value of being together. Technology is helpful and certainly playing an important part in staying connected at this time, but it can never be a substitute long-term for being with someone in person, sitting with them, holding them, looking into their eyes and really listening to them.
“My hope is that people will appreciate each other more when this is over, and make more effort than we did before to share quality time with each other.
“One of the difficulties of a situation like this is it forces us to face the frailty of our humanity, to recognise we are not in control of everything. The good news is whilst we may not be able to control what is happening, we are never alone in our struggles. Jesus’ last words were 'surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.'
“God is always ready to help carry our burdens whatever they are: fear, worry, sorrow, loneliness. This is one of those times to respond to God’s invitation: 'Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls,” said Reverend Gallagher.
In the day's ahead when lives are not full of “busyness”, Reverend Gallagher suggested people use the time for “rest, reflection and connection.”
She said: “Look for the positive and find the opportunities in this enforced period of ceasing our normal activities. Find ways to be kind to one another. Reconnect with those people that you always mean to contact but never get around to doing.
“I fing comfort in the current situation because, I believe God can bring good out of every situation.
“I’ve experienced that through the past challenges and sufferings in my own life. God hasn’t changed and he hasn’t gone away. But I know for some people this will be a time of sadness. My prayers are with all who lose a loved one because of Covid-19 or who suffer in other ways.
“I take comfort for the Church, by that I mean the worldwide Body of Christ, that this could be a time of spiritual renewing and strengthening,” said Alison Gallagher.
Reverend Gallagher acknowledged ther were “no easy words” for families who lose a loved one during this time.
She said: “The community aspect of wakes and funerals plays a big part in the grieving process in Irish culture.
But, I would want to remind people first that God loves them and understands their pain, he hasn’t abandoned them and will give them the strength to get through difficult days.
“And I would want to encourage them not to bottle up their emotions but to find someone (whether it’s a pastoral leader, family member or good friend) to talk to, using whatever form of technology they are comfortable with. And, of course, pray: 'Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.' (James 4.8)
“I would normally visit and pray with a person who’s dying. It will be difficult not to be able to do this, both for the person dying and the family who take comfort from the prayers, and for myself when my every instinct is to be there to support people at difficult moments in their life,” added Reverend Gallagher, who is maintaining her own good mental health through reading spiritual books and devotions, prayer.
Reverend Gallagher also enjoys a daily walk along the Moville shore with her dog Holly along the shore.
Connecting with her family and friends more on social media, and with plenty of video or audio conversations is also important to her.
With the approach of Easter, Reverend Gallagher admitted she was still working out the best way to engage with her congregations.
She said: “Normally in Holy week we would have a special service with Holy Communion on the Thursday and a service on Good Friday, with celebration services on Easter Sunday.
“I’m still working out with our congregations the best way for us to engage with these significant moments in the Christian calendar. At the least I will send a recorded message to everyone, but I hope to do something more creative if I can master technology a bit better!” concluded Reverend Gallagher.
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