Bishop David Bard celebrates the creativity of Michigan United Methodists ministering in the shadow of the coronavirus crisis. He offers new possibilities for Easter worship during this ongoing stay-at-home season.
Dear friends in Christ, I greet you in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the peace and power of the Holy Spirit.
The words of Paul from Philippians come to mind as I address you today.
“I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel.” We have a shared ministry together of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. It is a ministry of worship and prayer, a ministry of teaching and preaching, a ministry of compassion and care, a ministry of healing and feeding, a ministry of justice and reconciliation, a ministry of creating communities of love and forgiveness. It is a ministry we are needing to find new and creative ways to engage in as we live in a world shadowed by the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. I have been filled with deep joy at your creativity in being in ministry in new ways. I am needing to ask even more of you now.
On March 23, Governor Whitmer issued a new executive order to stem the spread of the coronavirus and COVID-19, so as to prevent our state’s health system from being overwhelmed. The “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order requires persons to stay at home and work from home with few exceptions, and it is in effect until April 13. I have offered an initial response to the executive order, but would like to and need to say more.
Michigan United Methodists, you have risen to the occasion thus far and I have every confidence that, by the power of the Spirit, we will continue to do so. We are closing church buildings, but not shutting down the church’s ministry. We are closing conference offices, but your conference staff continues to work diligently to support our shared ministry. These closings will continue through April 13. I understand that places of religious worship are not subject to misdemeanor penalties for gathering, we recognize that finding other ways to worship is not about avoiding penalties but about promoting the common good.
What might ministry look like at this time? Continue to worship on-line, though you may need to change how you do that. Worship leaders should no longer gather as a group at the church, even to tape worship, though I believe individual pastors could tape from the church and even elicit the help of a tech person to do so. I hope this would be the exception as we seek to model, “Stay Home, Stay Safe”. There are possibilities for persons to record from home and bring these video pieces together for a worship service to be presented on-line. I encourage you to continue to consult our Michigan Conference web page for creative worship and ministry ideas, including links to webinars.
The request to refrain from in-person worship now continues through Easter Sunday and includes Holy Week. Holy Week offers multiple options for worship and often opportunities for cooperative worship between churches. I encourage you to find partners for offering unique worship and prayer experiences for Holy Week. Your conference staff are considering possibilities for providing some worship services you could share through your churches on-line platforms.
Holy Week worship raises the question of on-line communion. Some of you are aware that The United Methodist Church officially discourages the practice of on-line communion believing that it inadequately represents the tangible, bodily and communal elements central to the sacrament. Mailing communion elements or asking people to simply find whatever is available seem to many insufficient means for celebrating communion. There are powerful alternatives that could be used. Holy Thursday not only marks the beginning of the Lord’s Supper but remembers Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. Might we use water simultaneously in creative ways to remember this profound moment of humble, self-giving love? The Love Feast, found in our United Methodist Book of Worship, might also be shared on-line. Bread and drink are brought together by all participants as the grace of God is celebrated in remembering how Jesus shared meals with all, inviting those often excluded. Perhaps we would do well to celebrate communion when we are all together, face to face, again. God will understand and extend grace to us generously.
In offering these worship possibilities as alternatives to communion I am aware that some already offer communion on-line and others are considering it. As followers of Jesus who challenged traditions and rules when they seemed to stand in the way of grace, as followers of Jesus in the stream of John Wesley who took to the fields to preach and ordained Thomas Coke, I recognize extraordinary times invite extensions of grace that might not be needed in ordinary times.
I also encourage your continued generosity to your church. The Michigan Conference is here to help your church set up on-line giving. For more information please contact the Treasury office. For those who write checks, these can always be sent to your church. An office staff person can still pick up mail and pay bills for our churches even under the new executive order.
The coronavirus pandemic has arrived during the church season of Lent, a time for spiritual introspection, a time when we remember Elijah’s forty-day sojourn at the end of which he encountered God in the sound of sheer silence, a time when we remember Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness where he encountered wild beasts and angels. This can feel like wilderness time, and our God is a God who brings the wilderness to blossom. Our God is the God whose raising of Jesus we celebrate at the end of Lent. Easter is coming. Even if Lent is extended, Easter is coming. Whatever day we come together again, no matter when, it will be Easter. I will declare it to be Easter Sunday, and Easter is coming.
Thank you. Be well. Know God is with you.
David Alan Bard
Michigan Area Bishop