written by Ian Burch
The alarm goes off. I spend three glorious seconds oblivious to the fact that we are living in a pandemic and that my parish is not open for public worship. Then I remember our current COVID context, take another three seconds to check in with my low-level lockdown depression, then begrudgingly breathe deeply and name three blessings in my life. It’s a strange way to wake up, I’ll admit, but after fourteen weeks, I have it down pat.
I shower (I have promised myself that since online worship is now our principal worship, I will not wear ballcaps and ratty t-shirts like I did in the first few weeks of Zoom church). I walk the dog. Make coffee. Go into my home office. Check the daily office readings and get them all set up on my laptop so that the Zoom experience isn’t too gnarly. And then it’s 9am, that time when our church gathers every weekday morning for Morning Prayer. And one by one, parishioners enter into the sanctuary of the video call. The parish administrator turned online sacristan, Sara, helpfully enters as well, and I make her a co-host so that she can assist the less technologically savvy of us to pray.
And pray we do. We most often pray through the work-a-day Rite II Morning Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, though we have to play with the names for God so that the patriarchy isn’t so much like foil on your teeth. Those first weeks of “I can’t find my mute button.” and “How do I share my screen.” and “Can I call in instead?” are done. The parish by and large understands these new liturgical technologies. I have people tell me regularly that 9am prayer is how they frame their day. I’m not even uncomfortable leading prayer in this way any more. In fact, I’m finding this prayer somehow more raw and unadorned. I can’t hide behind the outfits.
There’s a funny rubric in Morning Prayer that reads, “Authorized intercessions and thanksgivings may follow.” I have no idea what an authorized intercession is, but I have decided that this is the space for people to give voice to their joys and sorrows. So I say, “For what should the people of God pray today?” Or I like to think I say that; I probably say “what should we pray for?” And the people pray. In fact, I think we might be praying more deeply and more consistently than at any time before the pandemic. We pray for nurses, cats, children, the dead and the dying, the church, the weather, isolated parishioners, wisdom, new jobs, and our moods. Then we have a cup of coffee together. The entire service WITH coffee takes about 30 minutes. And we do it every day. Over the last four months, we have hosted visitors from Indiana, Florida, and Arizona–friends or family of parishioners who wanted to be involved. We have one local couple who have started to come regularly and have literally never set foot in the church building. I don’t want to diminish the suffering and the pain that comes from widespread illness and separation from our church properties. And at the same time, we in the church constantly preach that God makes a way out of no way. And I have seen that to be true morning after morning. These wonderful, faithful people are framing their lives in prayer, in a way we would not have thought to before the pandemic. I wouldn’t say our mourning has been turned into dancing yet, but our dysthymia has been momentarily lifted through prayer, and I think that’s probably just as good.
I bid them goodbye and start in with emails, calls, Zooms. This is certainly not the priesthood that I sought. I really do like the outfits. But it is the priesthood to which I am currently called. Just because this time is lousy in many ways, doesn’t mean that I am not responsible for the care and support of my people. And so we Zoom church. And we bless cars. And we have logistically difficult, candlelit, masked, graveside visits. And we baptize outside. And we empty our outreach coffers to support the food pantries in our area. And we thank God for the blessings of this life, even as we watch too much news and pray for the sick and those who tend them. Apparently, we can’t help but be the church right now. Thanks be to God.
The Rev. Ian Burch is rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Milwaukee. He is pleased to report that St. Mark’s is probably the best church in the world. Do visit when you’re in town.