March 27, 2020

Being the Church in the World

As I walked into All Saints’ Phoenix for the 11:00 AM Mass this past Sunday, something felt palpably different. I spoke with our Rector, Father Poulson Reed, the Bishop-Elect of Oklahoma. Plans were in full swing for next week’s going away party and final celebrations of the Holy Eucharist after a decade as our Rector.

But we both had a sinking feeling that things were about to change, and change rapidly. It was as if the walls were closing in, and there was nothing that could be done about it.

During the Mass, I recalled stories I had read of Europe at the onset of World War II. People in church, knowing that it would be the last time they would gather as a community for months or years, because the enemy was fast approaching.

Overly dramatic – perhaps. But I couldn’t shake that feeling. And I realized how often I had taken for granted that I would always be able to gather with my community to share the Body and Blood of Christ, to hear glorious music, to be strengthened for the week ahead.

Both the sermon, preached by one of our Associate Priests, and the words of Father Reed as he addressed the congregation for what he rightly felt would be the final time in person, still resonate with me as I write this.

The bottom line: We may not be able to gather in the church for the foreseeable future, but we’re here on earth at precisely this time to be the church to the world. Faith in action. Living faith. Faith with works.

After a brief discussion of the virtual worship that our parish would be putting in place, I reflected on the following questions:

What will you do in order to be the church in the world?
· How will you love God and care for one another?
· What can you do to safely connect with those in need?
· How will you care for those with whom you live?
· How will you show your appreciation for our first responders and for those providing essential services?
· How will you be in solidarity with the homeless?
· How can you move free yourself and those around you from fear and from hoarding?

The biggest takeaway for me is this: though it might feel like a time of shutting down, it needn’t be. We need to pray more, reach out more, minister more, do more, offer more, inspire more, connect more.

Putting it into practice:

1. This is real. Our nation is rapidly moving into lockdown mode. People are anxious and fearful. It’s important for church leadership, lay and ordained, to begin by acknowledging what’s so. Members of your congregation will need help, mentally, physically, and spiritually. This is your highest calling as leaders.

2. Encourage each other and your congregation. In a prayer written by Pope Francis to Our Lady for protection from the coronavirus, one sentence stands out:

“We are certain that you will provide, so that, as you did at Cana of Galilee, joy and feasting might return after this moment of trial.”

Yes, what we’re going through is real, but in the grand scheme of things, it is just a moment, and the Lamb’s High Feast is approaching.

3. Get some mix of the clergy, staff and vestry together, either in a room – adhering to the CDC guidelines – or on a conference call or video call, and come up with a plan. How can you translate in-person worship into virtual worship? Beyond the digital world, how can you reach those who don’t have technology available to them?

4. There is an extraordinary opportunity, particularly given that this crisis is happening during Lent, for the clergy, staff, and vestry to formally help people think through the questions listed, above. This Christian Education and Formation could be pushed out via multiple platforms, both digital and non-digital.

a. Suggestions:
i. There are four weeks remaining in Lent, including Holy Week. Ask people to think from a perspective of a daily Lenten discipline. When our routines are upended, as they are now, regularity is a stabilizing factor in people’s lives. And creating a routine, instead of leaving things to chance, is the best way to successfully complete them.
ii. Ask people to pick one thing – they can add more if they want – that means the most to them, and that they can commit to for 30 days. Maybe it’s handwriting one card a day to residents at a local nursing home. Perhaps it’s a call to someone sick or shut in, with no other friends or relatives. Maybe it’s donating to a different charity each day. If they have a particular talent, singing or playing an instrument, for example, maybe it’s recording themselves and posting it online. The possibilities are endless.
iii. We are better in community, so helping to organize your congregation into teams will help them to feel supported and encouraged in their undertaking.
iv. Easter is coming. It always does. It always will. We are a people of the Resurrection. The empty tomb, above all, must be our focus.