Pastoral Letter from Rev. Erin, March 24th, 2020

Dear beloved community,

First it was a headline about China. Then it was in Italy, Iran, and other distant places. Then the US: California, then this coast, and this state. Now it is here, and it comes dragging all that growing fear along with it. This weekend, the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 appeared in Buncombe County. As I write, there are eight confirmed cases in our county.

I think it’s important to reflect on the distant coming closer, because right now we need to prepare for this illness to impact us directly. We should not be shocked if what happens next is a confirmed case in West Asheville, the friend of a friend, a neighbor, a family member, or one of us. As a community of faith, we need to prepare to care for one another in a way we’ve never experienced before. I write this, not to spread fear or panic, but to remind all of us that God is with us in the midst of all of this.

Sometimes I wish I believed in a utterly transcendent and distant God, untouched by the messiness of the world. That is not the kind of God that I have experienced in my own life, and that is not the kind of God that I have witnessed in the lives of those who have shared their stories with me. Our faith was born in a time of occupation, under the shadow of an oppressive empire. Our scriptures are rooted in the proclamation that God is with us, in covenant with us, and intimately present even in our most desperate times. Our faith is no stranger to sorrow, fear, or frailty. 

As we move through this season of Lent each year, we take time to face the reality of death and mortality. We acknowledge the vulnerability of all life. We recognize how small we are. 

Last Friday I prepared about 25 communion kits in a silent sanctuary. The altar was covered in a white cloth that had not been moved or touched in weeks. The emptiness brought to my mind the practice of stripping of the altar that is customary on Maundy Thursday. Slowly, and in silence or to the words of Psalm 22, the altar cloth is lifted, the candles taken out, the cross removed—everything is taken away and the altar is left bare and unadorned. Last year, as I took a wet cloth and carefully ran it over the wood, I felt deep sense of loss and longing. In so many ways, this is not the story that I want—the story of a God who enters into the violence of human life, who dies a human death, rejected and betrayed. But the God we proclaim and worship has not taken that path, does not remain distant or unmoved. Our God is with us, not scandalized by our pain, but tending to us at our most vulnerable, our most broken, our most human. We face all of the pain of this world while still proclaiming our hope in the resurrection. 

Christianity does not give us all the answers, but it does proclaim that God has entered this world and is transforming it—and us—all the time. In the silence of the tomb, we proclaim resurrection. That out of death comes life—a resurrected life that catches all of us up and carries us beyond death into eternity. Each week, as a community, we say together:  You, O God, reconcile and heal; you overcome death. This is a statement about the present, not just the past. Here, and now, you are overcoming death, reconciling us to one another, and healing us. As Coronavirus begins to impact us directly, do not lose hope—know that God has not gone anywhere. We need each other now more than ever, so I urge you to reach out to one another in whatever ways we can. Let us continue to proclaim that God sweeps us up in a resurrection more powerful than death, and in a love more powerful than despair.

                                    Blessings,                   

                                                            Erin +

Psalm 23:5-6a

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; 

you have anointed my head with oil,

and my cup is running over.

Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.

Romans 8:38

“neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

A letter from Rev. Erin re. Coronavirus/COVID-19 Response, March 14th, 2020

Dear family in Christ,
 
After giving it a great deal of thought and talking through the options with several people, I have decided to cancel tomorrow’s in-person service, Christian Formation, Coffee Hour, and Vestry Meeting. I don’t take this decision lightly because I know how important it is for our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being to be together. However, there are many in our community who are especially vulnerable to this illness and I feel that taking this step is a concrete way of caring for one another. All that to say, I feel compelled by love–not fear–to make this decision
 
I mention that I am canceling our “in-person” service, because we will be holding a service together online! I am not the most proficient user of Facebook, but I did figure out how to livestream video. This means that if you go to our Facebook page tomorrow at 10:30 am, you will be able to see me (and maybe even the baby!) and I will lead the service and preach from home. The bulletin and readings are on our website and Facebook page if you would like to follow along. I look forward to “seeing” you tomorrow.
 
And one more thing: I have a request. My main worry right now is that this virus will cause isolation and anxiety. Even if it is not something that you usually do, please call at least one person tomorrow to check in on them and to “pass them the peace.” Peace is as contagious as fear. Remind each other that we not alone even if we are apart
 
I’ll leave you with the words of St. Clare, often used in our service as a parting blessing.
 
