Groundhog Pandemic

by the Rev. Nicholas Beasley

In a recent Facebook Noonday devotion, I compared our present situation to the 1993 Bill Murray film Groundhog Day, in which Murray’s character finds himself in a terrible loop of time, one that requires him to live the same February 2 over and over again. Murray plays Phil Connors, a cynical Pittsburgh television reporter in the movie, dispatched to cover the Groundhog Day events in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. He thinks the event very much beneath him and describes the people of the town as “hicks.” The next day (and for many days after) he is awakened to another February 2, with the same awful assignment of covering Groundhog Day, signaled by Sonny and Cher cheerfully singing I Got You Babe on the clock-radio, day after day.

Connors takes advantage of the situation to treat himself to various kinds of misbehavior, sensing that he has the advantages of a seer over others and that he is freed from the consequences of his actions by the suspension of the future. Eventually, the terrible malaise of a repetitive and ill-used life sets in, and Connors decides to use his situation for good, helping his neighbors with the particular sense of the day’s coming events that only he has.

You must be tired, as I am, of increasing totals of COVID-19 cases, suffering and death, screeching news reports, and anxiety about the things we are usually looking forward to at this point in the summer. These are the endlessly-looping elements of our days in the Groundhog Day phase of this pandemic. Most of us, thankfully, lack the malicious insight to use COVID-19 to our advantage, but as disciples of Jesus, we are blessed with an indwelling Spirit who can guide us to use even these crappy days to the glory of God and for the good of our neighbors.
In the film, Connor’s eventual freedom from his cynicism and bad deeds is the thing that knocks time back into gear. Having been made new, a la Ebenezer Scrooge, time begins to pass again, and he is freed from the dungeon of Groundhog Day and wakes up to February 3. We might sense some of the basic things we need to do to get out of our own seemingly eternal February 2, like washing our hands, wearing masks, and avoiding indoor gatherings. Until there is a vaccine, our fate seems to be in our hands. The good we do or fail to do will prolong or decrease this season.

February 3rd has me thinking of the Resurrection of the Lord, on the third day, as the Creed says. A day will come, a Resurrection day, when death and suffering will be no more, when even the passing of time will be drawn into God’s eternal changelessness. The third-day life the Lord Jesus was given will be given to all of us, when the eternal third day dawns. This nasty virus and this unpleasant time will be forgotten in the light and life of that resurrection glory. Let’s do what we can to get time moving forward again, always looking forward to the horizon, over which Jesus prepares to complete his redeeming work.

Nicholas†

How Long?

By the Rev. Nicholas Beasley

Getting ready for a new class on the Psalms, I was reminded how helpful these ancient praise poems are for modern lives and certainly for the days we are living. The Bible study guide explains that the book of Psalms is “actually dominated by prayers that complain to God about a specific dire situation of an individual or group.” The words jumped off the page! We have all done a little whining this last month, even those of us with relatively little to complain about. For some, these days have been dire, leading to profound questions about God and human life, questions that may sound like complaints.

Several of the early Psalms open with questions, big questions, that the singers in the Temple and current readers of Scripture are led to offer to God, particularly in dire situations. Psalm 2 asks “Why do the heathens rage?” causing suffering for others. Psalm 10 wants to know why God stands so far off and is hidden in time of trouble and why the wicked should then be allowed to revile the Lord. Psalm 15 asks who is holy enough to approach the Lord. Nearest to our present concern is Psalm 13, which asks “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? “ The Psalm never offers a simple answer to its question. The answer is not, “until you humans start doing right” or “until I, the Lord, am done being angry.” Instead, having asked the question, the Psalm writer resolves to put his “trust in your mercy” and to “sing praise to the Lord, for he has dealt with me richly.” It seems that asking the complaining question opens the door to reassurance from God, to a renewed sense of what the gifts of God have been. We all know that spiritual cycle, don’t we? When frustration or low feeling or spiritual aridity have gone on too long, and we finally turn to the Lord about it, something happens, some gift is given. God acts, and raises our eyes to the gifts and the goodness of God.

“How long?” is also the refrain to U2’s rock psalm 40, which Selah led us in singing not many months ago at St. John’s. Bono lifted the song’s lyrics from the first two verses of Psalm 40, in a last minute song-writing session as a recording studio was about to kick the band out. He added the plaintive cry how long, seemingly from Psalm 13. Psalm 40 offers a key to reading all the Psalms of complaint and question: “I waited patiently upon the Lord; he stooped to hear my cry…lifted me out of the desolate pit…set my feet upon a high cliff…made my footing sure…[and] put a new song in my mouth.”  God heard, God lifted, God gave a new song. That new song of praise is the one Bono asks about the duration of; how long will I sing this song of joy in the Lord? That is a wonderful inversion of Psalm 13’s “How long,” asking not how long God will hide but how long we should sing the song of joy God gives to those who turn to him, even (especially?) those who turn to him in prayer of complaint. We should sing that song forever.

