This weekend marked the two-month anniversary of the day I went into voluntary self-quarantine when I got out of the hospital. As luck would have (good luck, for a change), a virtual choir video came out to remind me of the main lesson I’ve learned in the last two months: Each new day is a blessing.
I already knew that, but living through a pandemic has given it new urgency.
The video, which is embedded at the top of this post, is called the UK Blessing, a virtual choir project that pieced together video clips of musicians from 65 churches and religious groups in the United Kingdom, ranging from the Church of England to the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Salvation Army, to “to sing a blessing over our land.” Modeled after a similar virtual choir in Pittsburgh, it went up on YouTube Sunday.
“Our buildings may be closed,” said the blurb, “but the church is very much alive!”
And their blessing was very much what I needed to hear.
My church has been very much alive, too, putting Sunday service and weekday meditation videos up on YouTube, learning how to do bible study over Zoom and making heroic — and innovative — efforts to maintain community when we can’t meet face to face. Most congregations I know of, Lutheran, Catholic, mainline Protestant and evangelical alike, are doing the same.
But over the weekend, any spirit of good will was overshadowed, at least in Illinois, by protests at state government buildings in Springfield and Chicago by “Nazis, crackpots, anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists,” as the Capitol Fax state government blog succinctly put it. (In all fairness, I don’t know that the protesters in Springfield were Nazis, but the linked photo in CapFax of the woman displaying a swastika in front of the Trump 2020 banner certainly has anti-Semitic overtones.) At the same time, a church in northern Illinois sued the Gov. J.B. Pritzker — unsuccessfully — because it refused to abide by the public health department’s social distancing guidelines. Somehow the simple act of going to church has become a political football.
So the UK Blessing was a nice break from all the political rancor.
And with that anniversary of mine coming up over the weekend, I’d been thinking over our two months of quarantine, anyway, taking stock a little. So here’s an incomplete list of life lessons I’ve learned, or had confirmed, while quarantining in this time of COVID-19, plus a couple from watching the UK Blessing video:
- Each new day is a blessing. I know, I’ve said that before. But it’s worth repeating. Every day.
- Tomorrow is problematical, though. “We know not the hour …” Especially if we watch too much cable TV news, as I do, and especially now. But today, we’ve got it. We’re OK.
- When the old-timers around the tables in 12-step recovery groups said to take life one day at a time, they knew what they were talking about.
- Church isn’t a building, and you don’t have to physically gather in a brick-and-mortar sanctuary to be in communion with people.
- Contemporary worship music isn’t always annoying. The UK Blessing certainly wasn’t.
The song was a setting by Cody Carnes and Kari Jobe of the contemporary worship music (CWM) group Elevation Worship, a ministry of Elevation Church in Charlotte, N.C., of the benediction in the book of Numbers: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you.” Released in March, it was recorded by a virtual choir in Pittsburgh for Easter Sunday. When Tim Hughes, a CMW singer-songwriter and Anglican vicar in Birmingham, England, learned of the Pittsburgh project, he decided to replicate it in the UK.
So he organized the UK Blessing that went up on Sunday. Hughes is a powerhouse in the CMW world — among the songs to his credit is “Here I Am to Worship,” which I sang with the praise team at Peace Lutheran’s Saturday services — but he told a Premier Christian radio interviewer it was a group effort, and part of a growing movement in worship music.
“This is not one individual,” Hughes said. “It’s a lot of people worshiping through song, and I believe this is like a little glimpse of what we’re going to see much, much more of.”
Cooperating in the virtual choir project were singers and choral groups throughout the United Kingdom, including Hughes’ Gas Street Church Birmingham; other parishes of the Church of England; the Church of Scotland; Nonconforming churches (chiefly Baptist and Methodist); the Kingdom Choir (which you may remember from Prince Harry’s and Meghan Markle’s wedding); the One Hope Project Catholic Charismatic Renewal; the Redeemed Christian Church of God UK; the Salvation Army; several congregations affiliated with Hillsong, the international charismatic movement based in Australia; the Coptic Orthodox Church; and a number of independent congregations. “Standing together as one,” they said on YouTube, “our desire is that this song will fill you with hope and encourage you.” They added:
But the church is not simply singing a blessing, each day we’re looking to practically be a blessing. Many of the churches included in this song have assisted with supplying over 400,000 meals to the most vulnerable and isolated in our nation since COVID-19 lockdown began. This alongside phone calls to the isolated, pharmacy delivery drops and hot meals to the NHS [National Health Service] frontline hospital staff.
Anyway, it was a little glimpse of what the church — in the larger sense — can do to bring people together in a time of crisis. And it was a little ray of light in what’s turning out to be a very dark time. It was also a well produced video, one that showed off what CWM singers and technicians are capable of. I haven’t always been a big fan of the genre, so I needed to see that, too.
That said, I have no deep spiritual insights to share, other than how much I like the ecumenical spirit behind the creation of a video that brought artists from so many churches together from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. And how they used the virtual choir technology to overcome the physical limitations imposed on them by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since the pandemic hit Springfield and I had to stop going to church — which cuts off access to the holy communion service and thus, for Lutherans, to one of the means of grace — I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be in communion with the church. Either the Lutheran church, or any other congregation of believers.
It’s a long way from a virtual choir producing an online CWM video during this time of pandemic back to the 1520s and 30s. But the whole business of being cut off from the church — after so many years away from it — is a pretty basic challenge to my spiritual practice. So to help me think it through, I’ve turned to the Augsburg Confession of 1530, one of the basic documents of the Lutheran church. It says nothing about bricks and mortar. Instead, it has this definition:
The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.
And in his Small Catechism, Luther said this in 1529 about the “holy catholic church” (with a lower-case “c” in English translation). It’s kind of complicated, so I’ll quote it in full:
I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith. Daily in this Christian church the Holy Spirit abundantly forgives all sin — mine and those of all believers. On the last day the Holy Spirit will raise me and all the dead and will give to me and all believers in Christ eternal life. This is most certainly true.
One reason I like the Small Catechism so much is because Luther wrote it for children. So he didn’t get down in a theological briar patch, but got right to the point — talking instead of the Holy Spirit who calls me and keeps me in the true faith, even when because of doubt or pandemic “I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him …” It’s kept me going since I returned to the church 20 years ago.
And now I take it to mean the Holy Spirit is still at work and the Gospel is proclaimed even when I can’t physically go to my brick-and-mortar church in Springfield, as we put our Sunday services and weekday meditations up on YouTube and Zoom into chat sessions and bible study.
And the Holy Spirit, in turn, is certainly present in a virtual choir halfway around the world.
So the UK Blessing’s rendition of a contemporary worship song by a music ministry of a Baptist church in North Carolina helps keep me on track, just as the Spirit “calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith.” It is more than a blessing in troubled times. And this, as far as I am concerned, is most certainly true.