Saturday, July 4, 2020

July 4, 2020 Covid 19 Worship Plans Update

This week, Gov. Baker announced that Massachusetts will move into Phase 3 of the state’s re-opening plan, thanks to an ongoing decline in Covid-19 cases. I am grateful for answered prayers in the form of wise leaders and the actions of neighbors who care for one another, which has allowed the state to make significant inroads in controlling the spread of the virus.

But as can be seen from the news in the rest of the country, the pandemic is not over. We must remain vigilant and careful in order to keep the spread of the disease under control. As much as we may long to return to normal, we cannot simply go back to our usual activities without undoing all the good work and sacrifices that have been made so far. 

For that reason, while our bishop has given churches in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts permission to begin regathering for worship, he is also encouraging us to take things slowly.  Our Diocesan Journey by Stages plan imposes serious restrictions on how worship is conducted, which are intended to mitigate the significant risks posed by our traditional practices. Occupancy is limited to one household in every third pew in order to allow for social distancing; there is to be no congregational singing or responsive reading; everyone must wear a mask, including worship leaders; we are not allowed to greet one another before or after worship; and there is to be no Holy Communion, coffee hour, or Sunday School. There are new requirements for cleaning and disinfection before and after worship, as well as instructions to collect contact information for everyone who attends each service, just in case someone is diagnosed with Covid19 after attending worship. Finally, parishioners in high risk categories, including age and underlying health conditions, are strongly advised to avoid in person worship services.

These restrictions are for the safety of all and were established in consultation with public health experts, but they do mean that even if we return to public worship, it will not be the experience we have been missing. When I dream about being with you all on Sunday morning,  I imagine full pews, joyful singing, warm greetings at the peace, and the opportunity to share the sacrament of Eucharist. Our current configuration would only allow 8 families to attend.  In addition, many of those we love will be absent:  around half of the parishioners  of St. Mark’s fall into high risk categories

Rather than settle for worship that is a pale shadow of the joyful gatherings we usually experience at St. Mark’s and that excludes many of those we love and miss seeing, we will continue to make our primary Sunday service an online worship experience for the foreseeable future. Online, we can continue to sing joyously, to read the psalms and the prayers together, to listen and reflect on the words of Scripture. We can continue to gather via Zoom afterwards for a chance to talk about what is going on in our lives and share reflections about our faith. We can continue to invite people near and far to join us, including those who do not currently have a church home and who are longing to hear a word of Good News. We can continue to hear the stories of God’s mighty acts of salvation in the past and remind one another that we can trust God to lead us through to the other side of the current crisis.  It isn’t the same as doing it in person, but right now, being together in person won’t be the same, either. 

As we prepare for fall, we have also formed a joint committee with Trinity Chapel to explore additional opportunities to gather in small groups for prayer, connection, and service in ways that are less risky. These may include outdoor worship, small group prayer gatherings, or socially distanced work parties in support of our food and other ministries; your suggestions for other possibilities are most welcome! 

We will also seek to continue to improve our online offerings. We have received a small grant from our Diocese to purchase equipment to improve our video capabilities, and are exploring ways to improve the online worship experience and our online formation programs. We are also brainstorming ways to connect with newcomers and invite people in the wider community who are seeking to understand God better to join us in prayer, discussion, and learning. 

I realize this is not what many were hoping to hear. When we shut down in March, we all thought it would be a matter of weeks before we could worship together again. Now, it appears we will have to love one another at a distance for many months to come.  I know this will cause distress for many of you, and I am available for conversation and prayer via telephone and Zoom at any time. I also encourage you to reach out to one another to support each other, as well. If you know of anyone who would benefit from a phone call from me or our pastoral care team, please let me or Herb Elliott, our pastoral care team leader, know. 

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13) 

Suzanne

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Praying Together for Justice and Peace


On Sunday, June 7, we'll pray the following Prayers of the People, written by Rev. Suzanne based on Psalm 130. Won't you join us? 


In these days of strife and fear, let us pray with the words of the Psalmist

Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord; Lord hear my voice. 

We pray, Lord, for all those who work for justice. We pray for those whose voices have gone too long unheard. We pray that you may turn our hearts towards our brothers and sisters of color and enlighten our minds to understand how we have, knowingly or unknowingly, contributed to their suffering and grief. 

