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Fasting from the Body of Christ and Fasting from the Eucharist

I don’t know if I remember the last time I went this long without communion. Maybe I never have. 

Public gatherings in the church that I serve have been suspended since the middle of March. On March 15th we last gathered for in-person worship with a Service of the Word. We last shared the Eucharist together March the 8th, over 3 weeks ago. And to be sure, those three weeks have felt like 3 years with the daily, hourly even, updates about the state of the COVID-19 Pandemic across the globe and in our respective nations and in our local communities. 

My congregation is far from alone, all churches in the city I live in can only have up to 10 people in attendance if they are still holding public worship. Most cancelled in-person gatherings weeks ago and have moved to streaming worship online or finding other means to maintain relationship and connections like phone calls, emails, recorded messages, letters, zoom meetings etc…

The need to practice physical distancing measures has been taken up for the sake of each other. A sacrifice of community for the sake of community. 

And it hasn’t been easy to cease our in-person gatherings. 

Many people are working from home, often with kids who are schooling at home. Others are health-care workers putting in long, stress filled hours. Still others are elderly or immunocompromised and self-isolating, not even venturing out for the basics but relying on others.

We all have been making do the best we can. We have been worshipping on Facebook live. I have been writing regular pastoral letters to our email list, on the phone with others, sending lots of texts. We are physically apart, but socializing and relationship maintaining as best we all can. 

But it is hard. 

There was a death in our church community, and the funeral was a small, private and brief grave-side service in the cold tundra of Manitoba. Not how we would usually gather to worship and pray in the face of death.

Still others have had surgeries cancelled,  and others laid off or losing business and income. 

Things aren’t normal, our community isn’t as it should be. There is something fundamentally changed and different about us in this time. 

We are fasting from each other. Not by choice, but by circumstance. 

I am starved for community. 

Even with the zoom meetings, Facebook live worship, and FaceTime calls. Even with the emails, social media, text messages and phone calls. 

We are fasting from community and it sucks.  

And for many Christians, this first fast is necessitating a secondary fast. 

The first fast is from the Body of Christ that is the gathered assembly: the people that you usually see in the pew next to yours, hear the voice of behind you during the hymns, hug during the sharing of the peace, pass the offering plate to, sidle up shoulder to shoulder with at the communion rail, shake hands with on the way to coffee and a cookie. The people that have attended to your baptism, and children’s baptism, and grand-children’s baptism, who have marked decades of Christmases and Easters with you, who have served egg-salad sandwiches with you at many funerals, flipped burgers with you at church picnics, called when your dad was in the hospital, baked a casserole when your grandma died, sent a card for your birthday. 

And not being able to gather for in person worship has meant not being able to share in the Lord’s Supper.

Fasting from one Body, means fasting from the other. 

In a world where so much feels like it is being ripped away, to have to sacrifice the Lord’s Supper can feel cruel. 

If you have been anywhere near clergy on social media in the past few weeks, you will have seen the prominent debate around this issue. In particular, a strong division over whether or not it is possible to have communion “online.” For a pastor or priest to preside on one end of the camera and for a parishioner to receive the Eucharist on the other end of the computer. 

Already several pastors and congregations have begun offering “virtual” communion. And this is being done so as to offer comfort and familiarity, connection and relationship. Which I completely understand as someone charged with the care of a congregation. I get it. 

And yet, I simply cannot deny that this time is uncomfortable and unfamiliar. It is disconnected and isolating. 

And trying to find a loophole through which to keep on as if nothing can change our worship life and the way we are connected as a community seems disingenuous. 

In fact, I wonder what it says to the world beyond our church communities about how this pandemic is affecting us. Even in the midst of this crisis that impacts nearly every arena of society, the only real impact on our worship life is watching church from the comfort of my couch or kitchen table rather than our favourite pew?

While I often try to name and promote the incredible power of social media and digital technology to create real honest community, I don’t pretend that it is no different than the in body, in flesh experience of in person community. The power of digital media is to create community despite being separated by distance or circumstance. To stay connected to family living far away, friends across the nation and across borders. And also create new connections. To meet new people across the world who share the same interests, passions and faith. Some of the people I most regularly talk to in my day to day life are people I have never met in person, yet people who hold an important place in my life.

