Not that long ago, in a time innocently unaware of social distancing and self-isolation, Zoom was barely on my radar screen. Now there’s hardly a day that goes by when I’m not looking into the screen of my computer zooming something with someone, somewhere: the last few remaining seminary classes, clergy check-in calls, virtual worship with my sending church in Vermont. One night last week my classmates and I even got together by Zoom for a virtual party and game of truth or dare. If not Zoom, there’s Facebook. If not Facebook, there’s texting with friends and family. If there’s not texting, there’s Facetime. Today I started a new volunteer position as a tele-chaplain working remotely from Vermont at the facility in New Hampshire where I interned two summers ago. Well, not at the facility, but you know. There’s so much technology we have at our fingertips, and at this moment in time when it is so important to stay home, stay safe, and stay connected, I thank God for that—even if my eyes do go a little wonky by the end of the day. I mean, really, can you imagine riding out this temporary formation as “church dispersed” without such technology?
Think of Saint Paul, for example, traveling between communities of believers dispersed all across the Mediterranean that were days—if not weeks—apart by land or sea. Saint Paul, the great letter writer. There was no Zooming to Thessaloniki, or first-century Facetiming with the folks in Ephesus. There wasn’t even a Priority Mail option—because, well, there wasn’t even a post office. Paul’s letters made their way across the miles by faithful couriers like Tychicus and Timothy who walked them from the sender’s hand to the receiver’s. Once delivered, the letters were often read aloud by those who carried them to the communities for whom they were intended. It isn’t difficult to imagine that those letters were perhaps read in a hushed voice, for there were surely times when it was also not safe for the members of the house churches in Corinth or Philippi to gather together in one place, albeit for different reasons than community spread virus.
But have you ever noticed that Paul’s letters don’t start off as we would expect, with a salutation of something like “Dear So-and-so”? Different from our letters today, and certainly from text messaging, in Greek letter-writing format the name of whoever was sending the letter was mentioned first: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are in Ephesus…” After the salutation, the typical Greek letter of the time would contain a short blessing; Saint Paul characteristically wrote some version of “grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”. Next in the epistolary, or letter-writing, style of the time, there would be a thanksgiving. Only then, after what appear to be merely introductory formalities were out of the way did the letter writer get down to the real business of what needed to be communicated. At the close of the letter the writer might convey additional greetings and conclude with a final blessing or benediction.
There’s a reason why Paul’s letters comprise a good deal of our lectionary we read through each Sunday. The message that Paul conveyed in the main body of his letters—selfless regard for others and unwavering love of Christ—is certainly foundational to our faith. But I’ve been thinking lately, in this strange time of Covid-19, that perhaps those formal introductory salutations and closings, the benedictions and blessings and thanksgivings for each other, are not merely formalities, but just as important and something not to be glossed over. For they are the bits where Paul’s love for the communities with which he was communicating—and his longing to be with them again—is most apparent:
“I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you” (Philippians 1:3-4)
“How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?” (1 Thessalonians 3:9)
“For I am longing to see you so that . . . we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith” (Romans 1:1-2)
“Without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers” (Romans 1:9)
I have avoided writing this letter for some time. Then, when I finally sat down to write it, I had no idea how to begin. The first time I made my way to St. Elizabeth’s was a little over two years ago—on a Sunday in February in the year of our Lord, 2018—when I was greeted by a couple of Dave’s. My friend and fellow seminarian Phyllis Bess invited me to visit her field placement; she thought I would like it there. I did. The following Saturday I met with Father Daniel over smoothies at Juiceland, and—well, that’s how I became your seminarian. And how all of you became the community that will always be remembered in my prayers. Unceasingly. I give thanks for all of you, not only for your faith in Christ Jesus, but for the gift of allowing me to live into my ministry and calling. For encouraging me to stretch beyond my comfort zone. For teaching me not only the correct pronunciation of “y’all” but its true meaning. Along the way there have been tender and light-hearted moments; forgiveness and Acts and listening to the heartbeat of the Psalms together. One time there was even lollipop cake!
When I left Austin for Spring Break this year, I could not have imagined that we wouldn’t be able to gather together in person for two months or longer. Harder still to wrap my mind around the fact that I will graduate seminary without a commencement gathering, and that my last Sunday with y’all as your seminarian has already come and gone without our knowing it. But I take heart in what Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, after having to leave that community abruptly, that while for a short time we have been separated from each other, that separation has only been in person, not in heart (1:17). Paul’s letters communicated so much more than correspondence; they sustained those who were temporarily separated from each other. His written words were food for the soul. As Christians, this ought not be difficult for us to imagine: the word as sacrament, as holy, as embodying presence.
