Today happened to be another Ash Wednesday in which I was home-bound on medical leave.
Once again, like in the past, I was dealing with endometriosis. The pain was increasing even though I was menopausal, and the hysterectomy proved that there was a lot of rogue endometrial tissue in my pelvic region. I’m on medical leave and not able to lead worship as I take time to heal.
Which brings me to this year’s Ash Wednesday. After two weeks of lying in bed, doom-scrolling news about the invasion of Ukraine and heightened nuclear alert in our world, the worst thing right now is to remind someone who is deathly afraid of death that she will die. (Obviously, there are many dying in Ukraine from this senseless war- and something for us to discuss another day.) I worried about what could go wrong prior to the surgery (as always), and I dealt with two years of pandemic concerns. The last thing I want to hear through sacred liturgy is that I’m going to die.
I know this with every fiber of my being. My anxiety reminds me each day that death could be imminent.
So for this year, I work to establish a different relationship with the ashes.
First of all, everything is fleeting. And this should include my worries. My concerns should be no more than the weight of the ashes which could easily be blown away by the wind. Easier said than done, but it’s worth the effort.
Secondly, as I begin Kate Bowler’s Good Enough devotional book, I’m reminded of my imperfections. The ashes remind me of an imperfect self and the need to embrace a self that works to try her best rather than attain the impossible.
I refuse to rid myself of Ash Wednesday. But the day was not always ours to dwell on death but focus on what continues to be the greatest priorities while we are alive: loving one another as Christ loved us; doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.
And today my focus won’t be nuclear war, health issues, or pandemics, but my growing relationship with God.
I took one class in college that one may classify as a “blow-off” class: Television and Society.
Now, my intentions for taking it were not because it appeared easy. Along with my two concentrations of public relations and professional writing under my degree in English, I was hoping that the stars would align, the classes would be available, and I could fulfill the requirements for a minor in Communications. (I was one class shy.) This class was an elective for the minor. (Admittedly, taking a class such as this helped out when I had to leave school for a week when my grandmother was dying. But that’s another story for another time.)
In any case, this class featured television from various eras and styles, taking account the time period in which the show was featured. As we looked back on the 1950’s, television was drastically different than in the 1990’s.
And today, over 25 years after taking the class, television is drastically different.
No longer do we need to catch a television show when it airs or set our VCRs to catch the show. Now, everything is On Demand. If my DVR doesn’t record a program, it will be on Hulu the next day. Furthermore, this gives the viewer the opportunity to binge watch television shows – from just one episode to a whole season in one night.
Needing to stay inside this year has given people the opportunity to watch shows at their own convenience, enjoying an evening’s worth of programming based upon the time and audience. I’ve had the chance to watch shows that had just fully completed their run (Schitt’s Creek) and new seasons of other programs (The Crown and others).
Not only has our style of watching shows changed, but the content itself. Just recently, I read an NPR article on why Grey’s Anatomy decided to include the Covid-19 pandemic into the show.
One of the medical consultants, Dr. Nasar Alazari said this:
“The disease is our zeitgeist” is a very important point every industry and corner of our society needs to embrace. We will never be the same because of this time. Television needs to reflect it.
And so does the church.
Television and Society class taught me that as times change, the content of television and our viewing habits change. This year has taught me that as times change, the content of church and our participation habits change. I would say that this is another “Video Killed the Radio Star” moment; nothing stays the same, and we are called to adapt.
Covid-19 is our zeitgeist, which the Oxford Languages defines zeitgeist as “the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.” Just as WWII was the major backdrop of the early 1940’s, this virus is the backdrop for 2020. The tension of the Babylonian Exile was a major zeitgeist of the writings in the Hebrew Bible. We can’t escape this backdrop.
Of course, this means content of services, including sermons, reflect this tension in a way that is real but hopeful. It’s a part of our landscape. A medical show can’t escape storylines on the virus because it’s a major part of medicine now. Likewise, we can’t disregard this because it’s part of who we are now.
Furthermore, the structure of faith communities have changed forever. Do people need to watch church at 9:30am on Sunday mornings? No. Church is becoming On Demand. We can watch it whenever it is convenient. I now think this will be a permanent part of church life. What we must do is pair that with the commitment to stay connected with our congregants. To our faith community, the work of connecting to people has transformed, and I think this level of working to connect has changed the way we do church. This has brought us closer together at a time when we feel physically distant.
