God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change.

Psalm 46:1-2

It was a year ago this week that it all began – the pandemic which has changed so much in our world. Our congregation had a full weekend of ministry March 7-8, 2020. We hosted a statewide gathering of our NC Lutheran Men in Mission on Saturday the 7th, which is where we heard that the first case of this new coronavirus had been identified in Raleigh, but we didn’t think too much of it. On Monday the 9th I headed to Georgia for five days of continuing education. Everything happened so quickly that week. The world changed radically before I returned home that Friday. I thought I would just share a few of my memories here, as a way of processing that week, and preserving its memory. 

By Wednesday the 11th, news about COVID-19 was unavoidable. The NBA cancelled all of its games, then the ACC tournament and NCAA tournament were cancelled. I began to wonder how this virus might affect our congregational life going forward, but I still had no idea what lay ahead. After conversations with our council president, I sent an email out on Thursday the 12th. Here is what I wrote:

Dear Friends in Christ,

This has been an unsettling week, hasn’t it? Every day this week, the COVID-19 pandemic has dominated the news and probably our thoughts and conversations, too. And I suspect that I am not the only one who feels an underlying anxiety that is getting harder and harder to ignore. And not being able to watch events like the ACC Tournament and March Madness makes it even more difficult to escape all of this. 

I happen to be in Georgia right now, at Columbia Theological Seminary, for a conference on prayer, but even here our prayers and conversations have been more and more about this worsening pandemic. I will be returning to Albemarle tomorrow, and, as of now, we are not cancelling any Sunday activities at First Lutheran. We will certainly be making changes to our worship services in order to do our part in helping to prevent the spread of this illness. This will include changing how we share the peace and how we distribute holy communion, among other things. Our Council president, Karen, and I will continue to monitor this evolving situation and share any updates with you when they are needed. 

In the meantime, I simply want to encourage you to do three things:

  1. Take seriously these prevention steps recommended by the CDC:
    1. Avoid contact with people who are sick
    2.  Stay home if you are sick
    3.  Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth
    4.  Wash hands often, with soap and water for 20 seconds
    5.  Cough or sneeze into a tissue or sleeve instead of into hands
    6.  Adults 65 and older, or have chronic health conditions (ex. Heart disease, lung disease, diabetes), or have weakened immune systems should avoid crowds and air travel.
  2. Pray! Pray for all those whose lives are being affected by this pandemic, physically, financially, socially, and even spiritually. 
  3. And finally: Don’t take your eyes off of Jesus! In the story of Jesus walking on the water in Matthew 14, it was Peter who did this. When he saw Jesus walking toward the boat on the water, he said to Jesus: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” (Now, to give Peter credit here, I don’t think I would have even considered making that request!) Jesus said to Peter, “Come,” and Peter did. And he was walking on water! Until he noticed the strong wind. He took his eyes off of Jesus. He became frightened, and began to sink. But even then, when he prayed in desperation, “Lord, save me!,” Jesus did. 

We are in the midst of a storm right now, and it is easy to get so caught up in the news and events taking place that we take our eyes off of Jesus. So I encourage you to limit your exposure to the news, if it is taking your eyes off of Jesus, and spend a little more time with scripture and in prayer. Go for a walk. Get out in nature. Listen to relaxing music. Read a good book. Spend time with family. Do all those things that feed your soul. Take care of yourself, and those you love, and trust that God is with us in this storm. 

In Christ,

Pastor James

That was my email on March 12. By the very next day, I had to send a follow-up email announcing the cancellation of all activities at our congregation. Here is what I sent:

Dear Friends in Christ,

This is a follow-up email to yesterday’s with some important updated information. We have now decided to cancel all activities at First Lutheran Church, including our worship services, through Wednesday, March 18th. This decision is being made in response to a request from our Bishop that all congregations in the North Carolina Synod discontinue all in-person congregational gatherings at least through March, including worship. We may decide to do that, but we are going to make that decision week to week. Bishop Tim’s full statement can be read below. 

Once again, I encourage your prayers for those being affected by this pandemic, and I look forward to the day when we can come together again as a church family to worship our Lord. 

In Christ,

Pastor James

Here is Bishop Tim’s complete message:

Dear NC Synod members,

As you know, the past 48 hours have been a whirlwind. COVID-19 is officially a worldwide pandemic. Cancelling March Madness and banning all travel from Europe underscore the secular seriousness. To be clear, this is no longer merely a “fear.” It is a reality that is already here and multiplying at light speed.

How do Christian communities respond most faithfully? The governor said no gatherings of more than 100, including worship. My Methodist bishop colleague in Eastern NC requests that congregations not gather, including worship, for at least two weeks. The Virginia Synod, ELCA, strongly suggested the same today. Some of our congregations have already canceled in-person gatherings for the short term. Several synod events scheduled for this weekend, including an ordination, have been postponed.

Unlike with some of our ecumenical partners, in the ELCA neither the synod nor the churchwide expression can dictate what you do. Congregations must make their own best decisions in their contexts. But the ONLY way to even slightly flatten the curve of infection and save as many lives as possible is through social distancing. I suggest, for the sake of the most vulnerable among us and with cumulative public health advice:

No in-person congregational gatherings at least through March, including worship.

Congregations, if possible, use live-streaming, FaceTime, etc. for worship & meetings. 

That people 65 & over not go out in public, including worship, for the time being. 

That folks make every effort to give online or mail in contributions to your congregations so that bills and salaries and local helping ministries are supported.

