Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I, send me.’
One of our first instincts in the face of calamity is to ensure the safety of those we love. So it is in this COVID-19 wilderness that we are calling one another more, asking the age-old question, “How are you?” We truly want to know and stay close even from a distance.
We start close in, because our hearts are wired that way. But rarely do we stop there–invariably the call of compassion draws us to consider others we don’t know who have been adversely affected by what threatens us all. Scientists suggest that empathy is an evolutionary response to help ensure the survival of the species. If so, it is also a God-given capacity for us to truly care for one another. “And who is my neighbor?” a lawyer once famously asked Jesus. In telling the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus makes it clear that a neighbor is one who demonstrates kindness.
A question that hovers around a crisis like this is “Where is God?” Let me be clear that in our church, human suffering is not interpreted as an expression of God’s anger; nor do we believe that God causes suffering. We believe God is present with us in suffering and able to bring good out of hardship. Still, we all struggle to feel God’s presence at times, doing our best to respond to glimpses of grace and the guidance for which we pray.
Another, equally important question is this: “Where are we?” Let me suggest that we are all here, present and accounted for. Some of us may need to stay home, but we’re not passive. Our heroes include not only medical professionals working long shifts, but also those who stock grocery shelves, deliver packages, and pick up trash. Those of us keeping physical distance are showing up in other ways–working from home, schooling our kids, holding things together, checking on our neighbors. We’re not perfect by any means, but we’re all rising to this moment in ways that can surprise even us.
As it turns out, deeds of kindness are precisely what we need in order to cope with our own sorrow and fear. In the words of Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor:
The best thing to do when fear has a neck hold on you is to befriend someone who lives in real and constant fear. The best thing to do when you are flattened by despair is to spend time in a community where despair is daily bread. The best thing to do when sadness has your arms twisted behind your back is to sit down with the saddest child you know and say, “Tell me about it. I have all day.” (quoted in Richard Rohr’s daily meditation for March 26, 2020)
In showing up for others, we’re not asking them to make us feel better. Something deeper is at stake–the mystery of experiencing grace and solidarity in the hardest times.
We’re also holding up our part of the world. The simple tasks of tending to our relationships, tending to normal routines in an abnormal time, are our spiritual disciplines now. It may feel strange, but this is important work.
One of my favorite stories in the Bible is from the book of the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah lived in a time of great turmoil and right before he was carried off into exile, he planted a tree. That tree would take root in his homeland and remain as a sign of hope for better days to come.
We all have trees to plant. We’re here, present and accounted for, ready to do our part.
Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.
Dear Clergy Colleagues of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington,
Grace to you and peace in your faithful efforts to lead our people in prayer within the new constraints placed upon us all. I give thanks for your desire to offer spiritual solace to your people in this disorienting time.
I write with a few guidelines for worship in our new reality. My intention is to allow for as much breadth as possible, for the Holy Spirit is inspiring tremendous creativity among you and throughout the Body of Christ. Your ministries are evidence that our churches are not closed, but open to serving God and our communities in new ways.
State and District Mandatory Closure Orders
Now that both Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland and Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington, DC have issued the mandatory closure of non-essential businesses and strict restrictions on public gatherings, we will continue our suspension of public worship until those orders have been lifted. Apart from those involved in essential services, church employees are to work from home whenever possible. Please see the Essential Parish Operations page in our COVID-19 resource hub for more information on what is meant by essential services.
Online Worship Guidelines and Resources
Thankfully, the closure orders allow for offering online worship from our sanctuaries provided that we:
- restrict those involved to ten or less
- involve no one who falls in a high risk category
- practice physical distance in worship
Please be vigilant in your compliance. Should civic orders become more restrictive, we will need to adjust accordingly.
Many of you are offering online daily or midweek services such as Morning Prayer and Compline. The positive response reveals a strong desire among our people for communal prayer. In their simplicity, your offerings are deeply moving and I’m grateful for your efforts. I often end my days now joining one of the many Compline services offered throughout the diocese. Please pace yourselves in this work, and involve others so that your offerings can be sustained.
Our website includes a page for online worship resources. Of particular help for Holy Week are resources provided by Virginia Theological Seminary.
Sunday Morning Worship
Some in the diocese feel strongly that Morning Prayer is the appropriate offering while we cannot gather in community for worship. I respect that view and support the practice of Sunday Morning Prayer.
Many have expressed a strong desire to pray the Eucharist, and that of their people to hear the familiar prayers. It is an understandable desire and pastoral response. You are free to offer the eucharistic prayers of consecration. Rather than partake yourself, consider not doing so, and praying together some version of the prayer of spiritual communion:
My, Jesus, I know that you are present in the Holy Sacrament.
I love You above all things,and I desire to receive You into my soul.
