A message to the pastors and deacons of the Southwest California Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America:
Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!
Beloved in the Lord, I write to you looking toward Good Friday and the long silence of Holy Saturday, and longing for the Easter beyond. We have entered the holiest time of the church year, and we face it with uncertainty and some anxiety—at least I do. I feel uncertain because this will be an Easter unlike any other I have experienced in my lifetime: an Easter in which Christ’s gathered people are physically scattered as never before. It is also an Easter in which the normal celebration of the Lord’s Supper in our congregations has been made impossible by the isolating measures this pandemic has forced us to take, and it has disrupted many happy family activities that usually enrich Easter for us and for our children.
All this makes it difficult for me to greet this Easter with the same unrestrained joy I have had in this feast in the past. But I know it will still be Easter, no matter what—and no matter how different. This year we are doing new things: capturing what we can of the church’s ancient practice and translating it into digital media; innovating and trying new things to draw our people into the paschal mysteries. This effort has been very hard work for everyone, and frustrating for some, but it has also unleashed creativity we might not have employed if we had simply been able to fall back into our time-honored patterns.
So first I want to acknowledge your work and thank you for the dedication and imagination you have employed to bring your people into these holy days the best ways you can. For some this has been very difficult and even painful; for others it has been at least quietly exciting to be cut free to do a new thing with an old story. But it has not been easy for anyone, and some of you, I know, are still anxious about what will happen this weekend. Don’t worry—what you have done will be received with gratitude by those you serve.
And I want to tell you right now that what you have done is right—it is enough—it will be worth your work and your people will hear the great story of life over death, and light over shadow that Easter offers us every year. I do look forward to experiencing through the Internet some of the fruits of your labors. I hope you, too, will be able to experience some Easter joy for yourselves and your families, as these unfamiliar work patterns may give us more flexibility to spend time in our homes with those we love.
Two technical notices: First, I will have a video Easter greeting to the synod (about 3 minutes in length) available on the synod YouTube channel Saturday morning. It will also be sent as a special e-mail to the whole synod mailing list on Saturday. The video will have Spanish-language subtitles, and the written text will be available in English, Spanish, and Mandarin Chinese. If you wish to forward it to your people or incorporate it somehow into your Sunday worship, you are welcome to do so.
Second, the video sermon I have promised you for Easter 2 will be available from Tuesday, April 14, and will also be subtitled in Spanish. You will receive an e-mail message telling you it is available when the time comes. You should feel free to use it as you wish—I would be happy to know that I had saved you a little work and given you a bit more free time in the week of Easter.
Next week is going to be challenging, I think, in many ways: we may be hitting or approaching the peak time of infection here in Los Angeles then. The impact has been great, but I not have heard up to now very many reports of people sick with COVID-19 in our congregations, and have not heard of any rostered leaders having been infected. I hope that holds, but ask you to continue to keep me informed, especially about yourselves and other rostered ministers.
I will convene the conference deans for a phone meeting next week, to get a roundup of the situation in the conferences. We continue to work through the list of congregations and call pastors from whom we have not heard; I know that your deans and collegia have been keeping in touch as well. I am very encouraged by how much cooperation I see among our clergy and congregations, and how much I have heard from many of you. At this point I think we should consider the Spring Conference Assemblies postponed or cancelled, but please don’t announce that until I have checked with the deans next week. I may also suggest some alternative way of doing them. We are still planning to hold the Synod Assembly at the end of the summer, but do not yet have firm dates.
One thing that does worry me going forward is that next week will be the fourth solid week of the “stay at home” directives, and that as we pass the one-month mark we will need to reassess the impact that not gathering in person has had on our financial situation, both in the congregations and the synod as a whole. I am one of a small group of ELCA leaders who have been part of an ad hoc committee advising our Presiding Bishop about the national church’s response to the COVID-19 situation in our synods and congregations.
Some small grant programs from the ELCA (and one synod-based one) have already been announced, but I believe a more sizable effort by the ELCA to provide funds for some assistance to congregations will follow soon. This will probably be given out in the form of block grants to synods, on the assumption that local leaders know better how to apply the funds. The amounts given will certainly not be nearly enough to make up each congregation’s losses, but they might—applied strategically—give a few endangered strategic congregations a chance to survive.
I don’t want to suggest I have answers for all the questions we will face, but we will have time after Easter to begin to approach the questions in a more systematic way. By the time of the Synod Council’s regular meeting next month, I hope we’ll have some strategic approaches to the losses we will have suffered as a church, and I will share that as we go. Many of your congregations have already applied for the funds made available by the Federal government for payroll protection and to cover costs. We have put forward all the information we have about those, and though the process has been confusing, many of you have managed to get applications into your banks.
Many of you have been very much stretched—and deeply stressed—by having to worry about things you feel you weren’t prepared for; and some of you had much less support from your lay leadership than others. There’s a standing list on social media of “things they didn’t teach me in seminary”! But I very much hope “they” did teach you a theology which has enabled you to see beyond these daily crises to the hope of the resurrection on which our faith rests, and an understanding of the cross that allows you to see divine solidarity with us even in times of pain. What you bring to your congregations—and only you can bring it—is a living Word proclaimed and taught in ways that gives life to the hearers, and which builds up the Body of Christ in our midst. I see this strength in Christ and this hope in the future, shown in the liturgy and music and preaching you have provided your people through these weeks, and which I know are bursting forth in these holy Three Days.
To put things even more in perspective, I’d like to end this Good Friday message with a quotation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who on Easter of 1943 was in Tegel Prison in Berlin. Writing to one of his loved ones, he said “I do want you to know that I am having a happy Easter in spite of everything. One of the advantages of Good Friday and Easter Day is that they take us out of ourselves, and make us think of other things, of life and its meaning, and its sufferings and events. It gives us such a lot to hope for.” That Easter hope is my hope, too—and I pray it is shared by you and your people this weekend.
God be with you. Stay well.