But the power of in person community is to connect in an incarnational way. To recognize that my in flesh experience of my siblings in Christ imparts a sense of the incarnate Christ. To hear, see, touch, smell and taste the body of the assembly and the sacrament in person is to hear, see, touch, smell and taste Christ. And to do so very particularly in the Eucharist that we boldly claim is an embodied reality of the divine.

An embodied reality of salvation, forgiveness and life. 

This essential quality of the Lord’s supper cannot be communicated digitally, no matter our desire for it. When I order something from Amazon it doesn’t come flying out of my computer screen at my face. It still needs to be picked up off a shelf, mailed, transported, and delivered to me. 

The limitation isn’t the Holy Spirit’s, but the medium’s.

Yet!

And yet!

We still have the Word. 

The Word which has always been mediated outside of the body, in language, time and space. 

The church has from the beginning used the technology available to transmit the Word. Whether it was Paul’s writings and the writings of the early church, or the art and music of the Middle Ages, or the printing press of the Reformation or the telegraph, telephone, radio and television of the modern era. (None of which became means for transmitting the Eucharist remotely). 

The proclamation of the Word has always transcended bodies and mediums even as the Lord’s Supper has been deeply rooted in our bodies and flesh.  Our assembled body in worship – the local congregation or ministry community –  is transformed into the very Body of Christ that we partake in when we gather to hear the Word and receive the Lord’s Supper together. 

And so in this time of imposed fasting from the gathered Body of Christ found in local assemblies, we must also fast from the Eucharist. Not because church leaders, theologians and bishops have reminded us that it can be good for us… but because we have no other choice. Because we are staying home and staying away in order to love our neighbour.

Our fast from the Body of Christ has been imposed upon us by circumstance. No matter how much we, as clergy, desire to care for and love our people in the midst of crisis, we cannot continue to deny that we are not deeply affected and changed by the physical distancing measures of this time, even as they may last months. We cannot pretend that our worship life isn’t deeply altered by having to #StayHome. We cannot portray to the world that we are little enclaves of ritual unimpacted by the suffering of the world around us. We cannot find loopholes through this imposed fast, we are separated in a real and life-changing way. 

And most importantly we cannot continue to act as though the Word of God is insufficient. 

Because it is more than enough. 

The Word alone in this moment of crisis is all that we need. It is enough to offer the care and love that our people need. 

And it is the vital thing that we need to share with an imminently suffering world.

Sunday morning zoom communion will feel callous in the face of those dying alone in quarantine, to those unable to get a ventilator to fill their lungs with life saving oxygen, those unable to receive a hospital bed because there is a waiting list already, those suffering at home and unable to breathe enough to find some bread and wine to serve themselves, or too sick to keep down any food. Let alone all those who cannot be online. 

Virtual communion rings too true to the Eucharistic controversy in 1 Corinthians 11, where some would feast while others starved. It rings too true to one of the primary objections of the Reformers that priests were saying mass by themselves in dark corners of churches to earn merit remotely for paying customers.

We cannot try to tend to our own fears in our own little bubbles while the world suffers. We cannot try to pretend that our gathering in person, in physical bodies together as the local assembly is not an essential part of the Eucharist. We cannot give into the fear that God’s Word is not all that we need, even as we feel helpless to do much of anything meaningful.

God’s promise to us from the beginning of creation is that the Word alone in this or any moment of crisis is all that we need.

The Word’s promise of mercy, life and salvation might be the only hope that will bring any comfort to so many who are about to land in our laps as clergy and as communities of the faithful. Words that have to be spoke through phones and tablets held up to the dying in quarantine,  streamed to the scared and isolated suffering at home, to the overburdened front-line workers who may have no other source of strength left to care.

The Word of God is not only what we as the scattered Body needs, but the world needs right now. As governments strain and crack under the pressure, as people struggle pay rent and buy food, as we hope that a treatment or vaccine is around corner but will take some time, the Good News of Christ the Word meets us here and now. If there is an emergency that the church is about to face, it is not how to get communion to the faithful stuck at home, but how to speak God’s promise of grace, mercy and life to the sick, scared, grieving and dying among us.

And the Word of God will meet our needs, despite our fears.

The Word of God who brings life to the dying, mercy to the suffering, and comfort to the lonely is enough. 

The Word of God who has endured this passion journey before us is sufficient. 

