Not alone in the pandemic
On Sunday, March 15, I stood in an almost-empty church in downtown Ottawa watching my husband, an Anglican priest, speak to our congregation through an iPhone set up on a tripod, improvising a shortened worship service over Facebook Live. Like so many other Canadian congregations, ours was stumbling through the first week of being asked to stay home because of COVID-19.
Because I’m such a technological ninny, I feared the church might explode if I turned on my phone and watched the service on Facebook at the same time it unfolded in front of my very eyes, so it wasn’t until later I saw the stream of comments from parishioners watching from home.
"The peace of Christ be with you." And wonderfully, "Peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with y’all! Love our community!"
Yes. We do love our community. Absence makes the heart sad and warm and, yes, fonder. People missed each other that first Sunday and in the ones that followed. Church is about worshiping God, of course – and it’s very much deeply about community.
We love God in community, or we should. We are invited to.
I still remember one morning, a long time ago, at another church. A smaller one where I often sat in the very last row. On that particular Sunday the choir sang from the back, lined up as neat as pins behind me. This small but beautiful choir was directed by two retired opera singers – a married couple who, once every few Sundays, created this miracle for all of us.
I would not have been able to bribe my way into this choir because I am a terrible singer.
With the piano’s prelude cue, the choir began the first stanza of "Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!" As I listened to the beauty and strength of their voices, each separate strand blending perfectly with the others to create this magnificent thing, I thought, Yes, God is holy! He must be, because would you just listen to that?
I joined the singing during the second verse along with everyone else. I sang my bad best. Yet because I was physically so close to the assembled singers, right there in front of them with one of the sopranos singing almost into my ear, I became one of them for a few brief moments. My confidence rose. So did my voice. I sang louder and louder – and at least to my ears better and better.
I was in their midst. They carried me and changed me. I improved because they were there behind me. They took me exactly as I was and helped transform me because I was part of them. And I knew this thing I was part of had everything to do with God, and worship and community.
That is church. This is what it is and what it does. It helps us welcome each other, carry each other. It helps point us to holiness and move us that way together, toward that warm light. It is all our brokenness pointed and moving in the same direction.
BROKENNESS: MOVING IN THE SAME DIRECTION
I know so many people who have dropped out of church and away from community of this kind. I bet you do too. Everyone knows someone who just doesn’t have time for it anymore. Something bad happened at church, or another member did something stupid and mean to them, or things are just crazy busy with their kids and their cats. I once met a woman who stopped coming because someone had sat in her pew.
We can hurt each other, but I think those who have left are missing something important. They have left behind something full of imperfections and full of the potential of love.
I get it. It’s not like I always want to go to church, and I’m married to the minister.
The service can feel too long. Sometimes the songs drag, the sermon stinks and the people can be really annoying. They gather around and ask how you are and how your week’s been – when you’ve had a crappy one and don’t want to share one little bit. And there is always someone available to tell you that you look tired, even though you put on makeup and actually ironed your shirt.
And yet, attending matters. Our attendance matters to us, to each other and I think maybe to God. The pain of the absence tells me our presence matters. The empty church reminds me how good it is when it is full.
We are all messy and miraculous – me and Myrtle, and Tony and Stan, all of us. Church does scrape us up against each other. It skins our knees, wounds and then heals. We are supposed to love each other all the time, and I don’t think it ever stops being hard.
We are people with ragged edges. We are frayed. But because we are in community with each other, pointed in the same general direction toward God – gathering, worshiping, praying and eating at all those carb-filled potlucks – we help each other grow.
I confess. It would be better for me personally if growing in love and grace occurred while curled up in an armchair with a cup of tea (and a jelly doughnut) reading a book. But that is rare. We more often grow through failure and mishap, through shattered windows and things we should not have said. We stumble upon new levels of love because we have mucked things up or been mucked with by someone else, someone who acted wrongly or just annoyingly.
DARKNESS AND FOOT WASHING
Once a year we have an evening service at our church to mark Maundy Thursday, the night before Jesus died. It is one of the darkest and deepest services. Sad. We gather together – usually a very small group because not everyone likes a downer church service – and remember that the night before He died Jesus took bread, broke it and said, "This is my body, broken for you."
He took a cup of wine, shared it and said that sipping that shared wine meant they were entering into a new covenant with Him and with each other.
People can have their feet washed by one of the ministers. One year our two youngest kids were chosen to have theirs washed by the youth pastor. Now, generally, they thought he was too bossy and ate too much of the pizza, and that his beard was too long. Holly would challenge his theology and request meetings with him to discuss what he taught in youth group. Poor guy. Pity the youth worker who has the minister’s kids in the group.
When I told our oldest son – Erik, who had gone off to university – that Holly and Thomas had been selected for the foot washing that night, he said, "Oh no."
The youth pastor poured water from a ceramic pitcher into our family’s popcorn bowl, large enough for this use. My kids sat straight in their chairs, not looking at each other or the ground, but toward the back of the church. For all I know their dad stood there, shaking his fist at them. I didn’t turn around to look.
The beleaguered youth pastor knelt and pulled the sandals off their feet, the same ticklish feet I used to kiss the bottoms of when they were babies. He dunked their feet in turn into the bowl, lifted them out, and took a white cloth and gently wiped them down.
Neither of my kids laughed. They just watched as he dunked their feet into the warm water of the bowl and raised them out again. They allowed it. The youth pastor was tender and kind. He gently guided each cleansed foot down on the wooden floor beside the bowl, then gave it a little pat. Love commanded, given and received. Clean and dry.
We do need each other, so very much, for love, for good and warm company, and companionship, and for all that growing we need to do, and all that pointing toward Jesus, together.
Karen Stiller is a senior editor at Faith Today. This essay is adapted from The Minister’s Wife: A Memoir of Faith, Doubt, Friendship, Loneliness, Forgiveness and More (Tyndale House, 2020). Used by permission. All rights reserved. Small group discussion questions related to this article can be found at the bottom of the companion article, "Our Neighbourhood Is Our Church" by Preston Pouteaux.