This isn’t the Easter column I thought I would write.
Our original Easter plans included a Palm Sunday processional and pancake breakfast, a potluck meal on Maundy Thursday, a sunrise gathering on Easter morning and a big traditional Easter worship service in the sanctuary with festive music, communion, and an egg hunt for the children.
In mid-March, in the blink of an eye, we found ourselves with the church building closed and all gatherings canceled, including worship. At first we thought it might only be a couple weeks. Then we realized we’d be closed through Easter. Now it looks like social distancing could last a long time, perhaps into the summer.
With lightning speed, the church adapted to being a church without walls. Our first attempt at on-line worship was a shaky hand-held video of the last sparsely-attended worship service we held in the building on March 15. It was broadcast on the church’s Facebook page, and we immediately found that we were joined not only by folks staying at home out of fear of infection, but also members and friends who have not been able to attend worship in person for a long time. A beloved member battling cancer was thrilled to be in worship for the first time in months. Snowbirds joined us from Florida. Former members living out of state signed on. Shut-ins and their caregivers participated in worship.
In subsequent weeks, our pastor Patrick Heery led worship via Facebook Live from his study. We are finding that “attendance” is much higher than it is for in-person worship. In addition to our regulars, we’ve welcomed community members, college students, friends whose own churches aren’t offering on-line worship, relatives of our members, and many others. Folks without internet listen in on phones held up to computer speakers. Not only are the gatherings large, they are interactive and lively, especially for us usually reticent Presbyterians. The comments section is full of prayer requests, greetings, responses, amens, and words of encouragement.
On Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Easter, we celebrated communion “together.” The sacrament of communion, as the very word suggests, is supposed to be shared in community, with the gathered congregation breaking bread and drinking juice together. During this time of crisis, our denominational leadership has approved new ways to share communion, faithful to the sacrament. As we gather on-line, Pastor Patrick breaks bread and pours juice, says the words of institution and blesses the elements, and invites us to eat whatever food and drink we have in our kitchens. Our “breads” are pancakes, goldfish crackers, cookies, toast, pop tarts, and granola bars. Our “wine” is orange juice, milk, water, coffee, tea, and wine (even champagne!). Communion this way is beautiful, sacred, and special. We recognize Jesus in our midst as we share common foods that sustain us, nourish us, and comfort us. For me, this has made the sacrament come alive in new ways.
On Easter Sunday, we worshiped in our own homes, not unlike the early followers of Christ who heard the good news of Jesus’ resurrection while huddled in their homes afraid, confused, and scattered.
We are learning a lot about how to be the church during this crisis. For many of us, our identity is strongly connected to the building in which we worship. I miss worshiping in the Westminster sanctuary with its inspiring Tiffany window and its magnificent Skinner pipe organ. I miss seeing the faces of my church family, singing hymns together, seeing the children run up the aisles, and gathering for studies and discussions (and even meetings). I look forward to worshiping together again.
But church buildings tend to compartmentalize our faith, making us think that God is only present to us for one hour on Sunday morning. But God’s grace reaches everywhere. While quarantined, we’re seeing faith lived out in our homes, on social media, and in the community throughout the week. Families are incorporating faith formation in everyday activities-- baking bread, making cards, sharing stories, and praying together. Individuals are reaching out to one another with phone calls and cards, making face masks, supporting local businesses, feeding the hungry, and showing Christ’s love through action.
Quarantine is changing how we are the church, and as strange as it sounds, a lot of it is for the better. When this is over, I think we’ll find ourselves appreciating what we’ve missed and returning to church with joy, but also continuing the new ways we are being the church beyond its walls.