Like with television, this time has permanently changed all of us – and every corner of society. The Church is permanently changed. And that one sort of “blow off” class I took in 1994 helped me see that whatever the zeitgeist, we will keep surviving and keep adapting.
Oh how could we be here! How can our neighbors care so little about us, focusing on freedom instead of compassion?
Despair and resentment grow within my heart. At some point I’ll reflect on forgiveness, but right now I rage.
It was more important for some to hold big parties which created more cases instead of imagining how their actions would ripple into the world.
It was more important for some people to make a point of not wearing masks for the sake of their “freedom” instead of embracing the beauty of connection and sacrifice for the greater good.
It was more important for people to defy recommendations based on ideology instead of seeking science and reason.
And so our medical professionals worry each day if they are next. Because some wanted to out to dinner, our schools must close. Because of ego, gatherings commence when they should be placed on hold.
Dear God, I’m angry. I’m furious because our loved ones can’t gather with us for holidays. Some are sick. Others are dying. I’m angry at our fierce independence because it creates barriers to achieve a healthy society.
I’m angry because they don’t care about my health.
So with my neighbors, we scream in anger at where we are today, knowing that some turn their backs on justice and mercy, on interconnectedness and love.
I’m not ready to forgive. I’m not ready to forget.
Creator God, source of all knowledge and wisdom-
In this unique era of our lives,
When laptops on kitchen tables
And masks in public spaces
Have become our norm,
We ask for blessing of our students.
Some of these young scholars will be learning in classrooms.
We pray for health in body, mind, and soul.
Bless their masks as they wear them from first bell to last.
Bless the air in the classrooms. Bless their unusual recesses and lunchtimes.
May wellness be their companion.
Some of our learners are absorbing knowledge from new spaces-
Laptops instead of smartboards
Dining room tables instead of desks.
May their focus be great.
May connections grow between students and teachers
And students with one another.
We pray for health in mind, soul, and body.
Bless the energy in their homes, and the loved ones assisting them.
Bless the students navigating education
As they split their time between home and school-
Parents, grandparents and friends.
We pray for health in soul, mind, and body
We pray for the health of all their connections.
May their unique schooling inspire all of us to think outside of boxes.
Bless the parents wondering how to balance all of this.
The family members who are classmates and teachers in our current world.
Bless the teachers, staff, and administrators leading in this new realm of education.
Bless our communities as we work to stay well and reduce the spread of COVID-19.
May 2020 be the year in which we grow with you, God of wisdom.
God of laughs and tears-
In this dreadful episode of our lives,
When the days are long and nearly the same
And our adventures are limited,
The grief is pouring from our heavy hearts.
For some, the work is getting harder.
Our taxed minds are exhausted from making decisions.
We feel isolated, neglected, dismissed-
Where is the energy we had at the beginning?
We were going to save the world with our work!
But two weeks became a month which became a season.
And nearly six months later,
On top of all of this,
Children are learning remotely,
Parents must learn to be two places at once.
We are dreading the spread of COVID,
And our loved ones are very sick and dying.
When will life return to normal?
Will life return to normal?
Will we sleep normally again?
O God, show your presence in these cloudy days
When the waters of visioning are murky
And we don’t know how to style tomorrow.
O God, show us your presence as our hearts sink
And as the winds of the unknown swirl around us.
Fill our souls with hope,
And may we see the land of possibilities again.
I’ve been thinking about what love has meant to me in the first 47 years of my life. Signs of affection and respect meant hugs and handshakes, respectively. It meant being close to people – placing an arm around someone or a pat on the back when they’ve needed extra encouragement.
As a pastor and because of appropriate boundaries, there are firmer boundaries when it comes to expressing care to those in our congregation. Holding the hand of someone who is struggling, placing a hand on the shoulder, giving a congregant a handshake, and, if they initiated, maybe a slight hug would have been in the boundaries. But none of these are in the bounds of appropriate contact anymore.
Now, love and care must be expressed differently. Love no longer includes sharing hugs and handshakes with the ones we care about. We can’t share these acts of affection at church or with family. Even someone like me who keeps firm boundaries with many can’t hold the hand of someone struggling with intense grief.
And that is mind-blowing to our twenty-first century brains.
