Ever present God, be with us in our isolation, be close to us in our distancing, be healing in our sickness, be joy in our sadness, be light in our darkness, be wisdom in our confusion, be all that is familiar when all is unfamiliar, that when the doors reopen we may with the zeal of Pentecost inhabit our communities and speak of your goodness to an emerging world. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
John Darnielle is the founder, frontman, lead singer, and song writer for one of my more favourite bands, the Mountain Goats. Many of their songs and albums are deeply autobiographical, and I adore their 2005 album The Sunset Tree. Its songs process what growing up was like for Darnielle with his mother, sister, and his abusive stepfather.
I was introduced to the Mountain Goats by the writer and thinker John Green. After writing three well-received young-adult novels, Green found himself struggling to write his next book. He kept coming back to experiences he’d had after finishing university. Green worked for several months as a chaplain-intern at a hospital primarily with young people who had cancer and with their families. Every attempt to write a book based in part on what he’d witnessed at that time seemed to falter. He’s spoken about the deep solace he found in listening to The Sunset Tree, and especially in the song “This Year.” Here’s its chorus:
I am going to make it through this year if it kills me I am going to make it through this year if it kills me
Half funny, half serious, a bit worrying, and full of a very gritty determination.
I sang that song a lot in my car the month I began at the Nativity. To be clear: not as a reflection on all of you wonderful people! I sang it because I felt like there was too much. Starting on February 1st in a new community, meeting people, forming relationships. Ash Wednesday and signing the documents for buying our house on February 13th. Taking possession on the 15th, and starting to clean and paint. Vestry on the 17th. My arms aching at the altar, barely able to hold them up for the Eucharistic Prayer after hours of ‘cutting’ with a paintbrush around ceilings (No one wants me to have the paint-roller: “First Coat Matthew” is my well-earned nickname). Packing. The actual moving in. I changed the lyrics: “I am going to make it through this month / if it kills me”
Sing-screaming that song at the top of my voice in the car helped. What I was going through wasn’t anything like what John Darnielle went through, was different again from what John Green went through. I don’t know what makes the song so resonant for Stephen Colbert, but I loved seeing him sing it with the Mountain Goats when he had them on his show.
The final chorus that ends the song is introduced with the line “There will be feasting and dancing / in Jerusalem next year.” You see, at the end of the Passover Seder, it’s customary for those gathered to say “Next year in Jerusalem.” Next year we’ll gather to keep this feast in the promised land. Next year the messiah will have come and reunited us. Next year all that we’ve hoped for will be really ours. For Darnielle, singing this autobiographical song that mentions earlier that he’s seventeen—next year he’ll be out of his home, in college, newly emancipated. Darnielle offers a dedication of sorts in the album’s liner notes:
Made possible by my stepfather, Mike Noonan (1940–2004): may the peace which eluded you in life be yours now. Dedicated to any young men and women anywhere who live with people who abuse them, with the following good news: you are going to make it out of there alive you will live to tell your story never lose hope
This song in its fierce determination is, to my ears, much more optimistic than it first seems. You will live to tell your story. Never lose hope.
It’s been four weeks now that we haven’t been able to gather at the Nativity. This coming Sunday is one we all look forward to: waving our palms as we sing and process, ducking away from the young people who use them for sword fights afterward, the beauty of the red of Holy Week, getting a palm cross or three to take home at the door (and folk telling me with confidence that it’s not one of the ones they made). And this year, it’s going to be different.
We don’t know when we’ll be able to gather in person again. We don’t know how things will evolve during this pandemic. But not only will we live to tell our story, we have already been raised to new life in Jesus Christ. If we had been able to gather this Sunday, we would have heard these words from the prophet Isaiah: “The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near.” (Isaiah 50.7—8)
God helps us today, even as God points us to what God’s glorious future looks like—and invites us to join. God is near to us especially in our grief and sorrow. And God will strengthen us for what lies ahead.
Another reading we would have heard is the telling of the Passion in Matthew’s gospel. Listen to the description of Jesus’s death:
Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. (Matthew 27.50—51)
We hear the description of cataclysm: of everything that we were used to being torn asunder and changed. The very earth shaking in the fullness of God’s presence. Here’s the part that’s shimmered on the page for me this week; it’s the response of those who were near Jesus as he died:
Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. (Matthew 27.54—55)
The centurion—not a Judean, not a disciple, not a follower of God—recognizes in this moment of terror just who Jesus is. It’s clear to him and those with him that everything is changed. And the women who had supported Jesus in his ministry hadn’t deserted him—they were there, at a distance, watching and seeking still to care for him.