Live without fear: your Creator has made you holy, has always protected you, and loves you as a mother. Go in peace to follow the good road and may God’s blessing be with you always. Amen.
 
                        Much love, 
 
                                    Erin+
 

A letter from Rev. Erin re. Coronavirus/COVID-19 Response, March 12th, 2020

Dear family in Christ,

I wanted to send you all a quick update about St. George’s response to the Coronavirus.

What’s new?

Today, as of my writing this at 5:30 pm, Buncombe County officials declared a local State of Emergency as they wait on test 5 pending test results. There are still NO confirmed cases in Buncombe County. For more, go to: http://www.buncombecounty.org

Governor Roy Cooper declared a State of Emergency two days ago, in order to make it easier to fund a quick response to the illness. For more information about COVID-19 in NC, go to: http://www.ncdhhs.gov

Yesterday, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Coronavirus/COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic.

What are we doing?

General:

We keeping up with local updates and we are following the bishop’s recommendations and recommendations from the CDC and NC Department of Health.

Worship: 

We plan to hold our 10:30 am service this coming Sunday, March 15th as usual.

We will have no common cup during communion.

We will pass the peace without physical contact (everyone did great last week!).

The entire service will be live streamed via Facebook Live for those unable to attend in person.

Audio of the entire service will be posted online.

The bulletin and readings for this Sunday will be posted on our website and Facebook page.

Pastoral Care:

I encourage you to stay in touch with one another by phone, email, or facebook. If you would like someone’s information and do not have a directory, please let me know.

If you are sick or know someone who is sick, please contact your healthcare provider immediately. I would also ask that you please reach out to me if you or someone you know is sick: (615) 651-1064.

Center for Art and Spirit:

We are leaving it up to group leaders to decide whether or not to cancel regular meetings. The financial support we receive from CAS groups is vital to our ability to function as an organization. However, if you choose not to meet we are happy to consider, on a case by case basis, how to adjust payments to accommodate you. We are committed supporting the communities that share this space.

Fear is a powerful emotion. It can divide us, but it can also unite us. My prayer is that this season of uncertainty will bring us even closer together as a family, encourage us to comfort one another and to reach out, to be ready to help, to be honest and open about what we need—to be the body of Christ for one another and for our neighbors.

                  In gratitude,

Erin+

 

God is our refuge and strength,

    a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, 

    and though the mountains be toppled into the

                             depths of the sea;

Though its waters rage and foam, 

    and though the mountains tremble at its tumult.

                                                      Psalm 46:1-3

A Letter from The Rt. Rev. José A. McLoughlin

Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina

February 29, 2020
Dear Clergy and People of the Diocese of Western North Carolina, 

I understand the news of the spread of the COVID19 virus (Coronavirus), on top of an already difficult flu season, raises concerns and anxieties. I am deeply grateful to our colleagues at Episcopal Relief and Development for once again providing resources to put headline fear at ease, including a series of guidelines for faith-based response to epidemics which you can find by following the link. ERD reminds us that our role “as churches, dioceses and compassionate Christians is to:
-Combat fear with knowledge in order to encourage preparedness and  decrease stigma.
-Maintain operational continuity and continue worship life in the case of potential quarantine and disruption.
-Show God’s compassion and care to those in our communities who are affected.
Likewise, as new information which may be helpful arises, I will share it with our congregations. I am regularly reviewing guidelines and recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and, if necessary, will consult local medical professionals. When you receive information about Coronavirus and other infectious diseases from the media and other sources please consider carefully whether the source of the information is trustworthy. In the meantime, I commend these effective practices to you, especially to clergy in charge of congregations and those who may lead congregations in worship:
The most important way to minimize the spread of infectious diseases is for people who have symptoms such as fever, upset stomach, or frequent coughing or sneezing, to stay home and to seek medical attention as symptoms warrant. This includes clergy. Please notify the appropriate person at your congregation if you will miss a worship service or event so substitutes can be found. The clergy or lay ministers can bring the sacraments to those who cannot attend a service and/or provide pastoral care by phone as appropriate.
Frequent handwashing is another important way to minimize spread. Hands should be washed often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds (about as long as it takes to sing the Doxology). Handwashing is especially critical after going to the bathroom; before eating; after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing; or if hands are visibly dirty. Plenty of soap and paper towels should be provided in restrooms and kitchens. If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Place containers of hand sanitizer in the pews, near doors, and beside tissue boxes to be used when handwashing is not readily available.