And so, let me finally begin and end here with what I have been trying to say all along in this meandering epistle: Thom, a follower of Christ, to all the faithful, God’s beloved in Buda. Grace to you and peace. I thank God every time I remember you.
One of the most common reasons folks reach out to me to talk or to pray is when they can tell something significant is on the horizon, and they’re unsure what to do about it. Sometimes it’s a joyful something; sometimes it’s a matter of discerning a needed change at work or at home; sometimes it’s just putting into words the hard decision they know they need to make. What these have in common is that they’re about preparing for a future she or he knows will be different, even though it’s still largely unknown.
This week I’ve spoken with a couple different folks whose lives are at the cusp of a big decision or transition of some kind, the kinds of unknowns that have a great deal of gravity even without a pandemic afoot. As I talked with and prayed with them, I found myself returning to words I’ve used a lot in different pastoral conversations. They boil down to this: God has already sent the Holy Spirit before us into all possible futures, and already Christ is preparing a place for us there. That ‘place’ could look like repentance, like joyful fulfillment, like any number of things—the particularities of that future aren’t written yet. What is already true is that Christ will be with us there, and we will not be alone.
I want to be clear: this is not God has a plan for you language. I never say that to people because I do not believe it. I’ve seen too much of human suffering and the realities of human agency to believe that each of our lives unfolds according to a plan devised by the God Jesus calls Father. God is too free, too creative, too in love with us for that. To recall Holy Week: it is not God who decrees Christ’s crucifixion, but us and Pilate. It is God who is sovereign even over death and so raises Jesus even after we crucified him.
In short, we human creatures cannot create a world in which God ceases to be God. This is what we see play out between Good Friday and Easter morning, and this is perhaps the very best news.
So: when I say God as sent the Holy Spirit before us into all possible futures, I really mean that the future is unknown and that any number of things are possible, even really bad things. But I also mean that God is so utterly free that, no matter how the course of things goes, God can and does always respond to us with the Truth, the Love, the Way back home given to us in His Son. Neither this pandemic, nor the future it is creating, is part of a script God is willing upon us. (The entailments of that are appalling.) But into whatever future we are headed, God is already sovereign over it. God is already working resurrection there. God is already rolling the stone away.
All these things I say as your priest, and I believe them. As your friend and fellow befuddled and sometimes anxious pilgrim in the time of the coronavirus, I have to do extra work to believe them and also act as though I believe them. Lucy and I are at the cusp of her seminary graduation, moving, getting her ordained, beginning life as a two-clergy household, etc. Even without the pandemic, much would be unknown.
This is a long-looked-forward to transition for us, and it is not happening as it should. I’m angry about that, and beneath the anger is sadness. I’m mourning the fact that I won’t get to see Lucy graduate from seminary. We’ll celebrate it as best we can given the circumstances, but whatever the future holds, it won’t hold pictures of a proper seminary graduation day, of her and Thom and the rest of her classmates in their gowns and academic hoods, smiling and a bit dizzy and ready for a big brunch.
I don’t hold this up as any more or less significant than anything else; it’s just what is mine to carry. It’s one of the pandemic particulars that makes faithful living more difficult than it usually is. I imagine you have your own.
Part of our task right now is to carry our griefs, anxieties, angers and hopes with honesty and faithfulness, for Christ is preparing a place for them, too. What I mean by that is to pray, and to pray from the life you’re actually living, not the life you think you’re supposed to have. Here is an example: when I pray about being sad or angry that Lucy’s seminary isn’t ending with the celebratory bang it should end with, I don’t say to God, “Now I know I shouldn’t feel bad because there are so many other who have it worse off,” etc. This does me no good, and it’s usually a way of diminishing, and therefore trying to escape from, the unwanted emotions I am actually having.
This doesn’t give me license to unfettered drama or self-pity or whatever else. It just means that I’m trying to offer to God—to surrender to God—my heart as it actually is and not the heart I think I should have, which does not exist and is therefore no offering or surrender at all. Giving back to me, little by little, a heart that is more grateful and more peaceful and more steadfast and more holy, that is God’s job, not mine.
“The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit;
A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
Thus the Psalmist (51:18). What is unsaid is that returning to us hearts that are more loving, more faithful, more peaceful, more grateful, more holy even in the midst of pandemic—that is God’s prerogative in all possible futures, no matter what the present is like. The end is always God’s.
 Those beautiful verses in Jeremiah 29 where God says, “For I know the plans I have for you,” occur in a prophetic book premised on the fact that things in Israel have not gone according to plan.