How can we rewire our brains to affirm that staying away means love? How can we reframe the whole concept of physical touching and close proximity as a negative approach to loving our friends and neighbors? Of course, the very closest people to us we will probably always give hugs. But this won’t be common as we welcome our professional contacts and friends.
Each time I watch Pride and Prejudice (the 1995 version with Colin Firth, of course), I’m intrigued by the way they would greet one another. There wouldn’t be many handshakes and definitely no hugging. But they would bow and curtsy when greeting another person. It seemed formal, yet in today’s world, this would be in the scope of what could be allowed.
So whether we decide to bow or curtsy, place our hands over our hearts or give a peace sign, we need to work on embracing our fondness and respect for people from afar. We are called to accept this opposite-concept in the next year or two as we begin to emerge from our quarantine cocoons and wait for a vaccine or new treatments to COVID-19. Close physical distance no longer means love. We are turning everything we know about welcoming and hospitality on it heads. Yet maybe by loving from afar, we will save lives. We will attempt to keep the ones we love well. We will discover what are the most important ways to express love and concern. And by doing so, we remain healthy too.
This week, I’m going off lectionary to continue to preach on the challenges of COVID-19. I suppose I feel called to preach on the John 15 text that we see in Easter year B. As part of the sermon, I will be using the 1 Corinthians 12 “Body of Christ” text as well.
Entry into Worship
Like a vine wrapped around a fence,
the Divine thrives in our world.
Like each flourishing branch of the vine,
we, too, blossom in our connection to God and neighbor.
Even though we may be worshiping in individual spaces,
Through the Spirit, we are forever united.
When the complete vine suffers, we all suffer together.
When humankind struggles, we all struggle together.
May we see our well-being as a piece of the whole
and as connected to God and neighbor.
God of Connections, in this world of isolation, bring us closer together in ways we’ve never previously experienced. In this world of heartache, call us to use words and deeds to bring comfort to our neighbors. Grant us the lens to see our siblings across this world as a part of our realm. May we balance our desire for fierce autonomy with a growing sense of the covenant we have with you and neighbor. Amen.
Prayer of Reconciliation
Loving God, Divine Connector, Right now, we have few opportunities to look into the eyes of our neighbors-
from friend to stranger
and from those who bring us comfort to those who bring us uneasiness.
Because of this physical distance, we are forgetting the great connection between all of us.
We make decisions based only on our needs.
We dismiss concerns, ailments, and the despair of our neighbors.
We forget their health is connected to our health,
and their prosperity is tied with ours. In this season of wilderness,may we see that loving our neighbor as ourselves is a piece of your Great Commandment,
and may we begin to see how the well-being of all are linked. Amen.
Assurance of Grace
The God of Humankind, our Great Connector, continues to open our spirits to the needs of our neighbors. God continually pours grace upon our souls, calling us to new beginnings and hope-filled futures. Amen!
Reflection on Giving
The Divine Connector, Christ, the Great Vine, calls us to see how our actions impact the lives of others. God our Connector directs us to how our treasures, talents, and time are best used in this season. Even in this time of quarantine and wilderness, we are being asked to give as we can to our neighbors, our community, and our congregation. By our contributions, we promote healing between neighbors and gratitude for what God has given each of us.
In this spirit of thanksgiving, we pray together,
Holy Binder, you yearn for your children to join together for the well-being of all. You desire that each of us shares our gifts for the unity of your kin-dom. With gratitude, we celebrate the treasures, talents, and time we contribute to our church and community. May our work and our gifts nourish each branch on the Great Vine. Amen.
May God, the Great Connector, open our souls to the ones across our cities.
May Christ, the Great Vine, open our hearts to the ones across our states.
May the Holy Spirit, the Great Soul, open our minds to the ones across our country and world.
We are many branches on the one Great Vine.
Love and care for the people connected to this Vine as if each of our well-beings depend on it.
Texts used this week include John 14:1-21 and Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
Entry Into Worship Your space was prepared for you. In this time, you are where you need to be. Embrace the Spirit sent by God In our quarantine dwellings. Receive the gift of refuge, knowing that God is near. Do not let your hearts be troubled. Release the worry and abide in God.
