How do we keep time during a pandemic?
When all days seem alike, maybe the best unit of measure is love.
The coronavirus pandemic has been measured out for me in Sundays. On the First Sunday in Lent, at the university church where I’m the interim minister, I encouraged people to be attentive to how those around them were feeling during the passing of the peace. Don’t offer a hug or a handshake if others seem reluctant to touch, I said during the greetings; as you know, there’s a virus abroad. We did a lot of elbow bumping that day, smiling and laughing.
By the Second Sunday in Lent, the university had forbidden gatherings of more than 100 people, so my colleagues and I led worship in an empty church while the congregation listened over the radio. It’s our practice each week to extend the welcome of the church to “those listening on the radio and online.” With the world turned upside down, I could suddenly hear how condescending my welcome to those listening outside the sanctuary had been. The far-flung radio congregation to which I gestured each week had been revealed as a community faithfully engaged in keeping a space of worship open for anyone to join, a space into which we were now all crowding. Rather than being welcomed by those sitting in the sanctuary, our radio listeners were now welcoming us.
By the Third Sunday in Lent, our students had been sent home, and I walked to the empty church through a campus that was unsettlingly still. On the Fifth Sunday in Lent, I preached a sermon into my phone, sitting under a blanket in my bedroom to muffle the echo. Across town, our choir director recorded himself playing the hymns on his piano, our associate ministers recorded the confession and the pastoral prayer, a faculty member sheltering with his family in Virginia recorded the readings, and another colleague pieced a worship service together from those fragments. On Sunday, all of us listened and worshiped together—ministers, musicians, staff, students, longtime congregants, everyone.