Today we begin the holiest days of the Church year, from Maundy Thursday into Easter. While we won't be able to gather together this year, I hope you and your household will set aside time to pray together and with your Church family (however dispersed we might be) via our social media outlets. As a reminder, our Maundy Thursday service will be available this evening by 7pm at our YouTube channel and on our Facebook page. Good Friday will be available by 7pm tomorrow evening, and Easter by 8:45am Sunday. However else you choose to mark these holy days--whether by preparing a special home altar or having a particular meal or listening to the various pieces of music Mark and Wanda have put online or observing other rituals, both solemn and joyful--I pray you feel God's Holy Spirit moving among you and yours. Finally, I ask that on your hearts' altars you keep two candles burning in the coming days: one for those who are acutely burdened or afflicted during this pandemic, and the other, with gratitude, for those you hold most dear. Both are ours to hold in prayer.
Finally, on Easter morning, please remember to do something at least a little bit silly. It's the conquering of sin and death, after all. We should behave accordingly when the time comes. Laughter is an appropriate response.
Needless to say, this Holy Week will be different, and not in a way any of us would like. There’s much more to say and to reflect on about all of that, but the time will come. Today, just the facts of what you can expect for Holy Week and Easter.
We will observe Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter morning. We will not hold a Vigil, nor will we gather on our physical campus for any services. Sadly, neither will we celebrate the Eucharist on Easter morning.
Videos for each service will be available on our Facebook page and YouTube channel. I will preach for each service, and bulletins will be provided via email. Wanda and Mark Slater have begun recording some musical pieces to be included with each service. For my part, I have been working to better my online movie making skills, and I am happy to report that our Holy Week services will include faces other than mine on the screen.
Palm Sunday will be up by 8:45am this Sunday, April 5. The service will include the traditional Palm Sunday opening with the appropriate Gospel passage. (You are encouraged to bedeck your doors with branches of any kind!) Our Palm Sunday celebration will combine elements of Morning Prayer and Stations of the Cross.
Maundy Thursday will be up by 7pm on Thursday, April 9. The service will mostly follow the order for Evening Prayer given in the Book of Common Prayer. I will miss observing the stripping of the altar and holding our traditional foot washing. Households with multiple persons are encouraged to wash each other’s feet as so moved.
Good Friday will be up by 7pm on Friday, April 10 (though I hope for it to be available earlier). The service will follow the traditional liturgy appointed in the Book of Common Prayer as closely as possible. I will miss seeing our cassock-clad lay ministers bringing in the rough wooden cross. I am somewhat surprised to notice that I will also miss hammering the cross and hearing it hammered by you. The long silences, at least, we may still observe.
On Holy Saturday, I encourage you to observe your own private devotions as much as possible. Fasting from meat, extra silence, read John18:1-19:37, etc. Or, if it better suits your piety and household, begin decorating or making ready for Easter! Both approaches are acts of faith. In a more regular time, our physical church campus would be bustling with flowery activity on Holy Saturday.
Easter Sunday will be up by 8:45am on Sunday, April 12. The service will (mostly) follow the order for Morning Prayer given in the Book of Common Prayer. As a reminder, I’m inviting the kids of our congregation to tell jokes! (Parents, send videos to me via email. Depending on how many we get, we may sprinkle them in throughout Easter Season.) I’d also encourage the congregation to display the word ALLELUIA! prominently in your home beginning on Easter Sunday, and if you can manage it, get that big beautiful word out onto the lawn or on your front door or on the sidewalk, too, where people can see it. We need it more than ever. Personally, I’d like to shout it right into the face of COVID19.
One other Easter treat to look forward to: our Godly Play team has been hard at work despite the pandemic, and in the days following Easter, Godly Play videos will be available online as well. They are great for kids, but for the adults out there, if you’ve never seen one done, I recommend it.
I look forward to walking together through Holy Week. Remember that the together part of that sentence takes extra work and creativity right now.
It’s confession time: this past Monday I went to the church office, and there wasn’t any reason for me to go. Everything I needed to do (and was able to do) could have been done from our apartment. I knew other church members were taking care of the garden; I had been in touch with both the Scouts and Meals on Wheels; Wanda was checking the mail; all our onsite meetings and services are suspended for now. St. Liz’s physical campus didn’t need me to go. But on Monday, I showered, trimmed my beard, put on a nice shirt, and drove to Buda anyway.
As I’m writing this, it’s day ten (I think?) of going nowhere but the grocery store. On Monday when I went to the office, Mayor Adler had not yet issued Austin’s shelter-in-place order, so my drive to Buda was technically aboveboard. But the truth of the matter is that I just wanted some place to go. I wanted to go to a place where I had to get ready to go beforehand. I wanted some place to go that was somehow mine. A place that asks of me that I have my shirt tucked in and a clean handkerchief in my pocket.
Many of us are missing the usual places we go. Work (for some), to be sure, but also to friends’ houses, to visit family, to school for kids, to the nursing home to see our loved one, to gather as Church. Some of us are having to miss being at a family member’s final bedside right now.