Invocation Divine Architect, as we abide in our homes, we wonder what will come next. We grieve what we have left behind, and we mourn the life we are no longer living. Fill us with a new Spirit, that we can vision a future filled with joy. May we spend this time rejoicing in the power of Divine Hope, knowing that your presence is forever with us, God. Amen.
Prayer of Reconciliation Have we forgotten about you God? Have we turned our eyes away from your presence? In this time, we have welcomed crutches to endure this time of loneliness and uncertainty. We have forgotten that you are our Great Supplier of Hope and Root of All Faith. May we begin to invest our trust in you instead of false idols. May we begin to adopt the practice of gratitude in our daily lives. Amen.
Assurance of Grace The steadfast love of God journeys with us forever – in the peaks and valleys of our pilgrimage. May we embrace the grace which stems from God’s love. Amen!
Reflection on Giving In God, we seek our refuge. In our Divine Architect, we find our wisdom. Even in this season of the unknown, God is caring for us. And we are called to give what we have to care for our church, our community, and our world. We are nudged to give what we can to share the Good News of God’s unconditional and steadfast love for each of us.
In a spirit of thanksgiving, we pray together-
Holy God, Divine Architect, in your presence we find a peaceful refuge. In your presence, we are called to keep your commandments to love our neighbor as ourselves. Give us the courage and strength to carry your light into our communities and world with the talents, time, and treasures you have bestowed upon us. We pray in the name of Jesus the Christ, our Compass in unsure times, Amen.
Benediction As we dream of a future with hope, We seek our refuge in God. We find enduring comfort in the Holy Spirit. We embrace the peace furnished by Jesus the Christ. We will not let our hearts be troubled or afraid as the steadfast presence of the Divine is in our midst giving us the vision to look ahead to the future with love and hope. Amen.
(c) 2020 Rev. Michelle L. Torigian. Permission to us with attribution.
Entry Into Worship What is abundant life And where do we see it in our homes? How can we see bounty in the wilderness, As boundaries restrict us from living our “fullest” life Do we perceive God’s generosity? On what in our lives is God’s light shining? To what type of service is God calling us next? May worship be a tool of discernment, a flashlight in the shadows, and a celebration of God’s generosity of Spirit.
Invocation Holy Shepherd, Divine Leader, we look towards you in this time of quarantine. From nights in isolation to our days of fog and bewilderment, we search for your healing presence. We seek your wisdom and guidance in the coming weeks as we look towards the future. May your Spirit of Hope permeate our souls as we wander in the shadow-filled valleys. Amen.
Prayer of Reconciliation Loving God, Divine Shepherd, we listen for your voice, but get drawn by some distracting voices squawking nonsense. We allow these loud voices to lead us instead of your wisdom. May we focus on and enact your intentions for our world, our country, our communities, our church, and our own lives. May your steadfast love and mercy call us on healthy paths which cares for all of of your children. Amen.
Assurance of Grace The gift of God is grace which pours over us and leads us to still waters. May we embrace second chances in God’s mercy which will accompany us throughout our entire lives. Amen.
Reflection on Giving The Good Shepherd, our God, requests that we learn from Jesus the Christ’s example. Through Jesus, we see the ways we are to serve one another. Through Jesus, we see the leader who is willing to ensure that all neighbors live the abundant life. What can we sacrifice to ensure our neighbors’ needs are met? What can we give to ensure that our congregation is able to fulfill its mission and share the good news during this pandemic? This is our opportunity to see where God is calling us to share our treasures, time, and talents.
In a spirit of gratitude for the gifts that God gives to us, we pray together,
Divine Shepherd, your presence is the rod and staff which brings us peace. We know we are called to follow your lead. Open our souls ready to live into a spirit of abundance instead of a mindset of scarcity. Open our hearts to your flock – your children across our communities and world who are struggling. Open our minds to the possibilities of how we can share our gifts during this challenging time. May we continue to focus on your voice as we discern what is next for us. Amen.
Benediction As we leave our time together today- May God find you pillows of comfort on which you will rest your head. May God lead you to places and in ways that will keep you healthy and safe. May God restore your souls during the long days and nights of quarantine. We will not fear, for you are with us God. You will follow us to the ends of the earth and remain with us in our homes. Your goodness, mercy, and steadfast love will accompany us, And we will dwell in your loving embrace our whole life long. Amen.
(c) 2020 Rev. Michelle L. Torigian. Permission to use with attribution.