Since I cannot at this moment receive you sacramentally
come spiritually into my heart.
I embrace you as if you were already there and unite myself wholly to you.
Never permit me to be separated from you. Amen.
— Prayer by St. Alphonsus (1696-1787)
Beginning this Sunday at Washington National Cathedral, we will celebrate Eucharist in this way, offering the prayers of consecration without partaking ourselves.
Please do not attempt to offer the sacraments in others ways, such as drive-by communion or delivery of consecrated elements to people’s homes. Theological issues aside, we need to minimize travel and human contact. Nor is it appropriate to gather in groups of less than ten for a eucharistic celebration when others can’t be included.
It’s perfectly appropriate, on the other hand, to craft a worship service that involves individuals and households breaking bread together as in the ancient practice of an agape meal.
A priest in the diocese asked if it would be acceptable to invite members of the congregation to send in their prayers and intentions. Placing them on the altar, the priest would then preside at Eucharist, and receive the elements on behalf of the people. If such a practice would be meaningful for you and your congregation, I’m happy to give my consent.
Praying with Others
While your people want to pray with you and their community, you needn’t carry the burden of offering online worship alone. Feel free to encourage members of your congregation(s) to pray with other online worship communities. Washington National Cathedral is one of many resources available to you. Given your many responsibilities and the stress of this time, your self-care is essential. Allow others to help, i.e., inviting lay members to lead Morning Prayer or Compline.
I close, as I began, with a word of admiration and thanks. Together we’re learning that there are countless ways to gather in prayer and that people are hungry for spiritual food. As many have said to me, now is an ideal moment to teach and encourage home prayer practices for individuals and households. May a stronger home prayer life be one of the lasting results of this time.
Please know that I and others on the diocesan staff are here to help in any way we can, and remember that you are all resources for one another. We’d love to receive copies of your liturgies to share on the resource page and so build a strong library of offerings to share. You can email them directly to Archdeacon Sue von Rautenkranz.
May God bless you and keep you strong.
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“God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble.”
Dear Congregational Leaders of the Diocese of Washington,
In the midst of a pandemic that requires faith, stamina and creativity from you as spiritual leaders, you’re also facing uncertainty about the significant financial challenges in efforts to maintain your ministry. May God give you wisdom, strength, and courage in this time. We, your diocesan leaders, recognize the challenges before you. We are praying for you daily and seek to offer relief and assistance.
We understand the priority of congregational ministry. This is a unique moment and opportunity for your ministry as more people are coming toward our congregations in their time of need. As you take stock of your financial situation, please know that we do not expect you to forgo critical parish needs in order to meet your financial pledge to the diocese. If you are in a position to continue your support, we would receive it gratefully, but we want you to focus on your congregation first. We’re aggressively scaling back diocesan-level spending in light of this crisis and also determining what resources we can make available to you.
None of us knows how long this crisis will last. In the next two months, our focus is to ensure that all congregations have sufficient cash on hand to make payroll and pay health insurance premiums for their staff. At a special meeting, the Diocesan Council approved a process for applying for financial assistance. See below for a letter from Andrew Walter and Don Crane describing that process.
The Church Pension Fund has also offered assistance for financially stressed congregations that are struggling to pay pension payments for their clergy. The application process for a two-month waiver involves contacting the diocesan office. Please be in touch with Kathleen Hall for assistance.
We realize that every congregation is most likely experiencing a significant drop in income, perhaps most dramatically from those whose rental income has been sharply curtailed. Given the number of congregations whose budgets are balanced with rental income (totally over 6.2 million dollars annually across the diocese), we aren’t in a position to provide financial relief to offset that loss. We are here, however, to assist in the needed work of budget evaluation and reprioritization, with an eye toward weathering this storm and preserving the capacity for future ministry.
While long-term implications for all our ministries are not clear, we are clear that the mission, vision and goals of our diocesan-wide strategic plan provide a framework for making decisions in a ministry context none of us anticipated. We also rely daily on prayer and collective discernment, as together we ask God to guide us, Jesus to abide with us, and the Holy Spirit to strengthen us. May God grant us all wisdom and courage for the living of this hour.
