A year later

Yesterday was a strange kind of anniversary for us. It was March 17 - Saint Patrick’s Day - one year ago that our Church Board voted to suspend in-person worship. It was the third Tuesday of March, the usual meting date for our Church Board. The fact that it was Saint Patrick’s Day makes it easy for us to remember. The initial suspension was for two weeks to allow for a deep cleaning of the building and to evaluate the pandemic. It was, of course, the beginning of a much longer period and things have not yet gone back to “normal.” In fact, we now know that as in-person worship resumes, things won’t go back to the way that they were. Like most other congregations, the one that was our church home in Rapid City, South Dakota has already made a commitment to offering worship on social media as a permanent part of its life. It has invested in new equipment to make that possible. There are many other signs that things have been changed by the pandemic.

Recalling the decision of March 17, 2020, brings to mind a series of decisions that were made that changed things drastically. After the initial two-week suspension, continuing the suspension was just the start. Our Holy Week activities were cancelled as well. We had big plans for Holy Week last year. The Tuesday Blues Night concert was shaping up to be one of our biggest and best. We had new artists lined up and were considering offering continuous music in two different rooms of the church with brass and piano jazz added to the evening’s activities. The Synagogue of the Hills, following the previous year’s Seder Dinner, was lined up for an even bigger event for the two congregations to work together on the Wednesday Seder. The choir was rehearsing a cantata for Maundy Thursday. We had confirmands preparing for the rite of confirmation who had expressed some interest in a Great Vigil.

It wasn’t just worship that had to be reinvented.

We were informed that we could no longer visit in nursing homes. Then we learned we could not visit at the hospital. The activities that were at the heart of our vocation were suspended. Bible study classes ceased meeting and one of our Bible study classes was a gathering of senior women many of whom did not have access to computers for online meetings.

The church, however, does not cease being the church when there is pressure. We scrambled and worked. Just getting the first week’s worship service on to Facebook was a challenge for us. We hadn’t done any livestream activities prior to that Sunday. Suddenly we were committing to offering livestream every week. We scrambled to put together a telephone calling tree to get in touch with all of our members. We did a thorough review of our addresses and information of our members to determine who could access online worship and who could not. We devised a check-in system for isolated members and started a weekly newsletter for those who could not access our computer services.

We were working hard. I also remember March 17, 2020 because it was the start of the longest period of my life when I worked without a day off. I went to the office for part of the day every day from that day through our retirement. There was no lack of things to do.

Yesterday, on the anniversary of all of those big changes, we were once again aware of how different the life of the church is during the pandemic. Susan is the guest preacher in the congregation in which we are participating here in Washington. That means her face and her sermon will be on the “livestream” this Sunday. But it won’t be live. We recorded the sermon yesterday. Before the pandemic, being a guest preacher meant preparing a sermon and showing up early for worship. Yesterday we had to transform our living room into a recording studio so that we could make a video that will be incorporated into the streamed worship at our church on Sunday.

After recording the sermon and watching it to make sure that the recording worked and after uploading the video files to the Internet so that they can be incorporated into the worship service, we took a short walk before eating our supper. We were eating early because I am participating in a Lenten Study group that meets over Zoom. Since we had the living room set up with lights, I used that space for my Zoom meeting.

As we walked, we were talking about all of the extra work that the lead pastor of our congregation here is doing and how all of the extra email, extra technical work, extra zoom meetings must be taking a toll on her. In addition to all of the extra work of pandemic church life, one of the ministers of her team is on medical leave, which increases her work load as well. Volunteering to preach one sermon each seemed like a way to help just a little bit.

We have the luxury of being able to give the process a bit more time than a working preacher. Being retired means that Susan could devote several days to writing and re-writing her sermon. A couple of times I came home to discarded pages of writing on the floor as she worked on a new draft. Then we had the luxury of doing multiple “takes” to get the recording we wanted. With all of the practice sessions, I got to listen to the sermon at least three times yesterday. A working pastor doesn’t have an entire day to set aside for just working on a sermon.

Our retirement meant that our lives would undergo a dramatic change regardless of the pandemic. The pandemic, however, changed things in different ways than we anticipated.

The Reformation is not some static process that occurred in history and has been completed. It is, rather, a continuing process. We are reformed over and over again. This pandemic has given a new expression to the reformation. Change is a way of life for the church. And we will be reformed through the process.

Still, I hope our memories of this year will be a bit more gentle than our memories of 2020.