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Checking In

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

This has been an unusual time in our community of faith, in our nation, and in our world. In our own community, our expectations went from “See you next Sunday!” to “Maybe try to stay away if you’re in a vulnerable population or in contact with someone who is” to “Services are canceled” in a matter of days.

That can be disorienting and upsetting. And it can feel unreal, like this has all got to be some kind of mistake.

But the news out of Italy, France, and Spain is enough to give us pause. As one of my colleagues in ministry said, “If it feels like we’re overreacting and being silly, that’s the right time to do it. When it feels like it’s necessary, it’s already too late.”

And so, first and foremost, I am grateful to you, the members of Cheltenham UMC for your patience, your willingness to try new modes of worship and meeting, for your sacrifices, and for your compassion. For in our willingness to separate ourselves from the things, people, events, and gatherings that we love, we demonstrate a profound love for those who by virtue of age or medical condition are the most vulnerable among us. I am proud of your witness.

I also know that it hasn’t been the easiest time, especially if you are one who loves community and human contact. We want to ensure that you continue to feel connected to this community and to one another. So here are some ways to do that:

By Phone

You don’t have to be tech savvy to be connected to your community. You can do so right from your landline telephone or mobile phone.
  • Dial in to Sunday Worship. Call (301) 715-8592 and then enter the code 418392652# on your touch-tone telephone. This will allow you to listen to the worship service and contribute by sharing announcements or prayer requests. 
  • Hang out in Office Hours Wednesday Afternoon from 2–4 p.m. Call (301) 715-8592 and then enter the code 493671679# on your touch-tone telephone. This will connect you to our conference call where you can talk with the pastor or anyone else who’s connected.
  • Ask the pastor to call. If you’d like me to call, respond to this e-mail and let me know a time that works for you. You can use the website to do it online, or you can just call me at (202) 486-6061.

By Smart Phone/Computer

If you’re comfortable using technology, there are some other options available.
  • Watch worship on Facebook Live. You can watch our Sunday worship services on our Facebook page at You don’t need to have a Facebook account to do this, as our page is public and the live-stream is public.
  • Participate in Sunday worship via Zoom. The Zoom app (download here) allows you to join in worship in a group video conference call. This allows you participate in the service by sharing announcements, prayer requests, etc. Now, you do not need to be visible (you can turn off your camera) and you cannot be seen on the Facebook live feed (that's a different camera we’re using). If you choose to be visible on Zoom, you can only be seen by the other participants in the group. To join in next Sunday’s worship through Zoom, visit
  • Hang out in the Office Hours Wednesday Afternoon from 2–4 p.m. You can use Zoom to join into office hours. This is a fun opportunity to connect with me and with others who are calling in or Zooming in. If you use Zoom, either on your phone or computer, you can turn on the camera and we can all see each other. You can also use it without the camera on and be no less connected.
If you have tried the technology and it didn’t work for you, please let me know. I am, and others are, happy to help folks to set up their phones and computers to get connected. These are stop-gap measures we’re taking, to be sure, but even in temporary circumstances, we don’t want anyone to be left out.

We will be looking at doing other programming online as well, with a possible hymn sing, or evening Bible study, or other such opportunities just to hang out together, virtually, if we can’t yet do so in person.

I know this is an uncertain time. And I know that the uncertainty can be the worst part of the whole experience (see, my blog-post essay below). But ours is a community with a strong faith, a deep well of compassion, and a heart full of love and grace. Those gifts will help us weather any storm, ride out any uncertainty, and will keep us connected through all the days ahead.

With continued prayers for you, our community, our nation, and our world, I remain

Yours in Christ,

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Pastor, Cheltenham UMC

A Plague of Uncertainty

By Mark Schaefer, reposted from

A simple glance at your social media newsfeeds today will tell you that all anyone is thinking about is the novel coronavirus and its associated disease COVID-19.

The reaction you’re probably witnessing on those same feeds ranges from indifference to calm cautiousness to outright buy-up-all-the-toilet-paper panic. On the latter end are people acting like we're in the opening scenes of The Walking Dead or Contagion. And on the former end are those who seem utterly unconcerned about the coronavirus or its effects. They’ll say things like, “The flu kills way more people a year than this virus has but we don't close down March Madness for the flu!” Or they'll point out that the mortality rate is low, at most 3%, which means that most people will suffer the disease with low impact.

