TRANSCENDENT MOMENTS OF REALIZATION IN MY (DIGITAL) SUNDAY JOURNEYS
Jul 30, 2020
By Renée Wicklund, MNYS Vice-President
Several years ago, on a girls’ weekend away with some of my best friends from high school, we put together a Sunday morning schedule. Four friends would go to the local Roman Catholic Mass (I went to Catholic school, so I got to be a loaner Protestant); I would take a separate car to the earlier ELCA service; and one car would remain at the rented house, in case the two friends who weren’t attending church wanted to go out for brunch.
“Glad we got that sorted out,” I said.
“Agreed,” replied my friend Bridgette, who was headed for Mass. “I love to be in church.”
“Me too!” I exclaimed. “I love to be in church.” It was the kind of outburst you don’t regret, even if it’s made without thinking. Although I hadn’t dwelt on the precise sentiment before, Bridgette’s statement resonated with me immediately. I do love to be in church. Entering the sanctuary. Sliding into worn pews, or sidling (late) into a chair. Sitting amongst fellow believers, knowing we share the most essential truths. Leafing through the bulletin for favorite hymns. Checking the announcements to see what I’ve missed, and what I have to look forward to. Hearing a different take on the day’s lessons. Worshiping. Receiving Holy Communion.
As of March 13, for the safety of congregants across our synod, Bishop Egensteiner recommended the cessation of in-person worship. At the time, I thought the break would be short, maybe a few weeks, and I was impressed when so many of our pastors almost immediately began offering online Services of the Word or homilies. By the second Sunday, I fell into a routine. While making breakfast or drinking my coffee, I watched the homily posted by my pastor, Charley Vogeley, from Lutheran Church of Our Savior, Port Washington. At 10:00 a.m., I tuned in for the premiere of the synod-wide service from the bishop’s office, and
at 11:00 a.m., I joined the Facebook Live liturgy from my former congregation, Trinity Lower East Side, in Manhattan. I particularly enjoyed the Facebook Live service, because I could see text bubbles indicating which friends were watching with me. It felt almost as if we sat side-by-side.
Throughout the time of social distancing, I’ve tried to take daily walks, both for exercise and for a break from being at home. Not long into virtual worshiping, I began to miss my practice of visiting congregations around the synod, and I expanded my Sunday schedule to include the worship services of two or three other parishes each week. On Low Sunday, around 11:30 am, my husband walked into the kitchen (I had a homily playing on my iPad) and exclaimed, “Seriously? You’ve been worshiping since like 8:00 am.” (He was right, and my poor family might have been feeling a little neglected each Sunday.) So I moved my “visits” around the synod to my afternoon walk, listening on my phone. The whole thing snowballed; I realized how much I liked hearing a Service of the Word while walking, and I began saving Sunday services to enjoy throughout the week, one for each afternoon’s walk. By May, I was “attending church” six days per week, and several times on Sunday. It wasn’t uncommon for me, walking alone, to say aloud, “...and also with you,” or softly to murmur the Lord’s Prayer, hearing my voice join a pastor’s. More than one passerby looked curious upon seeing me, hurrying along in workout apparel, making the sign of the Cross.
Twice, I cried while walking.
The first time, I was on Radcliff Avenue in Port Washington North, approaching the intersection with Soundview Drive. It was May 25, Memorial Day, and I was listening to the previous day’s service from Trinity Lower East Side. Pastor Will Kroeze was speaking of balancing safety with the wish to return to in-person worship. “You need to prepare yourselves,” Pastor Will said, “for the possibility that we may not meet again in person until the fall.” Not until the fall? Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer; Pastor Will suggested that Holy Communion with fellow worshipers might be an entire season into the future. I’d been drifting along, continuing to assume that we’d all be back together “soon.” Pastor Will’s admonition—“You need to prepare yourselves”—took me aback, and I felt the full weight of all this pandemic is costing us.
I cried again, a week later, on June 2. By then, I knew that George Floyd had been murdered, by suffocation, on May 25, and knew that COVID-19, a disease that impairs lung function, was killing black and Latino Americans at higher rates than white Americans. I set out on my walk and called up the Pentecost sermon that Pastor Kevin Vandiver, assistant to Bishop Egensteiner, had given at Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church, Manhattan. Preaching on John 21:19-23, Pastor Kevin spoke of the crucified, suffocated, risen Jesus returning to breathe on the disciples, to breathe with them. “I’m so glad that Jesus breathes on us still,” Pastor Kevin said, evoking the eternal life and truth of the Kingdom, and the cry for justice for its inhabitants. I stopped walking, on the Sands Point Road hill, just past my son’s elementary school, and felt Jesus breathing for me, breathing for George Floyd, for Eric Garner and Ahmaud Arbery, for victims struggling under the weight of COVID-19, for the world in trouble, His restored breath sustaining us. The sensation overwhelmed me with both sadness and relief.
In February, just before the pandemic really picked up speed, I had the privilege of joining a delegation to Africa, to visit our synod’s ministry partners in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania. The first morning, in Dar es Salaam, we visitors attended the 6:00 a.m. Service of the Word at the Azania Front Lutheran Church. It was a weekday, a Wednesday, and the sanctuary was packed with Christians worshiping before they headed to work. (Later, I would learn that Azania Front’s 6:00 a.m. service is full, every weekday.) During the sermon, many in attendance took notes, presumably to reference later; after the service, they broke into small groups for discussion. A few days later, across the country in Bukoba, our delegation joined a local “cell” of the ELCT Northwest Diocese, a dozen Lutherans who meet every morning before work, for Bible study with a ministry student. These Christians work full days and still choose to rise early for time to contemplate the Word.
As I told my friend Bridgette, I love to be in church. I’m not sure any experience will ever supplant being physically present in church.
Still, today, I find myself pondering the example of these Tanzanian Christians, how they carry church into, and throughout, each day with them. Despite the fellowship I’ve missed, and despite my craving for unavailable Holy Communion, the last four months have made faith feel more present, more integrated into the habits that seem ho-hum, but in fact structure my life. So here’s a confession: Maybe, in the past, I’ve trapped church in a building. Maybe I’ve confused attending Sunday services with allowing the Gospel to guide my week. Maybe the easy availability of a sanctuary has made me forget that I also possess the tools for “everyday church,” like a Bible, a catechism, Christian friends for discussion, and (nowadays) video homilies on demand.
Did you notice how, weeks later, I can still recall the words of Pastor Will and Pastor Kevin that moved me to tears, even remembering where I was standing when I heard them? That’s because they were transcendent moments of realization. Those moments can really happen anywhere, and anytime, if we open our hearts, create the space, and invite the Spirit. If I take nothing else from my months of virtual worship, it will be this: Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life. Wherever I go, there too can be church.