That if worship is held there be no physical touching of any kind. Sick folks stay home. 

Remember that as the economy sinks, the first and worst affected will be the poor, food insecure, etc. Check with your local food pantry for how to help/best practices. 

Yes, I understand that the above measures seem rather severe. I do not recommend them in panic or reactively but as a measured consideration of the alternatives. Yes, our resources are and will be severely impacted. But if one person lives because a congregation takes these measures, wasn’t it worth it? Blessings to all who navigate these uncertain and frightening times, especially those with the virus, anxious about it, caring for someone with it, or grieving someone lost to this illness. We trust always that God, in Christ, holds these times and holds each of us.

Your partner in ministry,

Timothy M. Smith

The next day, Saturday the 14th, I sent another email as I began thinking about what Sunday would look like. 

Dear Friends in Christ,

How shall we “remember the Sabbath day” when we cannot, because of the Coronavirus, come to church? I have put together an order for worship to be used for personal or family devotions tomorrow and posted it on my blog. You can find it here: Remember the Sabbath Day.

And, if you have not already done so, this would be a good time to sign up for online giving, as my family and I have done. This is a wonderful way to continue to support the church during this challenging time. With that in mind, I am re-posting below a message from our Stewardship Committee with instructions on how to do this. (You can also mail your weekly offering to the church office, if you prefer.)

Please reach out to me if you have any questions or concerns, and I know that I am not alone in looking forward to the day when we can come together as a church family once again to worship our Lord. 

In Christ,

Pastor James

Let us join with ELCA Lutherans around the country in lifting up this prayer offered by our Presiding Bishop:

God, our peace and our strength, we pray for our nation and the world as we face new uncertainties around coronavirus. Protect the most vulnerable among us, especially all who are currently sick or in isolation. Grant wisdom, patience, and clarity to health care workers, especially as their work caring for others puts them at great risk. Guide us as we consider how best to prepare and respond in our families, congregations, workplaces, and communities. Give us courage to face these days not with fear but with compassion, concern, and acts of service, trusting that you abide with us always, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

That Sunday, March 15, 2020, was one that I will never forget. I wrote a blog post about it (Reflecting on a Strange Sunday). Here is what I wrote: 

I woke up Sunday morning at my usual time this past Sunday, but then remembered that worship had been cancelled because of the Coronavirus. How disappointing! Sunday morning is my favorite time of the week, and leading worship is the best part of my job! And I know that many of you were disappointed, too, not to be able to attend worship. Of all the times not to be able to come to church! Just when we need it the most! But social distancing, and doing our part to help prevent the spread of this pandemic, meant that this would be a very different Sunday for us all. 

I had already posted my order of worship on this blog, and I used that for my morning prayers, and prayed for all of our church members who would be using it, too. And I thought about all of the silent, empty churches around the world on this very strange Sabbath. And my thoughts went to a surprising place: an ancient sermon, first preached on Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, that I try to read every year on that day. Here are its opening words: 

Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

Indeed, I thought, there is a great silence on earth today. Churches around the world, empty in an effort to reduce the spread of this pandemic. The earth trembling, even, as we all anxiously await the next steps in this unfolding drama. We are all in a time of waiting, a “Holy Saturday” time of waiting and wondering. And it is unsettling, isn’t it? Indeed, “Holy Saturday” times always are. 

But think back to that first Holy Saturday. Jesus had been crucified, but was not yet raised from the dead. And his disciples were afraid, and wondering what awaited them. They were locked away in the upper room. “Social distancing,” you might say, out of fear, and deeply anxious about what tomorrow would bring. We know, of course, what their tomorrow would hold – the miracle of the resurrection. But they didn’t know. Not yet. 

Is it so different now? We don’t know what tomorrow will hold, either. We are anxious and afraid, just as so many in our world seem to be. Our world is in a “Holy Saturday” time of waiting and wondering, not sure what tomorrow will bring. But you know what? We know exactly what tomorrow will bring. We don’t know exactly when tomorrow will come, but we know, as deeply as we know anything at all, that Easter Sunday always follows Good Friday. That Holy Saturdays don’t last, and that a resurrection awaits us all. 

I know that I am not alone in saying that I can’t wait for the day when we will be able to come together in worship again, and what a day of celebration that will be! But, in the meantime, in this “Holy Saturday” time of waiting, I encourage you to trust in the One who brings resurrection out of every death; trust in the One who promises that Easter Sunday is coming. 

And I encourage you, too, to share your faith and your hope and your trust in God’s promise. These are anxious times, and anxiety is just as contagious as any virus. But you know what else is contagious? Hope. And faith. And love. And joy. And kindness. And generosity. And compassion. So let’s make sure that we are spreading these things, and not just anxiety. Let’s make sure that we are being the church in the world, even if we can’t come to church on Sunday. And let’s pray for the day when Christians around the world can come together again, to worship and to give thanks to the One who brings new life to us all.

Little did I know at the time that I would spend the next year praying “for the day when Christians around the world can come together again.” Our congregation returns to in-person worship (again) this Sunday, thankfully, still with some needed safety protocols in place. And I am grateful to see things beginning to open up throughout our community, but I grieve for the lives that have been lost or forever changed by this pandemic. This past year has been a year like no other, in my life or in my ministry. Looking back, it is clear that God has been with us, a very present help in trouble, but it will take some time before we see all of this clearly and understand it all more fully.

There is obviously so much more that I could share here, and that I suspect I will keep sharing in future posts, but I will keep this post to this reflection on what happened a year ago this week.

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