The Word of God who promises that COVID-19 will not define us. That social distancing and isolation will not be all the we are. That death will not be our end. 

Even as Good Friday may loom larger than we ever imagined possible, the Word of God who walks with us out of the tomb at Easter is all the grace we need… God would not allow it to be any other way. 

And so we fast. 

Not because we want to or because it is good for us. 

But because it is simply reality. We fast for the sake of our neighbour, for the sake of the world. 

We fast from community, from the gathered Body of Christ. We fast from the Body and Blood of Christ, because we are fasting from community, from each other in flesh that reveals the incarnate Christ. 

And yet in us, God still proclaims the Good News that the world needs to hear, that we need to hear. 

And it will be enough. 

HOW TO CLOSE YOUR DOORS AND STILL BE CHURCH: COVID-19 Pastoral Letter

Here is a Pastoral Letter that I shared with my congregation, which you are welcome to adapt and use in your congregation in the face of suspending public gatherings.

Dear friends,

Grace and Peace to you from our Lord and Saviour, Jesus who is the Christ.

I am sure you have been listening to and reading the news. Each day brings more restrictions on our daily lives. School classes suspended, more workers working from home, the closing of public places like libraries and recreation centres, and now restaurants and bars in some jurisdictions. 

I am sure you feel anxious and nervous as I do. We don’t know what is coming next for us and we don’t know how long we will be here. 

Here at the church, we are not immune to the changes either. Our leaders have been offering guidance over the past number of days, as the Bishops distributed pastoral letters that encouraged us to change our behaviour and worship to limit the spread of COVID-19, particularly to those who are most vulnerable. 

As this Pandemic situation progresses, we are learning that this is not enough. That the best way to combat the spread of the coronavirus, is to practice social distancing. And the best way to social distance, is to stay home as much as possible.

Following the recommendations of our Bishops, with the care of one another first and foremost in mind,

The time has come for us to enact a suspension of all our public, in-person gatherings. 

Beginning immediately, there will be no public events at the church, no committee meetings, or other types of gatherings with many people in attendance. Our worship services will be moved entirely to an online streaming format. Our meetings as they are needed, will be done over zoom. 

We do not know for how long these measures will be enacted, but at a minimum we will not be worshipping until Holy Week and anticipate the suspension lasting longer. 

It is a hard decision to make. Gathering as a community is so central to our identity as people of faith. I already am missing seeing you and it is only been 48 hours since we last met. And yet, suspending our in person gatherings does not mean we are closed, does not mean we are no longer a community, does not mean that we stop being the church, the body of Christ. 

So what can we do?

Streaming 

Well, as has already begun last week, worship services will be streamed on our Facebook Page. Anyone can access our Facebook Page, even if you don’t have a Facebook account. www.facebook.com/sherparkwpg.

Our Sunday morning, services will continue to begin at 10:30am. 

Mid-week Lenten services will continue on Thursday evenings. 

All streamed services are available afterwards, so if you are late there is no worry, you can still start from the beginning. 

Giving

As I mentioned in my last Pastoral letter, this will be a time when so many will have affected incomes, including the congregation. 

I encourage you to continue to give to support the church. 

I will do my best to maintain a presence in the office, and to make the church available for drop-offs. 

Additionally, the mailbox will be monitored daily. So offering can be mailed or dropped of (Remember no cash, just cheques). 

You can also consider donating through our PayPal account, which is found at www.sherpark.ca/donate

There you can make one-time donations, or set up a recurring donation. 

Finally, many of you already give through Pre-Authorized remittance. Consider increasing if you are able. Get in touch with the church office and our treasurer team if you would like to begin. 

In this weeks and months in particular, those with fixed incomes will be an asset to the congregation,  beyond.  

But giving offering isn’t going to be the only way to give. 

Caring

There are many in our community who will be affected by this time of social distancing and isolation. 

Those who use the services of the food banks and shelters that we support will need extra support. So Consider dropping off extra food a supplies if you are able. Call head or make an appointment to come at a time when someone can be here to receive the items. 

Others will be without transportation, many will be self-isolating because of age or compromised immune systems. Consider helping by picking groceries, perscriptions and supplies. Get in touch with the church if you need help in this way or can help in this way. 

Checking-In

Finally, we are community. We are connected and belong to each other, even if we aren’t gathering. Phone, text, email, Skype, FaceTime, write letters. Being at home doesn’t mean we cannot connect. 