I think this part of the passion has stood out to me this year precisely because the world seems in flux. But God is still here. I think I am being drawn to this description because our celebrations look and feel different, like we’re watching from further afield.
God’s love still makes itself visible. Christ’s presence is still in our midst. The Spirit breathes strength and mission into us so that our love pulses in our caring for neighbours—even as we have to look on at one another from a distance, finding new ways to provide for the needs of one another and the world.
May the quiet of this Holy Week lead us into new and deeper contemplations of Christ’s death and resurrection. And may we look to the women who watch and wait, who will act with courage when given opportunity, to learn how to be disciples in this moment.
Home Prayers During a Time of Pandemic: these prayers were put together by the Diocese of Niagara’s liturgical officer. They’re simple and easy to follow. They also include a bunch of optional prayers specifically for healing and calming anxiety.
Forward Day by Day: Produced by the Forward Movement–an organization of the Episcopal Church of the United States–this greatdaily resource offers a short scriptural passage, a reflection on that passage, and some questions worth pondering in prayer.
Daily Prayer: The Church has a long tradition of praying at specific times of the day. Our Book of Alternative Services and Book of Common Prayer both have ways of praying in the morning, at midday, in the evening, and before bed. The easiest way to start praying what’s called the Daily Office is using a web page from the Forward Movement that provides the current prayer office based on what time it is right now!
Home Prayers: If you have a copy of the Book of Alternative Services at home with you, check out pages 685–95. This section is called Home Prayers, and it offers a pattern of prayer that’s easily adaptable. Right now, you might want to use the gathering for Lent on page 688. (If you don’t have a BAS at home, you can look at it online.)
Over the last few weeks, we’ve been gathering supplies to create hampers for the people St. Matthew’s House is helping into housing. Focusing on essentials for people who lack the basics, we’ve been collecting everything from flatware to sheets, from towels to kitchen supplies, from toiletries to cleaning supplies, and so much more.
Mel—the Supervisor of Senior Services—shared an email with us to give us a sense of what we at Nativity have been able to help provide, along with some pictures. She’s given us permission to share her note:
I wanted to connect again to give thanks and to include you in our progress. I have attached a couple of pictures, and wanted to update you on our progress since our last meeting. The kindness and generosity of yourselves, your community and your church has been overwhelming and has provided a new beginning for at least 25 individuals. We have put together 25 hampers, 28 additional bags containing items like blenders, bake ware etc., to be added to each individual based on need and inclination. As well we have cleared and dedicated two large shelving units to store the remaining supplies. St. Matthew’s House has never before had access to this many hampers, and would like to share what it means to our senior’s services department to know that when an individual is housed we will be able to simply go downstairs and retrieve all they will need to begin their lives as independently housed members of their communities, thank you for everything you have done and we at St. Matthew’s House would like to wish you a very Happy Holidays.
In our post last Friday, we shared some of the survey data from our chair experiment earlier this year. For more than five years now, a number of people who call the Nativity home have thought it would be a good idea to have some chairs—three or four rows, on each side of the church—as an option for those who would prefer chairs to pews. In that first post, we shared mostly numbers. Now we get to the part that really excites our rector; Matthew really likes to listen carefully to what people are saying, and these surveys gave an opportunity for people to share whatever they needed to about the possibility of chairs.
Here’s our opportunity to slow down and really listen to one another. It’ll be hard, but it’s worth paying special attention to the experiences of people that you think you don’t agree with. What can we learn from a perspective we don’t share? How can we learn to love one another better? Another vital thing to remember: some people approach a question like this one with logic, and others approach it more with feelings. Both ways are good, and we have to listen and appreciate both of those approaches!
To make it a bit easier to listen to those different experiences, we’ve sorted the responses into practical questions, and then three groups of positive, negative, and neutral feedback. Please do read all the responses. We can only have a good conversation that helps us to figure out how to proceed if we listen with all of our abilities and hearts to where we all are coming from.
“There needs to be a place for books for the chair/pew behind. We should get chairs that physically link together so they form a solid row. The armrests interrupt the row, it’s a trade-off for those who need them to get up and down.”
[From the editor:] You notice important points! 1) The chapel chairs don’t have either of those features, but if we did purchase chairs for the church, there would absolutely be either a pocket or a rack for hymnbooks, prayerbooks, and bulletins. 2) The chairs do come with a linking feature; we didn’t use it because it requires nuts and bolts, and we were moving the chairs back into the chapel each week for the midweek service.
In fact, you’re not alone: a number of survey responses noted the challenge of not having a good place to put books or purses, and a couple of responses noted that it would be better if the chairs couldn’t shift their position.