Each of us has within us a kind of homing instinct towards community, good work, places and people that feel like ours in some way. When we are thwarted in our attempts to act on that instinct, we get restless, irritable, even depressed. It’s the feeling of not being where we should be, as though we know that we are called to live and move and have our being elsewhere, but are unable to identify what that elsewhere is. Or maybe we do know what that elsewhere is, but we are unable to pursue it tangibly, as so many of us are unable to do now. Love wants to move and to be unhindered in its movement.
Of the thousands of pages St. Augustine wrote, perhaps his most famous line is from early on in his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
At the deepest level, each of us wants some place to go, some place that demands our careful preparation, some place to go that is ours to go to. And we are restless until we abide there.
For Christians, that place has a name: Jesus Christ. What a human life looks like when his or her heart reposes in God is Jesus. A particular person, in a particular place and time, always and only living from the heart’s deep and loving repose in God.
The restlessness that we feel now, the sense of being cooped up, the longing to return to our usual orbits of work and nurture and relationship—whatever the particulars are for us, each is an icon of the human soul’s deep search for oneness with God in Jesus, that unshakeable repose for which we always search and to which we are always called. Invited, even.
Right now, many of us simply feel out of place. Our rhythms are disrupted. We are lonely; our efforts at rest or productivity seem thwarted before they even begin; we feel unable to be still because the future remains unrelentingly insecure.
Maybe our task, then, is to discern how this time of feeling out of place can become a season of preparation to return more fully to the places we miss. In other words, at best this time of being dispersed is a chance for so much beard trimming and folding of handkerchiefs. At best, perhaps, we can try and get our hearts ready to go some place and call it ours.
Maybe. At best. Perhaps. I use these words deliberately. This is a pandemic, after all. While it may present us with certain opportunities for growth and the revaluation of priorities which we may not otherwise undertake, at its most basic this is a time of self-isolation (for many, though not all) so as to prevent the spread of disease and to safeguard human life. Economic, emotional, and relational distress are part of this picture even for those who are at no serious risk of life-threatening infection.
The world for which we are restless is not a world where pandemics happen. In a world where pandemics do happen, however, faithfulness might look like nothing more heroic or gratifying than staying home and trying to befriend our restlessness.
Faithfulness today is what our responsibility is in this. What happens after that is God’s prerogative. I’ve talked to many of you these past couple weeks. Many of us are a bit bored but otherwise doing fine. Some of us, though, have anxieties of various kinds, not the least of which are job security, isolation, and a nagging sense that the normal world we love is gone. Or at least that it’s far more fragile than we believed it to be.
I’m not sure that I believe ‘normal’ is actually gone in any permanent sense, but it can certainly feel that way. Sometimes, if we commit to befriending our restlessness, we discover that what presents as restlessness is actually grief, the wound of having lost something. Big or small, each of us is experiencing loss right now, even if those losses are temporary. Relationships we rely on disrupted. Money we need in jeopardy. A long-awaited surgery yet again delayed. Trying to hug our grandson through yet another Zoom meeting.
Maybe faithfulness looks like naming honestly what we have lost.
Our particular losses are also icons of the human soul. We each have a dim memory of Eden, which we have lost. Each of us has an intuitive knowledge of what unfallen life with God is like, even though we’ve never experienced it. When we see greed at work in the HEB line, or the fear driving us to purchase all the ammunition at Cabela’s, or the suggestion that something called “the economy” is more important than human life, we are confronted again with the fundamental loss—the fundamental fall—with which humanity lives: we do not live in the world for which we were made.
Grief is an appropriate response.
That’s the kind of sentence after which one might try to turn towards something else. A new image or idea or theological chestnut, maybe. But the thing about grief in my experience is that the only way out is through. Even if what is lost is only temporarily so.
So: what have you lost? Maybe naming it is the first step towards that Some Place To Go we’re always looking for.
Earlier this week, Bishop Reed wrote to the diocese on how both we and the diocesan staff at the Bishop Jones Center will respond with love and responsibility to concerns about the Coronavirus. We at St. Liz have already begun adapting our common life to our current environment. Thus, there’s not much that is new for us. The only change from this past Sunday is that, per Bishop Reed’s instructions, St. Liz will only hold Sunday worship online via Facebook and YouTube through the end of March; I will not be officiating Morning Prayer at our physical campus. This will maintain at least through the end of March.
