A regionally famous billboard along I-65 near Prattville, Alabama reads: “Go to church or the Devil will get you.”
Did a shudder just run down your spine? Mine too.
The billboard makes no mention of God or faith, of selflessness or devotion. Salvation is sold for the price of attendance. It calls to mind the famous words of Johan Tetzel that so troubled Martin Luther in the days before the Reformation: “As soon as a coin in the [church’s] coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” While this billboard’s message feels too transactional for my taste, there are transactional elements to the relationship of the church and its people. People come to church looking for something and the leaders of sustainable churches need to know what that is.
We do not know the history of the shack. It was already well worn in 2011, when the Church of the Advocate became the stewards of the site on which it stands. It has a doorstep and windows, so it is not a shed. It was likely inhabited by a humans along the way, probably sharecroppers, back when the church site was part of a farm. The steps are cement and the nails are made by machine and not by human hands. So it likely does not date to before the 20 century.
I don’t know when we started to notice the vultures. First there was one, then, on occasion, two. It was in 2017, when the Godly Play kids went exploring with their teacher that we started making the connection between the shack and the vultures. As the kids got close to the shack, they heard the vulture rustling about inside, then out she flew, catalyzing cries of fright and delight. The shack had clearly become the vulture’s den.
As we begin to really examine the implications and possibilities surrounding the continuation of Virtual Worship (VW) within The Episcopal Church (TEC), there are several significant aspects to such a proposal that bear our attention: logistics, standardizations, and theology, to name a few. Logistical planning is not one of my special skills, and standardization requires far more authority than I possess, so I’m going to stay in my lane and look at the theological basis for the sacraments and explore the possibility of their translation within a virtual setting.
Every month ECFVP offers resources on a theme. This month we've asked 2015 ECF Fellow the Rev. Dr. Reed Carlson to choose five resources from Vital Practices to highlight. Please share this email with new members of your vestry and extend an invitation to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers and this monthly digest.
As many cautiously return to church with the loosening of strict pandemic guidelines, church leaders are also facing the issue of congregants being reluctant to return to church.
As with the national conversation on employees refusing to go back to work the knee-jerk reaction is that people are lazy and prefer to stay at home in their pajamas.
Just as the secular world is examining the issues of reluctance so should the church.
Here are a few observations on reluctance:
The global COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to examine and adapt our lifestyles across the board- working from home (#WFH) became the new normal, even growing increasingly through new software platforms and new approaches to conducting business. The Church has not been insulated from this, and our reactions have brought forth a great many questions and concerns about the functionality of our place as ministers and shepherds in a landscape so drastically changed. Nearly every single priest friend I have has commented on their personal struggles with how to be a parish priest without a parish present in the pews; how to find meaning in their role as a priest, both in interacting with their parishioners, and in their own personal spiritual nourishment.
In my book, Behold What You Are: Becoming the Body of Christ, I suggest defining liturgy as “the work of the people and a public work, expressing and forming of the Body of Christ, given for the world.” As such, whenever we find ourselves planning or preparing for a liturgy, we might ask:
How is this liturgy engaging the people?
How is this liturgy public?
How will this liturgy express who we are as the Body of Christ?
How will it form us as the Body of Christ, given for the world?
We can apply these questions to everything from how we welcome to how we sing, from how we collect the offerings to how we send people forth.
Through our liturgy, we express who we are and what we believe. This is most profoundly done in the Eucharistic rite, in which we come together as the Body of Christ, we receive the Body of Christ, and we become the Body of Christ, more and more. In this season of COVID, that expression and formation has been interrupted. We are finding ways to adjust, certainly. And we are grateful for the technologies that allow us to gather, to watch, to listen, to be formed in our faith. But as the season of COVID stretches out, we find ourselves to be a people of longing – longing to be together, longing to worship God in song and movement, longing for the Sacrament of the Body of Christ.
In many ways, the season of Advent couldn’t have been better timed this year. For while the season includes themes of preparation and anticipation, it also holds space for longing and waiting and weariness. As the Church of the Advocate gathers on Zoom this Advent, we include a Liturgy of Longing. The liturgy was adapted from a blog post by James Koester, of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE), The Sacrament of Our Longing. Through it, we acknowledge our longing and our thirst, and we realize our oneness with all the people of God who thirsted before us. Wherever we are, we drink a cup of water, and we are reminded of God’s promise to be with us and to give us something to drink.
As this difficult year comes to a close, we invite you to take the time to celebrate Advent. A season of anticipation and waiting, Advent can be a wonderful time to pause and reflect not just on what has happened, but what is to come. To help you celebrate this season, we’ve gathered ten resources for Advent. From all of us at ECF, we pray that your Advent is filled with health and hopeful anticipation.
1. 5 Ways to Prepare Ye is a short and practical article to help Episcopalians recognize and observe the differences between Advent and Christmas.
2. Journeying the Way of Love Advent Curriculum: The Episcopal Church has produced this four-week curriculum that moves through the first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke. It’s perfect for use during your Christian Formation hour before or after church and can be used by small or large groups.
This has been a trying year. The Church in 2020 has gone through major adjustments in light of the Pandemic. Even with Facebook Live services and Zoom Bible Studies, many miss participating in the Eucharist, the singing of hymns, coffee hour, and other rituals that bind communities of faith.
Yet, there is a bright side to the present circumstances. This is a great opportunity to strengthen our spiritual lives in ways that often come when our lives are still. Here are some practices we can implement as we also practice our social distancing and our quarantines.
