"For the facing of this hour": March 20 pastoral message from Bishop Gayle Harris

March 20, 2020

Dear Friends in Christ:

God of grace and God of glory,
on thy people pour thy power;
crown thine ancient Church's story;
bring her bud to glorious flower.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
for the facing of this hour...
...for the living of these days.
          From Hymn 594,
The Hymnal 1982, Words by Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969)

A few days ago I sent some of my thoughts to the vocational deacons of our diocese, and I wish to share those and other reflections with all among and connected to us during this time of crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

These are difficult days for the people of Planet Earth, our island home.  These are challenging days for Christ's Body, the Church.  While the pandemic of COVID-19 has forced the isolation of one from another, and the present global fear is new to most of us in 2020, pandemics and fear are not new in humanity, nor to the Church.

We can remember the fear and the epidemics of SARS, MERS, Ebola and other diseases that most of us have not experienced directly.  As a seminarian, I was involved with ministries in Oakland and San Francisco when AIDS, mysterious and unnamed, began to strike fear.  As I was growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, my parents lived with fear every spring trying to keep me inside for fear of my contracting polio, as my uncles did (one died, one was disabled), until the vaccine was developed and widely distributed when I was about eight years old.

The influenza pandemic of 1918, yellow fever, smallpox, bubonic plague, the Black Death--the list goes on of deadly communicable diseases that have visited us.  All began as mysterious, even invisible, agents of panic, suffering and death.

And what are now "childhood diseases" were at times intentionally given to the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas by invading Europeans to cause death among those who had no immunity.

The precautions mandated by Governor Baker of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the directives of our Bishop Diocesan Alan Gates and the statements by our Presiding Bishop and Primate Michael Curry have been for our protection, and largely to curtail exposure to COVID-19.  They will temporarily keep us from public worship and providing ministry in our physical presence, but they do not dismantle our pastoral and spiritual ministries in the world and with each other.

I, like you, miss being present with others.  I long for the sacrament of the Eucharist, not only the act of the community of faith, but the grace and strength I need to keep hope alive in these days.  I turned to my St. Augustine Prayer Book, to the section titled "Spiritual Communion: When unable to attend the Mass," and these words jumped off the page:

Behold, I stand at the door and knock:
if any hear my voice, and open the door,
I will come to them,
and will sup with them
and they with me.
     --Revelation 3:20

In union, dear Lord, with the faithful at every altar of thy Church where the blessed body and blood are being offered to the Father, I desire to offer thee praise and thanksgiving.  I believe that Thou art truly present in the Holy Sacrament.  And since I cannot now receive thee sacramentally, I beseech thee to come spiritually into my heart.

I unite myself unto thee, and embrace thee with all the affections of my soul.  Let me never be separated from thee.  Let me live and die in thy love. Amen.
--St. Augustine of Hippo

As we do continue in a spiritual community, we can offer solace and ministry to those who are alone, vulnerable, afraid, confused and ill by communicating our presence in ways we are unaccustomed, by the use of telephone, electronic and social media.  Let us also rely on the power of prayer to encourage and support one another.  As members of the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement we have a rich and creative tradition to face days like these.  We also have the liturgical and spiritual resources of several hymnals and The Book of Common Prayer.  It is time to rediscover the wealth of prayers and worship services for individuals and families within it.  These resources can help us to articulate our hopes and needs, especially when words may fail us.  If you do not have a copy, The Book of Common Prayer is available online here.

The Daily Offices are prayerful worship services intended for congregations, individuals and families, and do not require clergy to officiate.  Please see the following:

Pages 17-135
     Morning Prayer (Rite I or II)
     Evening Prayer (Rite I or II)
     Compline (for the end of the day)

Page 136-143
Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families:
     In the Morning
     At Noon
     In the Early Evening
     At the Close of the Day

Pages 814-841
     Prayers and Thanksgivings (Various)

St. Augustine of Hippo once said "they who sing pray twice" acknowledging that in song we tie heart and mind, with our whole body in the act of singing.  As I turn to prayer, our hymnals and the spirituals of the black religious experience keep coming to mind.  The one hymn from The Hymnal 1982 that continually comes to mind, and that I pray for the world, is Hymn 680, with words by Isaac Watts (1674-1748):

O God, our help in ages past, our help for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home.

May we continue in faith and may we know God's grace is present to give us strength and hope.  Let us pray for the sick and isolated among us, and those who are despondent and disconsolate from fear.  Let us also pray for first responders, the medical community, government leaders and biological scientists and researchers to be led by courage, compassion and the wisdom of God.

Yours in Christ,
The Rt. Rev. Gayle E. Harris