As I said in my video from Wednesday, my main concerns during this time of ‘Church dispersion’ are to continue our common life of prayer and worship as richly as possible and to make sure that the most vulnerable members of our congregation are cared for. In other words, my concerns are the same as they always are: to help us love God and love our neighbor as fully as possible. To that end, I have some action items for us:
*Tune in for Morning Prayer each Sunday! Videos will be ready by 8:45am, and a PDF bulletin is included in this email. Don’t forget to post a “Pass the Peace” selfie in the comments on Facebook if that’s how you’re watching. And if not, text a selfie to somebody!
*Wanda Slater will be curating a weekly list of prayer requests, birthdays, and anniversaries. I will read the birthday and anniversary names aloud during that portion of our service, and I will read the names of those on the prayer list at the appropriate time. To respect privacy, I will only read first names; I will not read last names or the reasons for the prayer, nor will I include the name of the person who made the request. To add a name, email Wanda at email@example.com We will do a new list each week.
*Pray. If your household already has a daily prayer discipline, keep doing what you’re doing. If not, I encourage your whole household to begin one. A simple way to begin is to pray together each night a prayer on page 134 of the Book of Common Prayer, the prayer beginning “Keep watch, dear Lord….” I encourage you to commit it to memory. It is an old and beautiful prayer, taken from the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo.
*Once a day, reach out to someone from St. Liz or from your community. Call your friends for a chat. Facetime with them for a game of charades. Make a beautiful card and mail it. Watch the same movie on Netflix and then chat about it afterwards. Emotional support and affection offered from afar are important. Yes, physical caution is necessary to prevent the spread of disease right now, and yes, our creaturely needs like sleep and food and brushing our teeth continue like normal. But a human person is not only a body: she is a soul, a heart, a pilgrim spirit in search of companionship on the way. It is in meeting these intangible needs that the Church is at our best.
*Finally, cultivate a little bit of silliness and beauty. Build a fort. Teach your dog to play dead. Kids, do an impression of your mom or dad and put it online so we can see it. (But ask your parents first.) For my part, I’ve been recording songs and putting them on my personal Facebook page. Not just church songs, but other favorites of mine and favorites of my friends. It’s not much. It’s just one way I’m trying to add a little leaven of beauty and joy and humor into what is usually a distressing media mix.
You remain in my prayers, and I trust that I remain in yours. For the foreseeable future, in addition to our weekly email, you can expect online communication from me Wednesday evenings and on Sunday mornings for worship.
Given recent cancellations by the City of Buda (and other bodies), and today’s declarations by Governor Abbott and President Trump, I no longer feel my last communication to our St. Liz family about the Coronavirus to be sufficient. I wrote it Thursday morning, which now feels like a very long time ago. I am writing with yet another update.
Barring unforeseen communications from the Bishop or from other authorities, here is our final answer for the remaining Sundays in March:
*I will officiate and preach at a service of Morning Prayer at both 8:45am and 11am.
This is primarily because I know this communication will not reach
everyone, and that in times of heightened anxiety, many who are not regular members of a faith community are led to seek the comfort of prayer and the proclamation of the Gospel. I intend to keep our doors open on Sunday mornings for this eventuality.
*I will record a video of my leading Morning Prayer and preaching and post it as a
video on Facebook by 8:45am each Sunday morning. You are encouraged to pray from home.
*We will not celebrate communion.
*All Sunday activities and ministries are suspended. This includes
nursery, coffee hour, Children’s Chapel, Godly Play, Choir, Sunday School for adults, and Newcomers Class.
*We will not pass the Peace as this is not an intrinsic part of Morning Prayer. An
alms basin will be available for offerings but we will not pass a basket.
*Our entire Sunday volunteer schedule (MSP) is suspended. BC of the Day, Altar
Guild, Ushers, Greeters, Lectors, Intercessors, Verger, Children’s Chapel, Godly Play, Lay Eucharistic Visitors, coffee hour, etc.
This may sound like a lot. You have heard me say before that St. Elizabeth runs on Holy Spirit and faithful volunteers. I believe the above changes to be good ones precisely because of how faithful you are in your work, both in formal volunteer roles and relationally. Suspending all volunteer work seems to me the only way to guarantee that the whole Body of Christ at St. Liz has the opportunity to rest in the midst of so much anxiety. Your Bishop’s Committee and I are in agreement that these steps are in the best interest of our congregation.
Answers to other questions you may have:
*I will handle pastoral issues, including home communion, on a case-by-case basis.
Please be advised that some hospitals, nursing homes, and retirement communities have taken precautionary measures that may prevent my visiting in certain instances.
*We will continue to pay all of our administrative, nursery, and housekeeping staff
at their usual rates so that none of them are financially burdened during this interruption of our usual community practices.
*Tuesday Morning Prayer will not meet.
*As of my last communication with them (this morning), Meals on Wheels will
continue uninterrupted in the Mission Hall.
