Mike's Sunday Letter
January 3, 2021
I've missed writing to you!  This three-month Sabbatical from the “Sunday Letter” is meandering much longer than I intended. It may be late spring or early summer before I get back into the weekly routine.

Excuses include nuisance health distractions, unexpected out of town work, general fatigue…and time spent writing alternative blog focusing on the 2020 election (that several of you received. Those who want back copies should drop me a note.)  

This one-time Sunday letter is 1) to respond to questions about whether I am still alive, 2) to impose on you my personal reflections about the past year, and 3) simply to satisfy my desire to stay in touch with each of you.  

When my great-grandchildren ask, “What did you do during the great pandemic of 2020-21?” I will answer thus:

  • I was looking toward my retirement in March 2020, with only four months to go, when life suddenly changed. Even though I wasn't slacking off in those final months, I had reached the point after 48 years of ministry where I didn't think there would be anything new to learn (for only four months.) Was I ever wrong! The pandemic hit and I had to learn how to do ministry in a whole new way for those last four months, including taking crash courses on technology, so I could stay in touch with my parishioners. And the year went on from there...

  • We bought a house, fixed it up, moved into it, and fixed it up some more.

  • I became a TV preacher, seen by dozens of people on their cell phones and computer screens each week.

  • I became a radio preacher, heard by a few dozen more on local radio in Salem, Illinois.

  • I wrote a daily blog to my congregation, first in Mattoon, then in Salem, for weeks on end, each time we had to close our church buildings in quarantine.

  • I retired on June 30.

  • I stayed retired for two weeks.

  • I unretired on July 15 and became a traveling preacher, serving a congregation in Salem, IL, two hours away, whose new pastor was stranded in the Philippines due to the virus.  Working part time on site and part time from home, I put 500 miles a week on my car going back and forth.  The initial six month stint turned into an agreement to go twelve months if the new pastor could not arrange to immigrate (which looks highly likely).

  • I read a lot: completing about 50 books and starting another 100, a dozen of which I will keep reading all the way through.  I am a daily reader of the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, ESPN Baseball, Politico, and the Champaign News-Gazette. My  weekly/monthly sources of information included the Atlantic, the Economist, National Geographic, Consumer Reports, and AARP Monthly (American Association of Retired Persons). 
  • I wrote an election blog as the 2020 election twisted the psyche and soul of our country.

  • I wore my mask everywhere, didn’t shake hands with anyone since March, washed my hands a million times, switched my entire social life to Zoom, and kept bottles of hand sanitizer in my car.

  • I had over 75 doctor visits during the year:  cardiologist, dermatologist, colorectal, urologist, ophthalmologist, convenient care…  The more serious problems involved a heart ablation and needle injections in my retina. I am in a little better health at the end of 2020 than I was at the beginning.

  • I got tested three times to see if I had the coronavirus.  Nope each time.

  • My dad died in August, and we had to forego the grand memorial service he deserved due to the virus.  None of my daughters got to see him at the end, but had brief farewells by speaker phone the day before he died. 

  • For many people in the U.S., social distancing and institutional shut-downs became highly political.  It got ugly.  I got angry. For me, the pandemic was a moral issue, a tsunami of a moral issue... demanding sacrifice and creativity… And I had to constantly rebuild my patience with people who didn’t see things my way.  I was convicted that without political savvy and moral discipline, we would not get through the year “okay.” 

  • My fears came true.  By year’s end, 350,000 people in our country had died of the demonic virus, almost 2 million worldwide. Lives and livelihoods were unnecessarily lost.  I ended the year with my faith shaken, in both God and country. 
  • The pandemic was one of several 2020 happenings that unsettled me greatly.  My spirit flailed from new narratives of racial violence, the 2020 election, and gender and age based injustices. The rich got richer during the pandemic: the top 7 tech companies in America grew by $4.6 trillion during the pandemic... the stock market hit record highs... and millions of middle class and poor lost their livelihoods, if not their lives.
  • I did lots of thinking during 2020 about all those things…and rededicated myself, in my retirement, to find new ways to heal my faith and make a difference for the future.  I suppose I'll be writing more and getting into consulting.  I am also eager for the restoration of normal human interactions, not only for my personal enjoyment, but also to lean into the many relationships I have in order to see who wants to partner with me to “do more good together.”

  • While not being morally perfect, I have made several sacrifices during this pandemic:  We had to forego about 40-50 visits with family during the year... plus more lost visits with friends.  I accepted without complaint my temporary loss of in-person theater, restaurants, concerts, sporting events, writers’ workshops, travel, visits with friends and family, etc.  

  • But I have not been morally perfect.  Between surges in the virus, Jie and I did take a week long road trip, with stops in Kentucky, Virginia, and Ohio.  We got in a precious few visits with family.  We even awkwardly talked with a few people, mask-less but six feet apart. I have been mostly moral, but not perfect enough to take the speck out of anyone else’s eye.

  • I watched lots of Netflix and Hulu, played cards with Jie, gained weight because the gym was closed (and my refrigerator and pantry were not)...

  • I reconnected with several long-time friends by phone and internet. Instead of saying, "we ought to get together," we put each other on the schedule and actually did get together...electronically.

  • I entered 2021 with hope... really!

The most relevant thing to note on this first week of the new year is this:  You and I are yet alive. The fact that I am writing this and you are reading it means that we have survived so far: politics and pestilence, flood and fire, wind and war, crime and covid, accident and atrophy, depression and denial, foolishness and fatality…  

You and I are yet alive.  

Thank you for being a reader and friend.  And may each of you find new life and new blessings in this new year.  I’ll surprise you again some Sunday with another “one time” letter.  And then by mid-year, I hope to be back to sharing each Sunday.

J. Michael Smith, 1508 E Marc Trail, Urbana, IL 61801
www: jmichaelsmith.net