If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss, O Lord, who could stand?

We pray for those who work for reconciliation and for healing. We pray that you will give our leaders wisdom, patience, and restraint. We pray that you will inspire us to learn more and do more for the sake of justice and peace.  

For there is forgiveness with you; therefore you shall be feared. 

We pray for the Church and especially for the witness we offer in these troubled times. We pray for our bishops, and offer our thanksgivings for their prophetic words. We pray for all those who minister to the sick, the lonely, the desperate, and the despairing. We pray for preachers, that you will give them words to share today that will encourage and challenge those who hear them. 

I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him; in his word is my hope.

We pray for the sick, the oppressed, and the needy. We pray for victims of looting and violence.  We pray for the unemployed, and for those who are afraid to return to work. We pray for healthcare workers and first responders. We pray for renewal in all the earth. 

My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning. 

We pray for all who have died, and especially for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and all who have been victims of fear and racism. 

O people, wait for the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy.

We pray for our own needs, and the needs of those we love. We pray for all on St. Mark’s prayer listThe people are invited to add their own petitions and thanksgivings

With him there is plenteous redemption, and he shall redeem the people from all their sins. 

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Covid-19 Closure Update

On Monday, May 18, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker included churches among the first organizations allowed to resume activities in the state’s phased pandemic re-opening plan. On Friday, May 22, President Donald Trump urged congregations nationwide to begin gathering for worship immediately.

Nevertheless, the bishops of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, in conjunction with the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, have continued to prohibit in-person worship until July 1. They have also issued a stringent set of standards that must be met before we can open our doors or return to our traditional practices of worship, including sharing Holy Communion. These standards make it entirely possible that virtual worship will continue past July 1, and that we will not share a service of Holy Eucharist for some time beyond the resumption of in-person worship.

This is distressing news, made all the more so by the permission afforded by the secular authorities to resume in-person worship. But as St. Paul writes, “All things are lawful,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.” (1 Corinthians 10:23-24) There is significant evidence that the governmental green light to churches comes from political pressure rather than an accurate assessment of what is best for worshipping communities. Our bishops, on the other hand, answer to a different authority, one who makes it clear that our first concern must always be the most vulnerable among us and that we must always place love for our neighbor above our own desires. It is that concern that has led the bishops to instruct us to keep our doors closed and our hearts open. 

I agree wholeheartedly with the president that churches are essential and that our nation is in more need of prayer than it has ever been in my lifetime. I just don’t agree that we have to risk the health and lives of the people we love in order to do that essential work. 

Jesus started his ministry with just 12 followers and no permanent headquarters, and drew thousands despite moving from place to place and teaching, healing, and feeding outdoors. The scattered communities of Christians of the early church, constantly under threat of persecution, produced a robust witness that still inspires the faithful today. Paul’s most fruitful ministry came in the form of letter-writing to small gatherings in cities across the Roman empire, a ministry that continues to enrich our faith almost 2,000 years later. 

All of this is to say that while gathering for worship is a great joy, it is not the only thing that marks us as Christian. In this moment, when opening our doors for worship could pose a life-and-death risk to the most vulnerable among us, the decision of what we should do is clear: we should continue to worship God and follow Jesus by gathering online to sing our praises and offer our prayers. We should concentrate our efforts on finding new ways to safely continue the ministry of teaching, feeding and healing that Jesus passed on to us. 

I wish I could share the president’s confidence that the worst is over and nothing bad would come of throwing open our doors and inviting everyone back in. But the news is full of stories of churches that have tried this and have quickly had to shut down again as many in the congregation and among the clergy have tested positive for Covid-19. Sunday worship is an almost perfect environment for spreading the virus, and even with careful social distancing, masks, and a ban on congregational singing, a single infected person could cause widespread sickness and death without even knowing they were infected.  As our bishops have said, clearly and forcefully, loving our neighbors as Christ first loved us precludes taking such a risk. 

