Finding the divinity in moments of pandemic dullness

May 22, 2020 by Sally Scherer

A recent New York Times story tells of a Catholic priest in Queens who decided not to let the coronavirus-mandated closure of his church keep him from worshipping with, and ministering to, his parish.

“He decided that if people can’t come to church, the church ought to find a way to go to the people,” explained the Rev. Dr. Ted Wardlaw, president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

As Wardlaw explained it, the priest put on vestments and a light blue surgical mask on a recent Sunday and walked down the streets of Queens visiting his parishioners encouraging them, praying with them and blessing people.

Wardlaw described the priest’s act as “a glimmer of grace that surprises the ordinary.”

The story is just one example of how worship and community have changed since the COVID-19 pandemic appeared in the United States earlier this year.

Wardlaw’s shared the story in a recent Facebook Live conversation about worship and community hosted by the Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty, senior director for Theological Education Funds Development at the Presbyterian Foundation. They were joined by Eric Wall, assistant professor of sacred music and dean of the chapel at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Worship is taking place at Austin, but primarily virtually and from homes, said Wall, rather than in the seminary’s magnificent chapel that Wardlaw says, “demands worship.” The strong community of worship at Austin continues through virtual platforms, Wall said.

And, although he has experienced a sense of dullness and exhaustion during the pandemic, Wall has also experienced moments of “aliveness.” Even in using Zoom.

“I have zero training in worship in this medium prior to March 11 or 12,” he said. Yet he finds that his use with Zoom has allowed him to discover “new ideas in unexpected places.”

Both men talked about how worship in the pandemic – no matter the platform it takes on – gives us a sign of divinity in the midst of what can be seen as a bleak time when we’re sort of dulled by the monotony being sequestered in place.

Wardlaw mentioned best-selling author Barbara Brown Taylor and what she calls being “a detective of divinity.” Be on the lookout for signs of that, Wardlaw said.

Worship remains central to our faith and one of the only things some churches are able to do during the pandemic. Worship is paramount, Wall says, because it pulls all the riches of the life faith together. It is a wellspring we return to, a place where we recall everything God does, where we listen for what God is saying, where we recommit ourselves to what God is doing and what God might do through us, he said.

Though many of the subtleties of worship – the friendly glance, the hugs, the handshake – are missing, new ways of being connected are taking place. Wall cited the example of a recent worship service where prayer requests, which were added to the commenting feature on Zoom, were read aloud.

“It was extraordinarily rich. It was a great moment of connection,” he said.

Wardlaw echoed those sentiments. He said he is more of a pew sitter now than someone who stands in the pulpit, but he finds himself being more porous to the impact of worship.

“There’s something about worship that reorients and reminds us where we are appropriated located in the architecture of heaven and earth,” Wardlaw said. “That’s what it does for me.”

Sally Scherer is a writer and communications consultant based in Lexington, Kentucky. She is a member of Second Presbyterian Church, where she is an elder and a member of the choir. Send comments on this article to Robyn Davis Sekula, Vice President of Communications and Marketing at the Presbyterian Foundation, at robyn.sekula@presbyterianfoundation.org.