Faithfully in Christ,
+ + +
To: Congregational leaders
From: Andrew Walter, Canon for Strategic Collaboration
Donald Crane, Chief Operating Officer and Senior Counsel to the Bishop
As Bishop Mariann said in her letter, we are here to provide support during this challenging time, with an immediate focus on the short term impacts of this crisis. To assist all our congregations, our financial team has developed a program for supporting our congregations, working with the Finance Committee and approved by the Diocesan Council:
Parish Financial Evaluation and Reprioritization
All parish leaders are wise to evaluate their parish financial situation with the priority of addressing short term liquidity. We emphasize the following immediate steps for church leaders:
- Examine the budget for planned expenditures that are not essential and that can be postponed or eliminated
- Manage for immediate cash flow and liquidity – consider whether any endowment funds would be available, subject to restrictions or need to liquidate investments at a loss given market conditions
- Encourage parishioners who typically pay their pledges with one payment or over the year to consider whether their situation allows them to pay the pledge in full at this time
- Make plans for alternate giving (Linda Baily of the Financial Resources Committee and Peter Turner will offer Stewardship and Giving in the Time of COVID-19, a free webinar on Thursday, March 26 at 1:00 p.m. Register here)
Financial Support for Parish Employees and Regular Contractors
Diocesan staff and financial leaders have identified a limited amount of funds to be used to assist parishes that need financial assistance in order to pay salary and health benefits for church employees and contract staff for a period of two months, including:
- Church musicians
- Others who are paid for their services during normal church operations
This support would not be extended to supply clergy or those who provide contractual services on an intermittent basis.
Applying for and Determining Support
Our support will be based on cash flow needs. Though we may not be able to meet all needs, we will do the best we can. Parishes should contact Andrew Walter to discuss their situation and have the following information ready to share:
- 2019 year end and monthly financial statements to date, including cash balance and projections; availability of endowment funds which could be utilized to the extent unrestricted and available (cash or short terms)
- Description of the impact to date from the suspension of operations, including school or other user payments lost and percentage of overall budget attributable to user income
- Identification of steps to encourage alternative giving methods
- Staff compensation, including clergy, lay staff and part-time or regular contract staff
- Steps taken to reevaluate budget expenses for deferral or cancelling
- Identification of amount and timing of funds needed to cover payroll (compensation and health benefits) shortfall
Application Review and Dispersal of Funds
The Finance Committee, on the recommendation of the Diocesan staff, will review each application and approve any funding to parishes.
- Funds will be provided as a loan or grant, to be determined on a case by case basis
- Funds will be allocated based on the most urgent needs of Diocese of Washington congregations, and will be disbursed as needed, not in a lump sum single payment
Encouraging Congregational Giving
We realize that many of our people are worried about their own finances, which will certainly affect their ability to give. Yet we are confident that they understand the value of your ministry in a time of crisis and the need for continued for financial support. It’s appropriate for you to pastorally remind them to support the church and your ministries as best they can.
In this time of great uncertainty, please be assured that your diocesan staff and members from our leadership bodies are working diligently to help all of our parishes come through this crisis in the best financial health possible. We will continue to reprioritize diocesan funds as needed, just as we ask of you, and we will remain in regular communication with you as circumstances unfold. May God be our compass as we navigate these troubled waters together.
Friends in Christ,
Canon for Strategic Collaboration
Chief Operating Officer and Senior Counsel to the Bishop
But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’
1 Samuel 16:1-13
For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light–for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’
Grace to you and peace from God our Creator, and from the Lord Jesus Christ. I’m honored to speak with you today. My prayer, echoing the words of an old hymn, is that God will grant you wisdom and grant you courage for the living of this hour. And I pray that God will use this time and my imperfect words to speak in your heart what you most need to hear.
I can’t help but think of a line from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, when the reluctant young hero, Frodo, confesses to his mentor Gandalf, “I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.” Gandalf replies, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
Gandalf goes on, “There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil.” That is a statement of faith, there are forces for good at work in the world, even in the darkest hours. I believe that God wants us to trust that, in the midst of this pandemic and the enormous cost of efforts to slow it’s spread, there are also forces for good at work now, and that we are our best selves whenever we join those forces and do our part, tipping the scales ever more slightly toward the good in the midst of trial.
Jesus often said to his followers, “Do not be afraid.” But it’s important to remember that he wasn’t scolding them for their fear. Fear was an understandable response to the realities they were facing, as it is for us. What he meant then, and what I believe he is saying to us now, is that in the midst of all there is to legitimately fear, the spirit of wisdom and courage and love is also here; that Jesus himself is here. Fear in itself is not a bad thing; we are meant to pay attention to legitimate fears. Yet they need not be the only lens through which we see, and thus the sole driver of our lives. There are other forces at work for good in the world and in us.
I’m not suggesting that any of this is easy. But we are here for the living through this pandemic whose end we cannot yet see. Lord knows we wish the virus had not come to us. So do all who live through such times. But that decision was not ours to make. What we can do is decide how we will live now.
And how we live now will be determined in large measure by what we see–what is revealed to us and what we are willing to face, eyes wide open.