If an infectious disease, such as the flu or Coronavirus is spreading in your community, your congregational leadership may consider whether some or all of the following would be appropriate:
The Peace: You may want to invite worshipers to remain in their pews/seats and greet one another with a bow at the Peace, acknowledging each other while avoiding physical contact.
The Holy Eucharist: Receiving the sacrament in one kind has ancient precedent in our spiritual life. We believe that those who receive only the bread (or wine) have fully received. The bread may be distributed by Eucharistic ministers who have cleansed their hands. Ask the altar guild to clean handrails and the altar rail before and after each service. 
Avoid Intinction: Because hands are a common source of infection, Intinction by the communicant is not a sanitary substitute for drinking from the chalice.
The Receiving Line: Following the service, the receiving line should include conversation but omit physical contact.
Coffee Hour: Food may be served by individuals who have washed their hands, put on serving gloves, and are using tongs to minimize the touching of food. Either paper plates and napkins or a dishwasher with a water temperature setting hot enough to kill germs should be used for cleanup. Similarly, beverages should be served by individuals who have washed their hands and are wearing gloves to minimize the number of people handling beverage containers.
Large gatherings or events: Consider rescheduling if possible or canceling if necessary.  

To maintain ministry to those encouraged to stay home as a precaution, some churches are reminding parishioners of remote viewing options, such as sharing services via Facebook Live or other livestreaming services. Others are utilizing video conferencing services such as Google Hangout or Zoom for meetings or to check in with those feeling ill while reducing the chance of spreading germs. 

Finally, whatever steps are appropriate in your context, it is essential that you communicate your decisions to the congregation. Explain the steps you are taking and why. Clear and open communication can be both informative and calming. Please keep those who are ill with infectious diseases, their families and caregivers, and our medical care providers, in your prayers. The Diocese of Western North Carolina has a strong history of caring for one another and for our communities in times of illness and health. With God’s help, we will continue that tradition together. 

Faithfully,

The Rt. Rev. José A. McLoughlin
Bishop of the Diocese of Western North Carolina
www.diocesewnc.org
(828) 225-6656

A Meditation for Advent 2

The Rev. Erin Maxfield-Steele

There are places in Western North Carolina where the words “woods” or “forest” seem too tame. The woods break open into a broad gash of rockslide or a mammoth slope of bare mountain. The stream suddenly picks up pace and begins to swirl around huge boulders and caught driftwood. The trail, if you look closely, reveals the claw marks of bears who have flipped flat stones over, looking for grub not too long before you took your first steps onto the trail.

I notice the wilderness, the wildness, the otherness of these places first in my body. My footsteps stop me and I’m not sure why and lifting my gaze up from the ground I realize where I am. Rounding the end of a ridgeline to land on snow or ice, I realize how fragile I am as the sudden cold of the north side of the mountain hits my face.

As I write, the rain has just become heavy, wet snow. The words I would have reflected on tomorrow morning, the second Sunday of Advent, are still in my mind: “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God’” (Luke 3:4b-6, interpreting Isaiah 40:3-6). How strange—to cry out in the wilderness. I have heard self-proclaimed prophets shouting in crowded streets, on college campuses, walking silently through Pride celebrations with signs that shout in brutal images. But to cry out where there is no human audience, where the leaves absorb even the sound of your footsteps, or where a mountainside simply echoes your words back to you. . .seems foolish, maybe even desperate.

Sometimes we cry out for incredible, irrational change, even when we have no reasonable hope, simply because we must cry out. We cry out when grief hits us hard, not to accomplish anything but because it is all that we can do. The words of the prophet Isaiah are words of hope: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord” (Isaiah 40:1-2a). But the words of John, the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, seem to me to be full of longing: longing for the pathway between us and God to be made straight, and flat, and easy. Longing for all flesh to see the salvation of God.

I wonder what would happen if I went into the wilderness and started shouting all the changes I long for. It would be an interesting sight, possibly picked up by bigfoot believers. Foolish as it sounds, I know exactly what I would cry out for and it would take me a long, long time before I could be silent again. Put simply, I would plead for the pathway between us and God to be made straight, and flat, and easy, because, though I believe that God is present with us in the midst of our suffering, I want the world to be delivered from hardship and to feel confidently that the author of love is with us. I would cry out for God to gather up all the wounds of this world into an embrace so powerful that it wraps our redemption and salvation around us like a quilt.

In this season of longing, of waiting, of hoping, what do you cry out for? If you feel comfortable sharing, please do. Amen.