But what goes unrecognized in such an analysis is that it's not the disease that's frightening; it's the uncertainty.

Chart comparing infection rates with other diseases. Coronavirus occupies not a point, as the others do, but a wide rangeWe don’t really know what the mortality rate is for the coronavirus because we don't actually know how many people have it. Further, ever were we to know what the mortality rate was, could we be absolutely sure that we wouldn't be among those it encompassed?

See, the main difference between the novel coronavirus and the flu is not any feature of either virus or disease. The main differences is a lack of familiarity with the novel coronavirus. The flu is familiar. Yes, people die of the flu. But we know that. We factor it in to our regular lives. We decided to get flu shots (or not) based on the odds we think we are facing.

But we don’t know this new virus. We don’t really know what it's doing. And that creates uncertainty. And uncertainty creates unease. Especially when it revolves around questions of mortality:

Some psychologists maintain that practically everything we do is a kind of resistance in reaction to our awareness of our mortality. This terror management theory posits that our desire for self-preservation coupled with our cognitive awareness of our inevitable deaths leads to a “terror” that can only be mitigated in two ways. First, we mitigate this terror with self-esteem—the belief that each of us is an object of primary value in a meaningful universe. Second, we mitigate our terror by placing a good deal of faith in our cultural worldview. The faith we put in a cultural worldview gives us a feeling of calm in the midst of dread. Our commitment to an understanding of the world around us makes us feel safe and secure in the face of our looming mortality.

However, when those same worldviews are threatened, so too is that feeling of calm. For that reason, we have to defend our worldviews at all cost because they protect us from facing the terror of our mortal lives. Preserving our worldviews is so central to staving off our existential dread that it turns out that the more we think about death and oblivion, the more invested we become in preserving those worldviews.

It seems that one of our preferred methods of defending our worldviews and fending off this core terror is the attempt to establish as many certainties as possible, to know that there is something we can be certain of. In an effort to deny our mortality and the recognition that we are not ultimately in control of our own destinies, we try to control our world and one another and we seek to cling to as many certain truths as we can along the way.

The Certainty of Uncertaintyp. 4

This explains both the toilet-paper hoarders and the people crowding bars and restaurants: each is trying to demonstrate some control over their environment in the midst of uncertainty. Each is trying to say, ultimately, “I’m in control of my life and my destiny, not some random virus!” But then each is prone to making a costly error: in the former, denying others resources by one’s own hoarding; in the second, contributing to the spread of contagion.

In the end, there are really only two ways to combat uncertainty: (1) by the acquisition of more, reliable data, such as that being shared by respected public health officials where such data exists, and (2) by living faithfully with hope. We don’t know whether we as individuals will contract the disease, and we don’t know what will happen to us with certainty if we do. But we can live our lives not out of fear of uncertainty, but by acknowledging our uncertainty and living prudently in the meantime, neither panicking nor engaging in reckless behavior.

In the end, it will likely be our fear of uncertainty that will take a greater toll on us than the virus would have on its own. If we do not name that uncertainty and own it, our fear of it will continue to take that toll on us.

The best we can do in the meantime, then, is to acknowledge our unknowing, learn what we can, behave prudently, and take care of one another, even if that care is at a distance. And, of course, wash our hands.

Why We Engage in “Social Distancing”

Absent a vaccine or martial law, the coronavirus is going to continue to spread. But there are some things we can do to slow down the spread of the virus. You might think, ‘We’re all going to get it; why not just get it over with?’ The reality is, even if ultimately the same number of people get infected, it matters when they get infected. If a lot of people get infected right away, it can overwhelm the healthcare infrastructure and there won't be enough hospital beds or ventilators for the very ill. However, if we take prudent measures, such as avoiding large crowds, cancelling large gatherings, washing hands, and other steps, then we “flatten the curve” and give the healthcare system the space it needs to treat everyone in need. 
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