March 16, 2020 “It’s scary to watch everything get cancelled – but these are really signs of hope: people making tough and painful decisions to reduce viral transmission. Right now, love looks like an empty church.” -adapted from Rev. Jacqui Lewis, PhD “God is our refuge and strength. A very present help in trouble.” Psalm 46 Friends and members of St. Stephen, Over the course of this past week, leaders of our congregation and I have been monitoring the news regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and discerning our response as a community of faith. We have been receiving information and guidance from the CDC, Wisconsin Department of Health, Wisconsin Council of Churches, the ELCA Churchwide Office, Bishop Mansholt and the East Central Synod of Wisconsin, pastoral colleagues, and other Central Wisconsin congregations. On Friday, the governor of Wisconsin announced the cancellation of classes beginning March 18th with the anticipated reopening date of April 6th, which is subject to change pending further information. On Sunday we worshipped with precautions, but are quickly learning that is not enough. I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Andrew Griesman and Sarah Lonsdorf for helping to lead worship when illness kept me away. Thank you! In light of all of this we have made what we believe to be a responsible, but difficult, decision to suspend all congregational worship and all ministry activities through Palm Sunday, April 5th. This includes bible studies, Lenten midweek worship and meals, committee meetings, quilting, choir, Eucharistic ministry, etc. It has become essential for each community to do their part in eliminating physical connection so as to stand in solidarity with the human community. We are sacrificing gathering at church for a little while so we can give nurses, doctors, and hospitals a chance to care well for people as more and more are expected to become sick. In making this decision we are aware that things are rapidly changing and these plans may need to be adapted along the way. We will strive to keep you up to date on any changes to these plans. Even as our in-person ministry activities are suspended for the rest of the month, St. Stephen’s ministry continues as we strive to care for our neighbors and the vulnerable among us. Our physical separation need not lead to social isolation. • I remain available for pastoral care through email or you can reach me for pastoral emergencies at 715-581-7378. At the moment I am self-quarantined as I recover from my illness but will be available through these means. • In the coming days local churches will be creating a compassion team to reach out to those who may be vulnerable in our community by finding ways to support them in this time of uncertainty: running errands, sharing a meal, connecting via phone to extend friendship, etc. Your eyes and ears are critical in identifying these needs. We will seek to inform you of ways to become involved as we learn more. If you are interested in helping to coordinate these efforts, please email or call Pastor Jen. • If you find it absolutely necessary to meet for a committee we would encourage you to do so via teleconference, email, or video conferencing. Dick Lind has volunteered to assist groups in using any technology that is needed! • I will be live-streaming services of prayer and reflection on Sunday mornings at 9am and possibly throughout the week. You will find these livestreams at (even if you do not have a Facebook account, you will be able to access this page). You will also be able to view them at a later time at the same Facebook link. • All are encouraged to continue to support the ministry of St. Stephen by mailing your offering to church or calling Bill Dunker at church to set up an automated giving account. There are many ways to continue our life of discipleship even as we cannot meet together. Here are suggestions for staying connected even as we find ourselves distanced from one another physically (but not spiritually!): 1. Take a walk and pray for all that God has given us and all the ways that God is with us even in times like these. 2. Do your daily devotion from Wondrous Love. I will continue to post a message every Wednesday during the season of Lent related to it. You may find it on our Facebook page St. Stephen Lutheran Church. 3. Take out your directory and use this as a chance to reconnect with people from church. Who haven’t you spoken to in a while? Who might need to hear a friendly voice on the other line? Who could you pray with? 4. If you have a hymnal in your home, take it out and sing your favorites. Let’s make a joyful noise to the Lord! 5. Pray. Pray. Pray. 6. Sleep. Use this time away as a Sabbath time to breath, reflect, and center yourself in this wilderness season. Nearly 500 years ago, Martin Luther ministered and taught his people as they lived into the earliest part of the reformation during the Bubonic Plague. Here is an excerpt from a letter Luther wrote called, “On whether Christians can flee from the deadly plague.” He writes, “I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order to not become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence…if my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely…see this is such a god-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.” Your partner in the gospel, Pastor Jen Hoffman