written by Nathan LeRud
Churches around the world are suspending services, shuttering buildings, and experimenting with virtual methods of forming community and leading worship. These are, as we keep saying, “unprecedented times.”
But not really. For thousands of years, many faith traditions – not just Christianity – have understood that any religious or spiritual practice is fundamentally about learning the basics, the building-blocks, the fundamental vocabulary and grammar of a tradition so that they can be applied to new situations and new circumstances. Faith is always about improvisation. You learn the fundamentals along the way to becoming a master practitioner – and, as every master practitioner knows, mastery is about knowing when and how to improvise.
I don’t claim to be a master practitioner of Christianity—although, according to my seminary degree, someone out there thinks that I have “mastered divinity,” whatever that’s supposed to mean! One of the first things I learned as an ordained priest was that my seminary didn’t actually teach me everything I needed to know about leading a congregation—but that everything I didn’t know, I could learn from my community. So in these “unprecedented times” (which are really not all that unprecedented; global faith communities have been gathering in crises for centuries), I’m turning to the many fine, smart, gracious and patient people who make up my faith community and learning from them how to improvise.
We made the decision to close down our campus for at least two weeks, in accordance with our governor’s guidelines. On Sunday, we streamed worship online for the first time, and reached hundreds of more people than we would have on a normal Sunday. We’re taking the ancient worship we have always offered and improvising.
What does it look like when the majority of the congregation is at home in their pajamas? How can they meaningfully participate, not just tune in and watch? My virtual congregation was a chatty bunch last Sunday, commenting on the service and connecting with one another through Facebook Live, reaching out and re-connecting with friends they hadn’t seen in years. One parishioner commented, “this is like passing notes in church on a gigantic scale!” We’re also figuring out how to offer midweek classes, business meetings—all the spiritual and temporal business that helps to connect us in a virtual way.
There are some losses, but there have also already been some unexpected gains. There’s a depth of sharing and intimacy online that’s different than gathering a bunch of staid, introverted Episcopalians in a room for coffee and stumbling through awkward niceties. I’m thankful for this opportunity to deepen our community and to draw people together in a time of heightened fear. As the old hymn says, “blessed be the tie that binds!” Right now, that ancient tie looks surprisingly modern.
I’m seeing my congregation take the faith skills that we’ve been practicing over the past four or five years—radical hospitality, uncommon warmth, developing intellectual curiosity, expanding our capacity for encountering deep beauty—and improvising in new and surprising ways. Offering to pick up groceries for housebound parishioners most at risk. Suggesting books, TV shows, films, and podcasts to one another and then engaging in (often silly, often profound) conversations about them online. Helping one another understand the gravity of this situation, but also offering levity and grace in the midst of it. That’s not something that’s coming from the clergy. That’s coming from a congregation that has learned how to think on their feet.
This is why faith formation in the “good times” is so important. The pay-off comes in the crisis. I’m proud of my community. I’m learning from them how to be church in the time of pandemic.
Jesus tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and this is a great time for putting that ancient commandment into practice.
The Very Rev’d Nathan LeRud is Dean of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Portland, OR