1. Reading the Bible: Ok. Ready for this? Some of us attend churches where both Word and Sacrament are pillars of worship, but if we are honest, the actual practice is Sacrament over Word. We love the beauty of the Eucharistic rituals, yet there is not a bible to be found in the pews: only prayer books and hymnals. Some of us need to brush up on the Word of God and meditate on it day and night (Joshua 1:8).
We’ve been in Covid time for more than four months now. It has taken a while for us to realize our spiritual needs and desires and our abilities to meet them. The human contact, the Eucharist, the singing together, are all missed sorely. We find some of our spiritual longings are met by Zoom, a technology developed just in time to allow us to see each other, to connect, to gather, to pray together on Sunday.
Still, through the weeks, the end of the day is hard. More and more, people report having trouble getting to sleep, especially if they have checked in on the news in the hours prior. The what ifs, the hows, and the realities of our personal lives, the community and the nation are alarming or frightening or discouraging at best. Those who live alone have no one with whom to process the day, the week, the season. Others welcome a transition from day to night just as much.
We’re all longing for meaningful connection in this strange, new land of Coronavirus, and especially as we try to be church online.
But, in fact, we’ve seen virtual connection that is beautiful and holy – in the face of Mister Rogers, that Presbyterian pastor-turned-TV personality. Mister Rogers knew how to connect with his viewers. So much so that many of us who watched would answer his deeply personal questions, right there, out loud, in our living rooms.
How can we ensure Mister Rogers moments – and more – in our worship, meetings, formation, and fellowship? In serving an Episcopal parish in my hometown of Memphis, TN this summer, I am wondering what might guide our vision going forward. What questions should we ask ourselves about being church in 2020? How can the online experiences, birthed so quickly in the past 15 weeks, be retained, enriched, and expanded?
Sunday worship on Facebook. Coffee hour on Zoom. Staff meetings on Teams. At first, it was great to know that we could connect without being physically present. It felt like a bridge from our current situation until that time when we could be together again.
Then I started feeling exhausted. I couldn’t figure out why. I talked with friends, and they shared the following comments:
“I love being able to participate in the Holy Eucharist via Facebook, but there aren’t a lot of us that watch live, and I feel like I need to be commenting throughout the service, or I’ll look like I’m not really engaged.”
On January 15, 1941, at the Stalag VIII-A prisoner-of-war camp, in Görlitz, Germany, a crowd of prisoners and Nazi guards gathered in a freezing hall to listen to a performance.
The make-shift orchestra, made up of four prisoners performing the four instruments available at the camp – a worn-out cello, piano, clarinet, and violin – became one of the most famous compositions to come out of the war years.
At the outset of World War II, French composer Olivier Messiaen was drafted into the French army and assigned to a non-combatant role. Nevertheless, in May 1940, as France was succumbing to the Nazi invasion, he was captured at Verdun and taken to a war camp in a town near the border of Germany and Poland.
I’m studying Matthew 9:35 – 10:23 for lay preacher school and Jesus is filled with compassion for the crowds because “they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” He calls for laborers to help with the harvest at hand and sends out the disciples to proclaim and heal. Jesus did not call for biblical scholars, grand speech-makers, top-notch administrators, or anything other than ‘common laborers’.
I’m content to be a laborer and it’s from this place that I find such disappointment in the church’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. All denominations come under my disappointment, none is singled out.
What you are about to read is my sense of things and mine alone, although I did see a glimmer of solidarity in a video from Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes (CEEP), Mourning Our Changing Church, when I heard the comments of Micah T.J. Jackson, President, Bexley Seabury Seminary in Chicago. In any case, I know this is a minority view. Here goes.
This morning just after sunrise I watched and listened to a fellowship of cardinals gathered high in a maple tree. I could hear them chirping, “The Lord be with you.” “And also with you,” as they hopped among branches, munching on the tasseled buds. Sure, they get to come together for communion, I thought enviously.
Envy aside, I am grateful for opportunities – more than ever, actually – to participate in worship with hundreds of others, even with thousands on the National Cathedral’s Sunday morning live stream. There, after the bread and wine are blessed, we are led in the “spiritual communion” prayer by St. Alphonsus de Liguori (1696-1787):
“Zoombombing” is when an uninvited person joins a Zoom meeting, usually for the purpose of gaining a few cheap laughs at the expense of the participants.
Because Zoombombers sometimes use racial slurs, profanity, pornography, and other offensive imagery, faith communities have begun to password protect their online worship services in order to prevent univited Zoombomers from entering.
I would like to suggest that password-protected online worship services are a huge missed opportunity for evangelism.
It’s been nearly 40 years since the 1979 Book of Common Prayer was adopted for use in The Episcopal Church. This means that nearly two generations have been raised in the church experiencing the “exchange of the Peace.” A large number of today’s Episcopalians were raised in other traditions, or in no faith tradition at all, and for them, the exchange of the Peace is part and parcel of being an Episcopalian.
The practice emulates the greeting of Jesus in the post-resurrection gospel stories. Extra-liturgical evidence can be found in the Epistles, as Christians “greet one another with a holy kiss” (I Cor 16:20), and baptismal liturgies as early as the 2nd century record the ministers exchanging the Peace with the newly baptized. It spread from there. But the practice pretty much disappeared from the liturgy in the Church of England in the 16th century, returning in the late 20th century, and in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer of The Episcopal Church. While it took a few years for many Episcopal congregations to get the hang of the practice, after nearly forty years, we are pretty good at it. We shake hands, hug, or nod. “Peace be with you,” we say, or “The Peace of the Lord be with you.”