Dear Friends in Christ,
“The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Matthew 21:9).
And so, it begins! Jesus begins Holy Week by riding into Jerusalem with great expectation, even as we experience a Holy Week we never could have expected. Instead of “great expectations” or “dashed expectations”, perhaps we might simply trust that in these days of “changed expectations”, the crucified and risen Jesus continues to be present.
God, in Jesus Christ, is present. In Palm Sunday’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, with great shouts of Hosanna! In Maundy Thursday’s selfless service, as Jesus stoops to wash the feet of His followers. In Good Friday’s sacrificial gift of a Christ, a cross, and a crucifixion. In Easter Sunday’s glorious proclamation, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised…”.
It’s not what we expected, but even in the unexpected God is truly present. My prayer for you this Holy Week is that you may intimately know the promise of God’s presence.
On Monday, March 30, Governor Mike DeWine extended the order for Ohio Public Schools K-12 to remain closed through Friday, May 1. On Thursday, April 2, Dr. Amy Acton, the Director of the Ohio Department of Health, extended the “Stay at Home” order through Friday, May 1. As I shared earlier, I intend to keep the Northwestern Ohio Synod’s time frame consistent with Governor Mike DeWine and the Ohio Department of Health’s timeframe. So, my updated suggestion is as follows:
While I do not have the authority to compel,
I am strongly suggesting that all parishes
of the Northwestern Ohio Synod suspend their
in-person worship services through May 1.
This suggested suspension includes all in-person Holy Week services through the Third Sunday of Easter. This is not a suggestion that I make lightly, for I know how deeply this affects all of us, and not just us, but the communities we serve. As pastors, deacons, and worship leaders, we are called to care for God’s people, and especially care for those who are the most vulnerable. As the pastor of this synod. I am called along with you to care for the 1.35 million people in these twenty-three counties of Northwest Ohio. My suggestion to suspend in person worship through May 1, is born out of our call to fully love God by fully loving and caring for our neighbor.
During a Zoom Video meeting last week with pastors, deacons, and Synod Council leaders, I talked extensively about Holy Communion in a Time of Crisis. That’s the phrase I am choosing to use. Instead of “digital communion” or “virtual communion”, it’s Holy Communion in a Time of Crisis. As many of you are aware, our church has opinions, traditions, and practices that vary.
- Some pastors and parishes are choosing to refrain from receiving Holy Communion until the community of faith can regather to worship in-person. This what I am choosing to do, and this is what I am encouraging you to also do; to temporarily refrain from receiving the Eucharist. I’ll reflect more on this “call to refrain” further below.
- Some pastors and parishes are finding ways to celebrate Holy Communion using real time digital technology. The elements are consecrated by the “offsite” presider, while those who are viewing at home lift the bread and wine during the Eucharistic Prayer.
- Some pastors and parishioners are meeting in small groups of less than ten people at the church, so that folks can celebrate Holy Communion in person. If you are doing this, I ask you to please stop. Under the current circumstances, and with the spread of the COVID 19 virus, this practice is simply not safe.
- Some pastors and parishes are handing out the elements (bread and wine), in sealed plastic bags to be consecrated and consumed in the church parking lot or later at home. I am advising against this. No matter how careful we may be, this is simply not the time to be exchanging anything from person to person.
- Some pastors and parishes are authorizing lay members of a household to celebrate Holy Communion w/o a pastor present.
I know there are a lot of arguments about whether or not virtual community is real community? Or if the Words of Institution are valid outside of a gathered community? Or if lay folks are allowed to consecrate the elements? Or if the Word of God alone is sufficient? It is! That’s a conversation we can have at a later date and time. And I believe that conversation will be born out of this global pandemic.
For me the choice to refrain comes down to Scripture, and St. Paul’s words that we are to “discern the body”. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul begins his Lord’s Supper section (11:17-34), by calling out several abuses that are taking place within the Body of Christ. And Paul’s focus here is not on conducting the Eucharistic liturgy, he will touch on that in a moment. Paul’s focus is on the conduct of the congregation during the liturgy. This section is then followed by Paul’s call to discern the body (11:29), which I have always interpreted as the corporate body, or the community of faith. The Minister of Word and Sacrament is called by God to carefully and prayerfully discern the community and concern themselves with the needs of all.
So here are some questions that I have been wrestling with as I seek to “discern the body” in the Northwestern Ohio Synod.
- Who is fully served by the direction and decision that we choose? And who may be disenfranchised by that choice?
- How do we meet the needs of those who lack the resources or even the access to digital technology?
- How do we walk with parishes and parishioners who do not have the capacity to connect electronically?
- How do we live tenderly and graciously with one another while choosing to walk different paths during this extraordinary time of pandemic?
- How do we faithfully and lovingly move forward when we may not agree with one another?
And how do we discern the Body of Christ not only at the parish and synodical level, but how do we discern the Body of Christ as an ecumenical and global partner. We made promises to our ecumenical and global partners and part of my discernment is doing my best to honor those promises. We are connected as part of the Church Catholic. We don’t get to be free agents, nor do we get to go it alone. We are called by God to be a part of something that is greater than ourselves.
Because at the end of the day, we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. Something bigger than our parishes. Something bigger than our synod. And the things we choose to do at this time and in this corner of Ohio, effects our sisters and brothers in Christ both here and throughout the world.
As the Pastor called by God and this synod to serve the Church,
I have discerned that during the suspension of in-person worship,
I will not offer an all-encompassing blessing for digital or virtual
Holy Communion. Nor will I extend a general across the
board permission for lay presidency.
This is what I’ve discerned for the Body of Christ that God has called me to lead and to serve. But I also wish to say to you with great love, admiration, and respect, that our pastors (Ministers of Word and Sacrament) are theologically trained leaders who have been called by God to serve in a particular place. They know and love their people. They also know how to discern their communities and contexts. And I fully trust that our pastors will make the very best choices as they discern the Body of Christ and the needs of the people of God in their context.
These are difficult times. We are in uncharted territory. We have gone off the map. And so, I pledge that there will be no threat of church discipline and there will be no ill will toward a faithful and prayerful decision that pastors and parish leaders have arrived at together. God has called us to prayerfully and carefully discern the Body of Christ in our particular contexts.
And please know that if you have any questions or need any advice, please reach out to me by email or phone. I’ve got a slew of Holy Communion resources that I’ve been leaning into and learning from these past few weeks.
As I shared at the end of last week’s Zoom meeting. We’ve got everything we need. We’ve got the power of the Living God. The promise of the Crucified and Risen Jesus. And the presence, the abiding presence, of the Holy Spirit. And with the help of God we will be the people that God longs for us to be.