These psalms (and even Bono’s synthesis of them) together teach us that God hears the cries of his people, that God responds in many ways, including movements within us, prompted by the Holy Spirit. Our cries of complaint matter to God, and God transforms them into confessions of faith and thanksgiving, for the mercy of God we have received. We lose track of and are reacquainted with the mercy of God in our days. That dynamic is not forever; we are being moved toward a serenity, toward wisdom, toward the fullness of God’s presence and love. This season of pandemic is itself a spiritual experience and season, a time to ask “How long?” and to hear God’s answer in the faith and hope he renews in us. The pandemic won’t last forever; the love and glory of God in Christ will!

Health Issues and the Common Cup

By the Rev. Nicholas Beasley

During a season of heightened concern about infectious disease, I wanted to provide some information on our celebration of Holy Communion, associated risks, and measures the church and individuals may take out of those concerns. Our sister Anglican Church in Canada has provided sound guidance from a physician, favorably reviewed by one of our own medical parishioners (read it all here https://www.anglican.ca/faith/worship/pir/euc-practice-infection/). That article stresses that “(t)he present use of the common cup is normative for Anglican churches, and poses no real hazard to health in normal circumstances.” The author thinks it likely that the risk of drinking from the common cup, for those in good health, “is probably less than the risk of air-borne infection in using a common building.” He stresses the wisdom of washing our hands regularly. You may have encountered other good practices, like coughing or sneezing into your elbow rather than your hand.

We are adding containers of hand sanitizer this week at the end of each pew; you may wish to clean your hands after the exchange of the Peace, before coming forward for Communion, or after returning to your pew. We have also shared information with our Altar Guild and chalice bearers about steps they will take to reduce the risk of spreading infection, including cleaning their hands, wiping the chalice on the inside of the rim as well as on the outside, opening the purificator (napkin) to its full size so that a clean part of the purificator is used for each communicant, and turning the chalice so that the next communicant does not drink out of the same place on the cup.

You may want to consider the different means by which the sacrament can be received. Our typical, historic practice has been for the person receiving Communion (the communicant) to receive the bread in his or her hands, usually with one open hand resting on the other, in the form of a cross. The bread is then eaten. When the chalice arrives, the communicant grasps the base of the chalice between the thumb and forefinger, assisting the chalice bearer in by bringing the chalice toward the lips.

Intinction (dipping) of the bread into the wine is another option. The preferred way to do so is to retain the bread on the open palm of your hand and allow the chalice bearer to dip the bread into the wine. The communicant then opens his or her mouth and extends the tongue slightly to allow the wafer to be placed there by the chalice bearer.

You may also dip the bread yourself, taking care not to put your fingers into the wine.

If you are concerned about sharing the common cup, you may also communicate in the form of the consecrated bread only. We would prefer you remain at the rail after the bread is distributed, with your arms crossed across your chest. The chalice bearer will still bring the chalice near and offer you the words of administration, “The Blood of Christ, the Cup of Salvation.” You can still say “Amen.”

Our world gives us too much to worry about, and I must say that my personal concerns about illness, gathering for worship, and sharing the cup are low. I forgo the chalice or intinct when I have been ill but not out of concern about others’ illnesses. I have consumed the consecrated wine remaining at the end of Communion for twenty years now and have missed very few days of work, though admittedly, relative youth and general good health have been on my side. I shake a lot of hands and get a lot of hugs, too. So, we need not be alarmed, though called to a prudent response. I hope you will make the choices your own deliberations lead you to and remain steadfast in your commitment to worship as the people of God and the Body of Christ.

+Nicholas

 

Leaving the light of Epiphany behind and making our way to Lent

Let there be Light!

By the Rev. Nicholas Beasley

When I settled into my new office at St. John’s, I was impressed by the heavy wooden interior shutters that cover the large windows and exterior door. Yet they also seemed to darken the room more than I might like. Soon I realized that the shutters were necessary to create any privacy for conversation, given the windows’ generous size. A tearful or confessional visitor to my office needs a little bit of a screen for sharing. Moreover, the intensity of the summer sun makes the shutters a welcome addition. I can put them in the slanted up or down position to moderate the intensity of the rays, depending on the time of day. Writing in the waning days of January, however, they are mostly open, some propped all the way back on their hinges. We have had our share of gray days lately, and I welcome every ray of sun I can lure in to my working spot. Cool winter days render the sun a friend, in a way that he does not seem to be in July, when shade is ever on my mind. I’m glad for the light that shines through the slats of my shutters in January.

This message will reach you in the waning days of Epiphany, the great season of light in Christian consciousness. Light, as Fr. Will Brown reminded us, is the first creation of God, the necessary thing by which he could regard his creation as he fashioned it, as you would welcome a headlamp when pitching a tent in darkness or changing a tire at night. We confess that a new light has come into the world in Christ, a light that shines on all people and lets us see all things anew. As we hunger for light-filled rooms and sunny days in winter, we yearn for divine light to see the world as it is being made new in Christ. Our deepest desire is for a world set free from the opacity of sin and ignorance of God, a world resplendent with relationships of love, peace, and justice, made in Christ.