If anyone would like a regular phone call or check-in, let me know and we can make arrangements!

We are living in strange and unprecedented times. No one knows where will be next week, next month, next year. But we do know that this is going to change us. Our part is to let that be a change for the worse or the better. 

Thankfully, we also have a God who has something to say about this time of hardship and suffering. The isolation and distance will not define, we will remain children of God. The possibility of sickness will not change to whom we belong. The One who names we bear will always be the one who brings us from death into life, from seemingly hopeless graves to rolled away stones and upper rooms. 

We are Christ’s. No virus, or enforced time alone will change that. 

And so Almighty God

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

Bless, preserve and keep us

This day and forevermore 

Pastor Erik+

A Pastoral Letter During the Days of COVID-19 – How Churches Can Respond

Here is an adapted pastoral letter that I sent to my congregation, which hopefully will give you some ideas of how to respond to the COVID-19 Global Pandemic:

Monday, March 16th, 2020

Dear friends in Christ, 

Grace and Peace to your from our Lord and Saviour

As each day brings us new changes and adaptions to our lives as our community, nation and world attempts to combat the COVID-19 Pandemic, it is very easy to be overwhelmed by it all. 

Everything and everyone feels hysterical. As the world closes down, people also rush to find ways stock up on provisions and supplies, including an abundance of toilet paper!

Let us be mindful of the urging of Public Health Officials and leaders to remain calm. Nearly all changes being made to how we conduct our lives are precautionary and preventative. They are efforts to slow the spread of the virus so as not to overwhelm health care workers and hospital capacities. 

Churches are also adapting and changing as seems prudent. 

Church Services Streaming and Online

On Sunday March 15th, we began live streaming our worship in addition to our in person gathering. Many Churches already live stream, and many began last Sunday too. 

(You can access our live stream from our Facebook Page www.facebook.com/sherparkwpg )

NOTE: You do not need a Facebook account to access a Facebook page, just an Internet capable device. Anyone can watch!

For those who know members who aren’t online, help them to get online as much as possible. Now might be a good time to teach email, basic social media, video calling and more. At the very least, share with them the information that the church is sending out during this time!

Alternate Ways to Give

As is being regularly reported, there are going to be economic effects to the closure and shut down of many places that rely on the public to gather. Many small business will suffer lost income. As we all try to stay home more, consider ordering delivery or take-out, consider calling local stores to see if they will deliver their wares to you, consider supporting businesses in whatever way you can. 

The church will also be affected, as services anticipate smaller numbers for worship, or the likelihood that public gatherings will be suspended (in person). Please consider as you are able, ways that you can continue to give and support the churches during this time. 

And many churches will try to keep their offices open as much as possible: checking phone messages, picking up the mail and being present. Consider dropping off or mailing in offering. Consider sending post-dated cheques if possible. 

Many churches also have ways to give online. A good time to begin using online tools! 

Thank you to those who are already giving through Pre-Authorized remittance, that choice will make a significant difference in the weeks and months to come. 

Changes to services and programs 

Expect that the churches will have changes to programs and worship services. It difficult to imagine, hard to change and anxiety inducing. But it doesn’t mean churches are closing. We still belong to each other and we still belong to God.  

Community Care Plans

In the coming days and weeks, we will have the opportunity to care for one another. Churches are unique communities who already practice communicating and organizing on a large scale. We can work together to help out those in need, delivering supplies, picking up mail or offering etc…

If you need help with getting groceries or other supplies, please email or call the church. If you can deliver or pick up things, let the church know so that you can be connected with those in need. 

As well it will be important for us to remember those in need to continue supporting the food bank programs that the church supports. Many churches will be making plans to collect extra food and supplies to be passed on to food banks.

Finally, I offer this prayer for our use at this time:

We pray to you almighty God, in this time of anxiety and apprehension. You are our refuge and our strength, a very present help in time of trouble. Do not let us fail in the face of these events. Uphold us with your love, and give us the strength we need. Help us in our confusion, and guide our actions. Heal the hurt, console the bereaved and afflicted, protect the innocent and helpless, and deliver any who are still in peril; for the sake of your great mercy in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

From Evangelical Lutheran Worship Pastoral Care

Yours in Christ, 

Pastor Erik +