In the Wilderness: Preaching a Pandemic
My new book, In the Wilderness: Preaching a Pandemic will be released on Monday November 13. It's available for purchase on amazon, or if you're in Ottawa, you can contact me directly. You can pre-order the ebook now. Thanks for reading my books and blog over the years. Here's a sample of the new book, In the Wilderness:
When the NBA suddenly cancelled its 2020-21 basketball season, it finally dawned on me that we were in for a rough ride. On Wednesday, March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. The first case of COVID-19 in my hometown of Ottawa was discovered that same day. A few hours later, just minutes before the Utah – Oklahoma City basketball game was set to tip-off, the National Basketball Association abruptly suspended its 2020 season when Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for the virus. The corona virus, which for weeks had seemed a distant problem, had arrived with a vengeance. We had no idea of the impact it would have.
Thursday and Friday were filled with rumours, press conferences and news reports. Gatherings were limited, schools were closed. As the pastor of a church, I was preoccupied with figuring out what this would mean for our community and for our worship. It was hard to keep track of public health recommendations. New announcements were being made every hour. And that wasn’t the only thing on my mind. On Saturday, March 14, a new bishop for our diocese would be elected, and I was one of the candidates.
In late February, just two weeks before the pandemic was declared, we’d had our road show, traveling to far-flung points of our region to present our ideas and respond to questions, with not much thought given to the virus. There wasn’t one question on how we might respond to COVID-19. But as we gathered for the electoral synod on Saturday, the last large in-person gathering that any of us would experience for over a year, it was impossible not to think of the pandemic even as we entered a time of prayer and discernment.
I hadn’t checked my email on Friday evening. I’d wanted to cut down on distractions, and focus on the task at hand, both as a candidate and as a voter. This was an important moment in the life of our diocese. I even resisted the urge to check my email on Saturday morning as I made my way to the Cathedral for the candidates’ briefing on how the day would unfold. But after the briefing, I couldn’t resist the urge to look at my phone any longer. There it was, the email advising us that all in-person worship had been suspended indefinitely.
There was a pause in the synod as the first round of ballots was counted. I took advantage of that pause to send a quick email to the music director of our parish. “No in-person worship tomorrow morning. We’re going to have to livestream. We’ll figure it out.” Minutes later, the first ballot results were published. I received more votes than expected. We were in a pandemic, the pivot to online church was happening in real time, and I just might end up as bishop in a few hours. Disruption seemed the order of the day.
As it turned out, I did not become bishop, but even bigger changes were unfolding. We shifted online, not just in church but in so many aspects of our lives. Our world was shutting down. Most of us still didn’t know anyone who was sick; yet we could all read the news reports and see the graphs of hospitalizations and illness heading in the wrong direction. The COVID-19 virus had begun its exponential spread, in our newsfeeds and in our neighbourhoods. Schools closed, businesses shuttered, and all but the most essential workers were ordered to stay home. We thought it would be over by Easter, but we were wrong. The pandemic would become a multi-year affair.
When I went home at the end of that long Saturday in March, I was emotionally drained. Still, I opened my Bible and turned to the scripture that would be read the next morning. For I am a preacher, and on Sunday, the people with whom I gather to worship would be asking the question, “What does this mean?”
As pastor, I had the unenviable task of telling our community that our church building had to shut down. However, thanks to the miracle of technology, churches stayed open. We moved online, and I was faced with my biggest challenge yet as a preacher: to speak to a community that I could no longer see, knowing that my words mattered more than ever. In the midst of the losses that we grieved and the disruption we experienced, I would have ten minutes each Sunday to make sense of a world that had become increasingly surreal and to speak words of hope into our present fears.
The sermon is the one place in our worship where people have every right to expect us to engage with the question, “What does this mean?” In churches with a tradition of biblical preaching, “this” refers, in the first instance, to the biblical texts that are proclaimed. As Anna Carter Florence reminds us in her book Preaching as Testimony,[i]a preacher’s task is to open up the scriptures and reflect on them, to tell people what she has seen and heard in the text, and to say what she believes about it. But the question of meaning goes beyond the world of the biblical text. People want to know what this means for them, for us, today, in the context of all that is going on in our lives and the world around us. Especially in the midst of a global pandemic. We want preaching to be relevant. That means more than sprinkling in contemporary cultural references. Relevance means that, as you listen to a sermon, you’re thinking to yourself, “Yes, this is about my life.”
Preaching, in other words, must operate in the here and now. If preaching is to matter, it must speak in and of the present. Thomas Long, in his book Preaching from Memory to Hope, laments the “curious loss of the present tense in much contemporary preaching,” and then he puts his finger on what he believes is the problem: “the reluctance of preachers to name the presence and activity of God in our midst.”[ii]
How do we talk about the presence and activity of God in the midst of a pandemic? How do we process what’s going on in our own lives in these days of the surreal? How do we stay connected, care for each other and keep ourselves sane?
This book, In the Wilderness, is my journal of the pandemic. It’s not an ordinary journal. Because I am a preacher, my journal takes the form of sermons. That’s how I process things. That’s how I keep myself sane. Each chapter of this book began its life as spoken word, a word spoken to a distinct community at a very particular time in our common life. As a means of communication, sermons are more like a story told around a campfire than they are like a written essay. I invite you to hear them that way. This collection of sermons reflects the journey of one community through the COVID-19 pandemic, week after seemingly endless week. It is about what happens when we let the stories of our lives intersect with the stories of our faith, and the preaching that emerges at that crossroads. It is the story of the pandemic told in a unique way, through the reflections of one preacher who wrestled with the strange world in which we found ourselves and gave it voice each Sunday.