Thursday, March 12, 2020

Proclaiming Faith in a Fearful Time

This piece appeared in this week's newsletter from St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, AR. To read the rest of the newsletter, click here.

As the church, we proclaim hope in the midst of trouble, peace when faced with a crisis, and faith in a time of fear. Because, in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has saved us from the terrors of sin and death, we share with others the good news that nothing has the power to defeat God’s unbreakable love for the world. That confidence—that faith—is not only what we say; it is who we are. Our belief in the saving power of God’s love is the foundation of everything we do as a congregation. It is why we come together on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. It is why we serve meals to hungry people who walk through our doors. It is why we teach children, youth, and adults about the way of Jesus. And, now as much as ever, our faith in God’s saving love must be at the center of our life together.

Being a community of confidence in uncertain times has never been easy, yet that has always been the church’s gift to the world. During persecutions and plagues, blitzes and blowups, the church has reminded its members and the world that God’s love cannot be defeated. Whether facing personal crises or societal catastrophe, people among us are desperate for the good news that, because of God’s love for them, they have reason to hope. In this time of pandemic, when vulnerable individuals have withdrawn from us and daily essentials like toilet paper are gone from store shelves, we must find ways to be a sign of hope for ourselves and others around us. Even in a moment of panic, we must be a church that reminds the world that God will triumph.

In order to do that, we must adapt to the concerns that COVID-19 is presenting us. Starting on Sunday morning, instead of celebrating Holy Eucharist, we will offer Morning Prayer at all three services, and, starting on Wednesday night, we will offer Evening Prayer in place of the usual Eucharist. The Eucharist is the church's principal way of expressing Jesus’ victory over sin, sickness, and death, but sharing Communion itself has become a sign not of that faith but of our fear of contagion. The bishop has forbidden the use of the common cup. Members of our congregation are preoccupied with legitimate concerns about physical contact during worship. Individuals are choosing to stay at home rather than come to church. Although it has not been an easy decision and will be disruptive to many, I believe that offering Morning Prayer in place of Communion is the right decision hygienically, pastorally, and theologically.

Morning Prayer is foundational to our tradition as Anglicans, and it is already a part of our parish’s daily worship. For many years, it was the principal weekly service in the vast majority of Episcopal churches. Although for us it will take the place of Holy Communion, this will not be a second-class service. As with every service at St. Paul's, it will be beautiful, holy, and rich. It will include readings, hymns, prayers, and a sermon. It will also allow for individuals who choose to stay home and watch online to participate fully in the service. And, more than anything, by minimizing physical contact during worship, it will allow us to continue to gather and proclaim our faith in a time when our community needs that as much as anything.

We are having to make other changes, too. Although we are committed to continuing to worship together, if local public schools close, we will take that as a sign that we need to suspend most of our other in-person programs. We are already taking steps to minimize the spread of germs, but we plan to cancel parish meals and other Sunday and weekday offerings if Fayetteville Public Schools close. That means some of our favorite things about St. Paul’s—Sunday School, coffee hour, weekday choir rehearsal, EYC, Bible studies, and many more—will have to suspend or, when feasible, to use online media to convene. Recovery groups will still be invited to meet on-site, and we hope to continue to offer Community Meals and Sunday Suppers as to-go meals. Pastoral visits will still be conducted, but clergy and other visitors will check to be sure that vulnerable individuals are open to receiving them. Through all of this, even when we need to limit our programs and ministries, we must continue to be a source of encouragement, strength, and hope for our community, and that requires all of us to do what we can to carry out the work of the church but in ways that keep each other safe.

What can you do? Again, wash your hands, and stay at home if you are sick or have any symptoms like a cough, runny nose, or fever. Stay at home if you are particularly vulnerable to illness, and let the clergy know how we can support you. You can use our YouTube channel to worship with us on Sundays and Wednesdays and watch the adult forum online, and we are hoping to adapt the Rector’s Bible Study and other offerings for online viewing.

If you are not worried about coronavirus and continue to come to church in person, remember that others around you are vulnerable, so consider avoiding interactions with at-risk groups and maintain increased social distance with everyone. Hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes are in short supply, so bring your own with you to church activities, and, if you have a surplus, consider donating some to the church. Stay tuned to St. Paul’s website, Facebook page, and email communications to know whether our offerings have changed. Throughout it all, pray for one another and for those among us who are sick or vulnerable and look for ways to be the church in new and different ways.

O God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and in confidence shall be our strength: By the might of your Spirit lift us, we pray, to your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, p. 832)

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