Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Starting last week we took some additional precautions in worship. We asked anyone at heightened risk from the new coronavirus, or anyone having any respiratory symptoms, to refrain from the chalice at communion or from coming to church altogether. We refrained from shaking hands, put out easily accessible hand sanitizer, and took the bowl of water out of the baptismal font. Some of these steps were emotionally difficult to take (at least for me) but I felt they were prudent, if not overdue, given the growing but also not fully known threat of a new illness for which there is yet no immunity, vaccine, or treatment. St. Paul the Apostle reminds us that we fulfill the law of Christ when we bear one another’s burdens, and that includes refraining from things we love in order to help others stay safe.
This week I have been following the news closely as the case for extreme caution has only gotten stronger. As I write, there are at least six confirmed cases in North Texas, just since Monday. A severe shortage of test kits has made the spread of the virus and its current prevalence unknowable. I have paid attention to the responses of church bodies in areas with more confirmed cases than ours as well as to statements from national church bodies. Clear and direct guidance from public officials at the state and federal levels has been lacking. I have been reading up on the advice of public health professionals who are urging public and private changes to “flatten the curve” of what appears to be an uncontained outbreak, including increased attention to hygiene and “social distancing” to spread out the incidence of the disease and prevent sudden shocks to the health care system. This is especially important if, as the head of the National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci reports, the fatality rate from the new illness is ten times higher than the seasonal flu (some credible estimates are higher).
While I hope and pray that these preliminary estimates prove to be too high, and that this event will somehow resolve itself soon, communities and households have to prepare themselves for a difficult season in which our lives are constrained in new ways, both for our own safety and for the good of people we have contact with.
With that in mind, we are making some adjustments to our life together to make participation in this community as safe as we can.
- First, we are scaling back non-worship events held at church for the time being. Sunday School will continue for the time being, but team and ministry meetings during the week can wait. If groups want to meet in homes, please take every possible precaution. For the time being we are canceling Wednesday night meals and Sunday morning donuts. The social and emotional support of church friends is important, so creating a text group, email list, or Facebook chat to stay in touch can be very helpful. Standing meetings (council and spiritual life) taking place in the last week of the month will be reassessed as we get closer.
- Second, in worship itself we will sanitize the tops and sides of the pews before church on Sunday and between services. We will also follow the lead of some church bodies and receive only the host, not the chalice, during Holy Communion. Offering plates will be left out for offering instead of being passed through the pews. These measures will help, but it remains very important for people to stay home if they are feeling ill or if they have a condition that will jeopardize their health should they contract the virus.
- Third, I am refraining from nursing facility and hospital visits until the outbreak is better controlled. We can and should stay in touch with our absent members as much as possible by phone, email, and text. I will also stay home when sick in the least, including on Sundays. I have made a continuity plan for worship should that happen.
- Fourth, we will make greater use of our email, website, and Facebook platforms to reach people who can’t be in worship. If possible we will stream or record video of sermons and other elements of the liturgy, at least in a rudimentary manner (such as Facebook stories). We can share readings and prayers in advance so that absent members can join in worship over the same words together. We are grateful to our members who give electronically or by automatic withdrawal, which helps us through periods of fluctuating worship participation. Please consider joining them here.
- Fifth, we will find ways to help and support older or at-risk members who are being advised to remain at home. Please remember that you are part of this church whether you are present or absent on Sunday.
Surely we all wish that this were not happening, and I invite all of you to pray with me fervently that the sick be protected and healed. But we know that the Church of Jesus Christ has endured epidemics and worse than epidemics, and that the gates of Hell cannot prevail against it. We will pray for each other and our world, protect each other, and come through it with each other.
Please be in touch with me directly if you have questions, if you are experiencing anxiety, or if you know of cases of illness that we should be lifting up in prayer.
“And now may the God of peace, who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you perfect in everything good, working in you that which is pleasing in His sight. Amen.”
Grace and peace,
Pastor Ben Dueholm