Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Living as an offering in a time of pandemic

In 1878 a small band of Episcopal nuns, a couple of Episcopal priests, a number of Roman Catholic sisters and priests, and a few prostitutes, were doing what they could to minister to the sick and dying in Memphis, where typhoid fever had broken out and was ravaging the city.
The Mother Superior of the Sisters of Saint Mary, an Episcopal order, had just sent two more sisters from New York, Ruth and Helen.
Sister Ruth wrote, ““The city is desolate, everyone who is not ill says, ‘It is only a matter of time.’ … Money is quite useless … There is plenty of money here, but it buys no head to plan, no hands to wash, nor the common necessaries of life. … We are helpless and do not know what to do nor how help can come … There are nearly fifty children here now [in the orphanage]; we have no clean clothes, and it is utterly impossible to get any washing done. There is no one to send for supplies, and no stores are open.”
In a city of 50,000, 30,000 fled and 5,000 died. Sisters Ruth and Constance were among the dead.
In response to Ruth and Helen being sent to assist, Sister Constance wrote the Mother Superior this:
my sense of duty in the matter is so divided between the feeling that I ought to secure all the help I can for these poor suffering people, and the fear for those who come. I will guard them to the utmost; but they know and you know that they are offering their lives.
Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time in conversation, prayer, meeting, not to mention writing and publishing how we should respond to the latest viral disease to come along, this one called “coronavirus” or COVID-19, especially now that we are in this period of extended lock-down.
Right now, the conversation in much of the church is about how we care for ourselves (washing hands, sanitizer, limit contact, common cup, intinction, etc.). Before the lockdown, I sent out two e-mail blasts, and before that had conversations with parish leaders, sacristans, and medical professionals both in and outside the parish, and consulted with other clergy colleagues just to help us form a useful, do-able, and calm response in this congregation.
Interestingly, our conversation has shifted to matters of the spiritual life: our humility in the face of what we don’t fully understand and control; meditation upon death; adoration and love as our response to fear; and, sacrifice for the common good. I have spent much more time that I imagined on the phone, on video chats and conferences, and in texts and e-mails talking with folks about things spiritual, as people seek to make meaning and find grounding in this strange times.
I find myself over and over again returning that part of the Stations of the Cross, when we say at each stop “we adore you, O Christ, and we bless you.”
The media response to the news of the spreading virus has been anxious and high-pitched. As Christians, we will struggle to find our way out of the impulses of denial and catastrophizing. Those driven by anxiety and the crisis junkies will do what they do. The rest of us need to attend to adoration and kindness, devotion and compassion, reflection and sacrifice.
We’ve are doing everything that’s prudent to do. We are holding worship services and meetings on-line, and limiting our contact in person. We are a collection point for face masks and person protective equipment that people can donate to the Lehigh Valley Health Network. We are continuing to serve walk-ups at the Ark Community Meal. The trick is change our habits and figure out how to do what we do as a parish with generating additional anxiety.
Scripture says “True love casts out fear.” (I John 4:18). We cast out fear when we choose not cater to paranoid, frightened, anxious, or conspiracy driven people.
We cast out fear when we accept where we are and don’t deny it. We’ll face the facts, and we’ll make careful prudent choices. But most important of all, we cast out fear as we remain present to each other and continue to do our work as a parish community on behalf of all whom God has given us.
So, after you’ve washed your hands and learned the best information we have, the most important thing you can do is to turn your attention to the spiritual life. As we move through Lent in this time of crisis, let us move towards adoration and awe. Say the daily office (Morning & Evening Prayer, the Noonday office, and/or Compline using resources like Mission St. Clare (, walk the Stations with us by following the link on our website ( Join us for our on-line live and YouTube Weekday and Sunday worship services. Join with all the Saints, like Constance and her Companions, and offer intercession, adoration, and care for one another.
Give thanks for those on the front line of sacrifice. Medical workers and first responders, and all those who continue to go to work each day to provide transportation, food and supplies, and the working of government.
Pray this Lent and Holy Week to be willing to join in the common work of sacrifice. Accept in humility any needed restrictions upon your person that are for the safety of all. 
Listen and pray through the stories of those who serve the ill and dying, those who care for the dead, those who bear their illness with patience and courage. Tell the stories of perseverance and sacrifice.Participate in the beloved community. Be kind and gentle to all. Do not spread rumors nor give into anxiety. Seek the truth. Live hopefully. Walk in love.

Written on March 22, 2020 for the April newsletter of Trinity Episcopal Church, Easton, PA

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