Have a mix of pews & chairs! Gives the congregation & visitors a choice!
I feel that anyone who did not try the chairs should have no say. Let them sit in the pew and those who are in favour use the chairs.
There will always be pews for those who prefer them. If the addition of chairs will be more welcoming and comfortable to others, it is a good thing!!
I appreciate the fact that there will be a choice of pews or chairs. Pews handy for families with young children (to be able to spread out with their toys.)
Creates a more inviting space for potentially new parishioners
Nice for people REQUIRING them.
How can we remove pews to encourage more togetherness? Could we remove back pews as well?
just do it
Chairs would not be suitable for small children who tend to have books, crayons, or toys &c. Also a concern with the fabric on the chairs in case of accidents due to tears or soils.
Chairs are nice, but I prefer pews. [Chairs make it] not easy to control children.
Our worship space is beautiful as is. The chairs did not add anything to it.
Chairs change the look of a “church” in a negative way.
We are not in favour of chairs: the expense is wasteful/unnecessary, it disrupts the appearance of the nave, it doesn’t provide kneelers, pews are ideal for a feeling of community & “family.”
Out of place. If I want to go to movies, I will not in _church_
If chairs like in chapel they do not suit the church at all like when they were in the church. Prefer the Pews.
I don’t think the chairs are necessarily required or needed. 🙂 Although I do like the chairs a lot.
Anglicans are creatures of habit and I am not sure that people that would benefit from the chairs would move from their favourite pew. Perhaps 3-4 rows at front and back with pews in the middle. Personal preference is to do all or nothing.
If you put them throughout the church people sit in various areas so they can enjoy not just in one area.
Being a traditionalist, I like the ritual of the church service & part of that, for me, is the pews. However, I also tried to see both sides & came up with a list of pros & cons for the addition of chairs.
ease of configuration
good support for back
easy for people using arms to stand up
“modernizes the church”
take up more space than the pews which limits capacity
cloth seats get dirty over time – cost of cleaning or replacement)
What leaps out for you as you read about how others perceived the chairs? What perspectives do you want to understand better?
Next week, in Chairs Part Three: some thoughts from Matthew.
From Advent through until just after Epiphany this past year, we experimented by removing three pews on each side of the church and putting the chairs from the chapel in the space created.
We tried this because over the last five+ years, a number of people have expressed a desire for more comfortable seating. With the replacement of the old chairs in the chapel for the new ones, we had something we could try! We have never imagined replacing all the pews with chairs: we’re curious about replacing SOME pews with three or four rows of chairs on both sides of the church.
People were invited to try sitting in the chairs in the church for one or more services during the trial period. Afterwards, the pews were brought back in—and then asked folk to respond to the experience with some questions designed on the principles of appreciative inquiry. The idea is that we’re trying to identify and appreciate the best of what is, while beginning to imagine what might be.
After the anonymous survey responses were collated, each survey response page was scored to see how much the response liked the idea or didn’t like the idea of chairs. Here’s our overview of what we thought:
Strongly in Favour of Chairs
Wants to Proceed with Chairs
Sees Benefits of Chairs
I dislike chairs, but I can be okay with some
Serious concerns about Chairs
Strongly Opposed to Chairs
About 33% of the responses indicated a disapproval of chairs after the trial. About 41% or responses indicated wanting to proceed with chairs. The other 26% perceive some benefits or don’t love the chairs, but can live with having some.
Of the people who submitted survey responses, 80% had tried sitting in the new chairs, and 60% had tried sitting in them for a full service.
Asked what they appreciated about the chairs for themselves, we heard things like:
comfortable for sitting
greater ease of standing
“cush on the tush”
A third of respondents said the chairs made it easier for them to enjoy being in church; just over half noticed no difference, and 12% felt the chairs didn’t make it easier for them to enjoy being in church.
The next big question was about how we noticed other people appreciating the chairs. We wanted to ask this question because we knew a lot of people didn’t feel a particular desire for chairs themselves, but communities that thrive care about everyone in them being able to thrive, too! Some people commented that they hadn’t watched to see what others had appreciated. Those who had noticed pointed to the same kinds of things we experienced in the chairs ourselves–particularly noticing others’ comfort and increased ease of standing.
Asked where chairs should go if we do replace some pews with chairs, 61% of respondents thought they should be placed where they were for the trial. About 14% felt chairs would be best at the front, and 11% though best at the back. There were a couple of other thoughts about possibilities.
In our next post about chairs, we’ll share the comments and observations people gave in their survey responses about their experience of the trial. Check back next Friday—November 1st—to get a sense of what people had to say!