*Our various Scout troops will cancel or continue events as they see fit and
will do their own communication. I have asked them to confine themselves to the Mission Hall and to wipe all surfaces and door handles with disinfectant after their gatherings.
*St. Liz is holding no official Life Groups for the remainder of March. However, your
house is your house. If you’d like folks to keep coming over, by all means invite them.
Thank you for your patience as we navigate this uncharted territory together. I remain grateful for all that you do and all that you are. While I do not welcome the Coronavirus or its interruption of our common life, I do pray that we have the grace to receive this as a great Hush from our Creator in the midst of our fevered lives.
I leave you with the words of the Psalmist (46:11-12):
“Be still, then, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth.” The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
This morning I spoke with the Hays County Health Department epidemiologist. As you can imagine, he’s been busy. The good news is that there are currently zero Coronavirus cases confirmed in our immediate area. While this is good news right now, we should be prepared to be extra responsible for the foreseeable future. I’m writing with how we’re going to do that at St. Liz.
Much is unchanged from my last communication:
If you’re sick, stay home!
Wash your hands thoroughly and often
Frequently and liberally use our many hand sanitizer dispensers
Continue to “Church” well
A few things are changing, though. Here are the details:
For the remaining Sundays in March…
1.) I am discontinuing the practice of intinction (dipping) at communion. Sip, don’t dip. Sipping is more sanitary than dipping, and receiving only the bread still ‘counts’ as communion. Sipping from the common cup involves a theoretical increase of risk for spreading disease, but in practice this risk is so low as to be undetectable.
2.) Given my observations of how difficult it can be for many of our children to sip carefully from the chalice, I am asking families with young and elementary aged children (5th grade and younger) to have their children receive the bread only. I will communicate this to the kids myself this Sunday and subsequent Sundays in March. At St. Liz we go out of our way to nurture and involve our children in all aspects of our common life, and I have no qualms about asking their help in caring for our wider congregation in this way until Coronavirus concerns have significantly decreased.
3.) We will pass the Peace verbally and with hand signals but without physical contact. Thus far, I have reminded us that it is perfectly acceptable to bow or wave during the Peace and have asked us to respect each other’s boundaries in this regard. However, to continue in this way puts the burden of maintaining firmer physical boundaries on the folks who want firmer boundaries, which is to say the burden is on those who are most concerned during a time of heightened anxiety. I think we can be more loving than that. Once folks are hanging out at coffee hour, or saying goodbye in the parking lot, folks are going to do what folks are going to do. I realize and respect that and am not at all trying to micromanage all the ways we interact as Church. But the liturgy is different. As our Godly Play leaders remind the kids, and as I remind the kids before we set the Learning Altar, the work we are doing is special, and our bodies have to be ready. Right now, while concerns and risk are higher than usual, a ready body is one willing to love his or her neighbor from a bit more distance than we might usually like.
That’s a look at what is changing for the next few weeks. Here are some things that are not changing:
We will continue to hold all our Sunday morning services and Tuesday Morning Prayer.
Newcomers Class will continue.
We have Lay Eucharistic Visitors who are ready and waiting to visit those unable to make it to worship.
Godly Play will continue.
Our new Children’s Chapel Choir Experiment will still begin this Sunday during the 11am service.
As of this writing, there are no changes to our Holy Week or Easter schedules.
Deacon Thom’s Sunday School class will continue. (He was always planning to be away on March 22, though.)
Life Groups will continue. If any Life Groups feel the need to change how, where, or when they gather, I am happy to assist if I’m able, but I trust hosts and leaders to have those conversations with the members of each particular group.
And as always, we will continue to be smart, calm lovers of God and His Church!
Finally, I am available if you’ve concerns or need to talk. You remain in my prayers, and I ask that you add to your own prayers the many medical and public health professionals who are burning the midnight oil on our behalf.
In our faithful observance of Lent, we are invited into a season of “self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word” (from the Liturgy for Ash Wednesday, BCP, p. 265). In his post last week, Father Daniel commended two specific practices for us to consider in our Lenten observances this year: the use of the rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent (sometimes called “Confession”), and incorporating the Psalms into our prayer life. I’ll be writing here about the latter. Building on Father Daniel’s helpful guidance of using the day-of-the-month tags (which are sprinkled conveniently throughout the Psalter as it appears in our prayer book) that link particular psalms to either Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer, I’d like to suggest that engaging in such a rhythm echoes the one that naturally beats at the center of our being. For prayer has always been the heartbeat of our souls, just as the Psalms have long been at the heart of prayer.