And so we have sung of light and prayed of light since Christmas, when the evangelist John proclaimed Christ, calling him “the true light, which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9) We’ve heard of the star and the Magi, of enlightened Gentiles, of disciples called in the bright light of day, to carry the news of Christ wherever the sun shines. Divine light shines all around us. It always does; we just speak of it in Biblical terms in the Epiphany season. The light God has sent into the world unites us as we are bathed in it, as we see each other in it, and it pervades the creation, finding its every nook and cranny.

Arriving at the Bible’s end, we hear John the Revelator narrate his vision of a new Jerusalem: “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (Revelation 21:22-24). The Bible begins with “Let there be light!” and concludes with a new creation in which the unmediated presence of God illuminates all things.

We live in the meantime between those two acts of creation, between the first created light of Genesis and the great eternal day when all will be brightened by the uncreated light of God’s burning holiness. In that meantime, we bear the light of Christ, having received it chiefly in order to share it. Before we leave the light of Epiphany behind and make our way into Lent, open the blinds and shutters of your life and be blessed by the light of Christ, that it may shine through you.

+Nicholas

 

 

A Mid Stream Report from the Rector

Nicholas Beasley

Just past the middle of the year at St. John’s, we have very much for which to give thanks. Last fall, we named the following goals for the year ahead:

  • Offer a Sabbatical to Fr. Scott
  • Create a Youth and Children’s Ministry internship program
  • Add to our Servant Ministries giving
  • Recruit and retain a gifted staff; eliminate furloughs

We give thanks that God prospered our plans. Fr. Scott was blessed with ten weeks of sabbatical leave earlier this summer, time that included a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, study of the Gospel of Matthew, and time to read and pray without pastoral responsibility. He’ll be teaching the first few weeks of adult formation this fall, sharing from his trip and teaching from the Gospels as we all benefit from his experience. Our summer interns have made a great difference in our ministry this summer, particularly in helping Maggie Mallette lay foundations for the ministry year to come, in the midst of a busy summer of youth mission and community. They’ve also made a great difference in cleaning out corners of Heyward Hall, redesigning the music suite, and planning our book give-away. The Servant Ministries committee has more money to give to mission partners and is also sparking all kinds of new activity, including an all-parish Saturday of Service in October.

The last goal, concerning our staff, has been realized, though circuitously at times. It is wonderful that the 2019 budget includes no staff furlough and even funds for salary increases. We’ve needed that positive foundation for building our team. Since I joined you last July, we have hired a director of music, an organist, a finance administrator, and an administrative assistant. Yet the budget staff is smaller than in 2017, since we have replaced a full-time Parish Relations Coordinator with a part-time administrative assistant and lost some longer-serving employees. All told, our season of staff and clergy transitions has produced a smaller payroll, one that nonetheless gives St. John’s a highly committed and gifted group of staff partners for your ministry.

After my vacation in July, I spent some talking with parishioners who found Jill Zook-Jones’ July 14 sermon on the Lord’s parable of the injured Israelite and the good Samaritan unhelpful. They were good and kind conversations, with people who were both bothered by the sermon and understanding of Jill’s sincerity in offering it. I also heard from some in the congregation who found it an effective and meaningful proclamation. I appreciated that people wanted to talk and were honest about their faith convictions and political concerns. This was but one sermon, by a guest preacher, but the experience suggests that St. John’s is a parish that values honest relationships and that can handle some moments of dissonance. We can credit the Holy Spirit with promoting love and understanding at moments like these.

We’ve also had some great ministry moments despite the summer lull, including Vacation Bible School (“the best one I’ve ever seen,” a veteran parishioner remarked), a Scream-Free Parenting series, several youth events, two mission trips, and a Lord’s Prayer class. Two new events on the parish calendar are coming up soon, a Garden Goodness potluck and the stewardship kickoff dinner in September. We are also working to make sure that Welcome Back Sunday is an energizing event, that leads to a year of lively ministries of worship and formation.

That’s a pretty good look at what we’ve been doing at St. John’s so far in 2019. But what has God been up to at St. John’s in 2019? If we have eyes to see, we can find the presence of God in the ministry moments narrated above. God has called, as God does, bringing us together to worship him week by week, in beauty and power. God has built us up, as he does, adding 25 new members to the body so far this year. God has fed, as God does, in nurturing relationships, in parish meals, and at the altar. God has sent servants into the world, which is also his way, to repair homes in Columbia and John’s Island. God has been good to us, as is God’s nature, and we are called to carry on in his Spirit with joy and thanksgiving.

I hope you share my enthusiasm and thanksgiving for God’s work among us so far in 2019. Let us pray and work together to finish this year in the strength that comes from God.