All of the Scripture passages appointed for this, the 4th Sunday in Lent, are about sight and blindness. In the story of the prophet Samuel’s search for the one God has chosen to be Israel’s next king, God warns Samuel not to look as mortals do, on physical appearances alone, but to see, as God sees, with eyes of the heart. In the letter to the Ephesians, we hear an exhortation to live as children of the light–light being essential to vision, both physical and inner light. From the Gospel of John, we read the first part of a very long story describing how Jesus healed a man who was blind from birth while at the same time the religious leaders of Jesus’ day willfully blinded themselves to Jesus’ identity.
This theme of the relationship between sight and blindness runs through the entire Bible. The prophets of Israel were those who saw what others refused to see and initially paid the price for it, yet in the end were those whose sight others came to trust. In the gospels there are numerous accounts of blind people receiving their sight. I’m reminded of the man Bartimeaus, a blind man who waited on the roadside for Jesus to pass by. “Jesus, have mercy on me!” he cried out. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him. “Lord,” Bartimeaus answered, “I want to see.”
If we are to live with strength and courage in this hour, we need to see with as much clarity God can give us. So consider with me some of the things that affect our vision, and indeed, how many forms of blindness there are. No one knows this better than the physically blind, who must live alongside those of us who are blind in other ways, but with far less awareness than they of what we can and cannot see. There are also gradations of sight and blindness; ophthalmologists can measure our eyes’ varying degrees of blurriness and distortion, some of which can be corrected and others cannot. But the relative health of our faculties isn’t the only thing that affects vision.
Our emotional state influences what we can and cannot see, as can the level of anxiety within and around us. That’s why it’s helpful to try and bring your anxiety levels down through exercise, meditation, a good laugh.
Another factor that affects our vision is where we’re standing relative to whatever it is we are looking at. Consider how our perspective on the spread of the coronavirus has changed and continues to change according to geography as the virus spreads. Time is another factor: What was unimaginable as little as two weeks ago we now see all around us, which humbles us as we consider the future. For we don’t know what the next few weeks will reveal.
Relationships affect vision. We can’t see one another clearly if we aren’t in right relationship, and as a result we lose the needed perspective that others might have. Finally, there is the factor of character. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “What you see depends a great deal on where you are standing; it also depends on what sort of person you are.”
And sometimes it just happens–our eyes are opened and we see something we didn’t see before. It can be a wonderful experience. Think of people who have known each other for years who one day are given new eyes with which to see, and they fall in love. Or how we can see something breath-takingly beautiful as if for the first time, when in fact, we’ve walked by it a thousand times without seeing. Other times, however, having our eyes opened is jarring, for we now can see a truth that had been hidden or that we had been avoiding, that others around us could see and didn’t tell us. Or the world simply turns upside down and we see everything through the lens of a new reality. It feels that way now.
So what are to do?
I think we’re to pay careful attention to what’s happening, with all our faculties in play.
Years ago, my husband Paul and I traveled to Ireland and spent a week in the company of the poet David Whyte. On the very first day, as our group arrived exhausted from international travel, instead of encouraging us to go to our rooms, David and his team took us all on a long hike. He said to us, “I want you to pay particular attention to what you see right now, for jet lag and physical exhaustion have a way of lowering your natural defenses. You are more vulnerable tonight than you will be tomorrow, and you are more open. Pay attention to what you see tonight, for you won’t have these eyes again.”
We are not going to see with coronavirus eyes forever. Yes, we are vulnerable and we are open. So I ask, What do you see now that you didn’t see before? What new revelations is God giving you, and me, that we are particularly and uniquely open to receive now?
Some of the revelations are hard and frightening. But we have no choice but to face them. It may be that some of the harder revelations will be temporary, for this season only and will then pass. But others may last a long time. I suspect that we don’t see well enough now to distinguish between the two, although some may be instantly clear for you.
Some of the revelations are pure grace, as we’re given eyes to see beauty we’ve missed, experience our own resilience and innate goodness as individuals and community. It turns out that we needn’t be as divided as we’ve allowed ourselves to behave as a nation. We actually can rise above less pressing concerns and foolish polarities when something really big happens. We are capable of greater sacrifice for the common good than we realize.
And God is able to take even the worst that can happen and bring good from it. That’s a statement of faith. Dare to believe that there are forces for good at work and strive to align with them.
Let me close with this simple exhortation that you be as gentle with yourselves and one another as you can in these vulnerable days, even as you may need to make difficult decisions in light of what has been thrust upon us all. Don’t rely on your eyes alone–reach out for support and guidance from those you trust and even try listening to those with whom you might otherwise dismiss. Tend to the eyes of your heart–be sure to focus on something of goodness and grace and lasting truth.
Each and every day ask God to open your eyes, so that you might see what you need to see now, in this new reality. Remember that there are forces for good around and within you, within us all.
May God grant you wisdom, and grant you courage. Never forget it is for this hour that you are here.