The Psalms themselves might be thought of as a heartbeat, moving often from laments or woes that constrict, to ebullient praise and expansive worship—not unlike the way our heart contracts and expands, thus sustaining our body. In fact, the Hebrew word for “heart” pulses throughout the Psalms, occurring more than a hundred times in the Psalter—and nearly a thousand times throughout the Bible! There are, of course, plenty of instances when that word in the Hebrew Scriptures is meant simply to signify the internal (if excitable) organ, such as the prophet’s “wildly beating heart” in Jeremiah (4:19). But in the overwhelming majority of its biblical occurrences, the heart implies something distinctly more than the blood-pumping machine with which we associate the word today.
The biblical heart represents the human person in our entirety and, especially, in relationship to God. In all of these instances, the heart is seen to represent not only the totality of the human person, but the location where we experience union with the divine nature. As Paul wrote to the church in Galatia: “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts” (Galatians 4:6), or in other words, our very being. Similarly, Paul prays that Christ may dwell not in the minds of the Ephesians but in their hearts through faith (3:17). So too did the mystic and monk John Climacus note in the sixth century that when the psalmist sang “I cried out with all my heart” (Psalm 118:145), the psalmist was referring not only to the bodily organ, but also to the soul and spirit.
While the contemporary heart has come to be most closely associated figuratively with the emotions—and love in particular—it originally represented something much more expansive and integrative than that. The biblical heart not only felt but also listened, thought, reasoned and instructed. Saint Augustine couldn’t help but speak of the heart in metaphorical terms; he referred to this central organ of belief more than two hundred times in his Confessions, beginning with one of the most beautiful and still-resonant lines in the language of faith: “our heart is restless, O God, until it rests in You.” Thus, Augustine not only placed the heart at the very center of our soul’s longing, he identified its ultimate source and destination: our hearts always have and always will belong to God.
I fear we’ve lost much of this notion of the heart today—except, that is, in our prayer life, where it still makes sense that our hearts not only pump blood, but also think and know and hope and feel deeply. The psalmists surely knew this; for them our hearts could not only beat but also leap for joy, or melt like wax, or sing with gladness. While the Psalms are surely poems and hymns, they are unlike any other poetry we know. They do not rhyme sounds and syllables that only our ears and minds can discern, so much as images and ideas that only make sense in the chambers of the muscle that beats in the center of our being, where our hearts can rhyme with a deer longing for water in the desert.
Part of my daily prayer practice is to lift my heart up to God. (We all do something similar each Sunday at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer when Father Daniel says, “Lift up your hearts” and we respond joyfully, “We lift them up to the Lord!”). In my personal practice, I ask God to “make my heart beat to your rhythm”, and pray that my heart might somehow rhyme with the magnificent muscle at the center of Jesus’ being. To be honest, though, when I lift my heart up to God in my daily prayers, it isn’t always joyful; sometimes I lift up a troubled heart; other times a thankful one, and still others a contrite and repentant heart. And therein lies the bewildering and bewondering beauty that brings me to my knees to begin with. Because whatever is on our hearts when we lift them up to God, the Maker of our hearts reaches out to receive them, gathers up all that we offer, and holds it all tenderly in God’s own wide heart of mercy. Because not only does God already know what is on our hearts before we lift them up; God knows each and every one of us by heart.
This past week in our adult Sunday School, in which we are making our way through the Psalms, we paid particular attention to the blessedness of confession and the forgiveness of one who repents. This coming Sunday we will spend some time with the contrite and repentant heart of David, someone after God’s own heart, as he pours out his particularly Lenten remorse: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10). As you proceed in making and keeping a holy Lent this season, I pray that the Psalms at the heart of our Scripture and Book of Common Prayer might somehow inspire your prayer life. Please know that you are always welcome to drop in to the Psalms study class that meets every Sunday between the two services.
You don’t need to bring anything other than your God-given and beautiful heart!
In Christ’s Love,
by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund | February 27, 2020
A blessed Lent to you and yours. Today, I want to offer one idea for a possible Lenten discipline using the Psalms, and call your attention to a sacramental spiritual tool the Episcopal Church offers: the Reconciliation of a Penitent, what we commonly call Confession.
First, an idea for a Lenten discipline: read the Psalms. This is a good and ancient practice in its own right, but this year, as I mentioned at our Ash Wednesday service, the Psalms are also the book of the bible Bishop Reed has invited us to study.
We’re giving special attention to the Psalms in two ways at St. Liz. First, our deacon and seminarian, Thom, is leading an adult Sunday School class on the Psalms right now. It’s in the Mission Hall, in between Sunday services, the same time as Godly Play so the kids have somewhere to go, too. Thom is a gifted and insightful teacher; I commend his class to you. Thom will be away on March 22, but otherwise his class should continue through the spring.
Another way we’re attending carefully to the Psalms at St. Liz is by singing them on Sunday mornings. Christians have been singing the Psalms for centuries, letting the weight of the melody sink the words deeply into our memories.