But the most essential thing about being Christian has never been the way we come together, but the way we are sent out. In the Gospel of Matthew, the last words Jesus speaks to the disciples after his resurrection, on a mountaintop in Galilee, are: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” 

We are not being locked out of our churches; we are being invited to go forth from our sanctuaries bearing witness to the power of Resurrection and carrying good news to those who would never have come to us. And Christ is going with us, even to the end of the age.

Thanks be to God. Alleluia, alleluia. 

Your sister in Christ,
Suzanne


If you would like to read the Bishop's announcement and guidelines for re-opening, you can find them here: 
https://www.diomass.org/news/diocesan-news/bishops-extend-virtual-worship-timeframe-until-july-1

and here: https://www.diomass.org/sites/diomass/files/documents/A%20JOURNEY%20BY%20STAGES%202020_05_18.pdf

Friday, March 13, 2020

Brothers and sisters in Christ,
I am writing to inform you that beginning this Sunday, March 15, St. Mark’s is cancelling all in-person worship services and other activities.  We will offer online worship via Facebook Live, and a variety of other virtual ways to connect and pray with one another in this difficult time. 
We will follow local, state and federal guidelines and diocese recommendations regarding resuming normal activities.
An exception is the blood drive scheduled for March 18: due to the increasingly urgent need for blood donors, we still plan to host the American Red Cross from 2-7 p.m. in Williams Hall, with all due care and attention to minimizing the risk of infection. More information is available at redcrossblood.org.
We do not make this decision lightly, but it has become clear to us that following Jesus and loving our neighbor as ourselves requires us to do everything in our power to inhibit the spread of Covid-19. The most important way we can contribute to local public health efforts is to eliminate our in-person gatherings and offer people ways to stay connected to one another from a distance.  
To that end, we are planning a robust schedule of opportunities to pray together, converse together, worship together, and study together using Facebook, Zoom online meetings and phone conferences, email, phone calls, and good old envelopes and stamps!  
Among the opportunities we expect to make available in the next few days: 
Sunday Morning Prayer live from the sanctuary, with music, beginning Sunday, March 15, at 10 a.m. via Facebook Live. You do not have to have a Facebook account to watch the livestream video! Just go to www.facebook.com/stmarkwestford.  Ignore any prompts to log in: the video is offered to the public and can be viewed by anyone! There will also be links on our website and all email announcements.
Beginning Monday, March 16, we will also offer a daily Compline service at 9 p.m. via Facebook Live. This brief home-based prayer service will give us an opportunity to come together at the end of the day to pray for ourselves, for the sick and suffering, and for the world, as we entrust one another to God’s care for another day. 
We will continue our discussions about The Way of Love via Zoom Meeting on Sundays, at a time to be announced. You can participate in a Zoom meeting on your computer via video link, or by phoning a dedicated phone number and participating by voice only. We will add a regular “Theology at the (Virtual) Tavern” as a virtual gathering space for discussion and fellowship, and a book to read for future discussion.  We are also discussing opportunities for children and families. These online opportunities will require registration in order to receive instructions for joining, but are open to all, including those not affiliated with St. Mark’s. 
We will also be putting together a phone tree and asking every parishioner to call someone else each week, to offer encouragement, connection, and awareness of what is going on with each of our members. And we anticipate setting up a “pen pal” program for children and elders to increase intergenerational connections. 
We invite and encourage you to share these opportunities widely, with anyone you think might welcome a chance to connect with others right now. That might include friends and neighbors here in Westford, friends and family members living elsewhere, your social media friends, and the general public. As Presiding Bishop Michael Curry reminded the Church in his online address this week, we are all in this together.
While it is easy to be overwhelmed by anxiety in these difficult times, we are also being given an opportunity to let God’s light shine through us and to bear witness to the strength our faith grants us. We are reminded to place our trust in God and act out of compassion and love, not fear.  As St. Paul wrote to the Philippians:  
“Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  
Even when our lives are disrupted, when our sense of safety is destroyed, when there is ample cause to fear, the Bible tells us that God’s love for us never fails, that the darkness cannot overcome the Light, and that even death yields before the power of God. As a community of faith, let us live as a people whose hope never fails, because our hope is in the Lord.
Your sister in Christ,
Suzanne


The Rev. Suzanne Wade, rector at St. Mark’s, can be contacted by phone call or text at 508-472-9656 or via email at revsuzannewade@gmail.com