But you can pray the Psalms on your own, too. The Book of Common Prayer encourages this. If you follow the Daily Office lectionary, you’re already praying Psalms morning and evening. If you’re not, however, there’s an even simpler way. (Granted, being simpler to use than the Daily Office lectionary isn’t saying much!)
Turn to page 785 in your Book of Common Prayer. You’ll notice that right above Psalm 132, it says “Twenty-eighth Day: Morning Prayer.” All through the Psalter in the BCP, there are little tags like this. The idea is simple: in the morning of the 28th day of a month, you start reading the Psalms right there, and you keep reading until you see “Twenty-eighth Day: Evening Prayer.” Once you get to the tag for evening of the 28th day, you stop. That evening you pick up your BCP again and start reading the Psalms where you left off, and you keep reading until you see “Twenty-ninth Day: Morning Prayer.”
I start on page 785 because most of us get this newsletter on a Friday morning, and this Friday is February 28th. So, if you were to start today, you would start on page 785 and read Psalms 132-135 this morning. Then, Friday evening, you’d read Psalm 136-138. Then on Saturday morning of February 29th, you’d read Psalms 139-140. On March 1st, you go back to the beginning of the Psalter. And so on.
It’s easy, and you can start and stop as you need. All you need to know is what day of the month it is, and then go find either the morning or evening Psalms. Done!
Second, I want to call your attention to a lesser used sacramental rite of the Episcopal Church: the Reconciliation of a Penitent, or what we usually call “Confession.”
You may be wondering, “Wait, don’t we confess our sins every week?” Yes. The words are familiar. The deacon or priest says, “Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor,” and then we begin, “Most merciful God…”
These words are part of our general confession, designed to be used together, week in and week out. The words we use to confess on Sundays are deliberately broad—“in thought, word, and deed”—and because we’re all saying them together, this general confession offers us a kind of personable anonymity. All this is as it should be for public worship.
Even though our Sunday confession is general, none of us actually sins in general, but with specificity. It is that coworker against whom I passively scheme. It is this marriage in which I have been a negligent spouse. It is that night all those years ago which still I cannot help but call to mind.
Because this is true, and because sometimes our specific sins continue to haunt us no matter how many general confessions we make on Sundays, in the Episcopal Church we have the sacramental rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent. In this rite, one confesses his or her sin or sins out loud to a priest. There is no anonymous crowd in which to let one’s voice become part of a multitude. When we seek the sacramental rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent, we hear ourselves own what we have done, out loud, and we do so in front of another person. He or she may offer counsel and encouragement, suggest a tangible form of penitence or thanksgiving, or (in extreme cases) temporarily withhold absolution until necessary actions are taken.
In the confessions I have heard, I have done a great deal of counseling and encouraging, some suggesting of penitential practices (usually to repair relationships), and never withheld absolution until certain actions have been taken.
I usually make my own confession in the days before Lent and (some years) in the days before Advent, as well. Both are seasons of preparation, of getting our soul’s house in order, and Lent in particular is a season of penitence. Going to confession is part and parcel of that for me. I made my confession on Monday of this past week. It was long overdue, and I felt more at home in my life afterwards.
I rarely feel as exposed as I do when I’m making my confession. This is why the Book of Common Prayer describes the rite in this way:
“The content of a confession is not normally a matter of subsequent discussion. The secrecy of a confession is morally absolute for the confessor [i.e. the priest], and must under no circumstances be broken.” (pg. 446)
When my confessor hears my confession, not only is the confidentially morally absolute for him as he goes about the rest of his week and has conversations with others, but he also does not bring it up tome again. If he sees me the next week, he doesn’t say, “So, how are you doing with the you know what we talked about the other day?” When absolution is declared, the sins really are absolved. A new page is turned. We are not confronted with them again; they are forgiven.
I offer all of this as a resource, not as a prescription. The rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent is in the Book of Common Prayer, with a description on page 446 and the rite itself beginning on page 447. You are welcome to read it. You’ll notice that there are two forms, one on page 447 and one on page 449. There are some historical reasons for having two forms, but practically speaking, Form One can be better for very specific sins one wishes to confess. Form Two can be better when one needs more space for talking. This can be good if the confession is part of a significant conversion or change of life for the Penitent, or if the Penitent desires to confess a great deal about a portion of his or her life, or if the Penitent lacks the virtue of concision (like me) and is simply more comfortable with talking a lot.
A confession can be heard anywhere that is private. At St. Liz, I usually close the church for a brief time and hear them inside the altar rail. The priest usually sits, and the person confessing can either sit or kneel.
Finally, the Reconciliation of a Penitent isn’t limited to Lent; it’s always available. If ever you are interested, simply reach out, and we’ll set up a time.