Claiming a Fast in Pandemic Time: On How We Carry What We Miss

Before the pandemic, the scent of warm, yeasty bread would have filled the chapel. Someone from our school’s café would have walked down in the hour or so before the service to leave a fresh-baked loaf wrapped in a white towel on the table. We’d have smelled it through all the prayers, music, and spoken word, reminded in each moment of a service of word and table. 

However, on the day of our very first in-person service since the pandemic began, I smelled nothing. The bread was missing.To be fair, I sometimes focus on bits and pieces when the bigger picture feels too big to handle in any given moment. I suspect I focused on the bread because it felt like the least painful absence on which to muse. Early in the service, one of the leaders shared the names of two community members who’d passed away recently. I could still see their faces so clearly that I could hardly believe them gone. Tears welled up in my eyes. The thought of our two missing colleagues blended in my heart with all the other people who, for one reason or another, no longer sat in the pews with us.

The pandemic has left us no strangers to loss. Even those who have not lost people to death have had to let go of so much in the last couple of years. Rituals and routines, gatherings and goals, all sorts of plans and hopes and dreams—almost all the corners of our lives have required changes and, sometimes, endings. 

The pandemic has left us no strangers to loss, and I feel in some ways as if I’ve not gotten very far at all in metabolizing it. I’m not keeping up with the rush to return to normalcy. What does a person do with her deep sense of not-rightness that remains? How do we carry all the absence, all the awareness of people and things missing from our days, other than to carry it around like holes inside of us? 

I lost track of much of the service that day. I mused on these things until a few words near the end caught my attention. The liturgist asked us to join in the “Call to Eucharistic Fast for the Neighbor.”

“God is with you,” the presider said.  

“And also with you,” I joined in the printed response. 

“Open your hearts.”  

“We open our hearts to God.” 

“Let us give thanks to God.” 

“It is right to give our thanks and praise.” 

“It is indeed right,” the presider affirmed. “In this time of pandemic—a pandemic of illness, a pandemic of injustice, a pandemic of loss in so many ways—to call to mind our unshakeable connection through the body of Christ. It is also, indeed, right and painful to fast from the Eucharist in these days for the sake of the most vulnerable among us . . .” 

I used a sleeve to dab at tears before too many had fallen into my mask. I’d never heard of a liturgy of “eucharistic fast” before. Apparently, we were declaring that we would not share bread or wine again just yet and would instead claim this fast.   

I let the liturgical words wash over me, welcoming their echo of how “off” life still felt. Yes, some of us sat together again in a chapel, but how many remained at home, too vulnerable to risk indoor gatherings? How many of us had found the capacity for “normal” functioning again? I, for one, had not.  

I’d forgotten how beautifully the sacred language in our traditions could help us articulate a “there” that we haven’t reached yet. Here now, still in pandemic time, we were going to wait. Even the Eucharist would wait. It would wait with us. 

“Right and painful,” the presider had said.  

I remembered his words a week later when I woke up congested, feeling my body do that tired, aching thing that bodies do when getting sick. On the one hand, I didn’t think I had Covid-19. On the other hand, my workplace’s policy said that my symptoms warranted isolation. It had been right a week ago to withhold from sharing bread and wine, and it was right now to stay home, withholding myself from others for all our sakes.  

I began contacting people to cancel things the next couple of days. 

“We’ve done this before, haven’t we?” my mother asked when I called her to explain why I wouldn’t be visiting that weekend to bake cookies as we’d planned. 

“I hate isolation,” I said. 

I hated it, and as I felt my disappointment mounting at all I’d be missing that week, the new language of “eucharistic fast” returned. I wondered what it would mean to offer these days as a sort of fast. 

This would be no 40-day Lenten fast, choosing to set aside certain meals or foods for the sake of self-reflection, penitence, and reconciliation. Pandemic time has already spanned two Lenten seasons and bled across entire church calendar years. It has called us to give up more than bread. In so many ways, we’ve given up contact with each other. The liturgy of eucharistic fast described a much less defined timeframe requiring a much deeper kind of patience. It pointed us outward, asking our reflection and sacrifice for the sake of those more vulnerable around us.  

Those who are absent from us these days may be gone with an absence from which they will not return to us in this life. If I claimed a grief-time fast from expecting certain kinds of comfort or seeking to return to life as I knew it with those I’d lost, that fast might need to last a long time. What we miss dearly from pre-pandemic days may remain far from us, or at least available only intermittently, for a while. Were we to fast from our moves to return to “normal,” that fast might need to last a very long time. I seem to recall that the biblical tradition of forty days represented something to the effect of “a very long time.”  

To carry our losses as a fast, our grieving as an act undertaken for God and one another, might honor those experiences as more than merely holes inside of us. These opened-up spaces might feel raw, confused, or grief-filled, but they likely feel that way because of the precious relationships, gifts, and other blessings that once filled them. What if we gave up our expectations that our lives to return to “normal”? What if we fasted from assuming comfort would feel the way it used to feel? If we let go of expectations and assumptions that separate us from God and one another, could our losses become spaces in which we behold divine and human presence in new ways? 

“Sustain us in these days,” the presider at that chapel service had prayed, “until by your grace we are brought together to the table again.” 

The smell of bread remained absent, but the liturgy held me, filled me. It seemed to remind us of how much larger life is than bread alone. The God who made us continued to sustain us and had not left. 

I’ve continued to whisper, “Amen.” 

This essay originally appeared in the October 21, 2021 issue of Bearings Online.

Beneath the Loss

Does the vividness of memory ever surprise you? It does me. 

I remember a day as a student when I joined some classmates in waving scarves of every color as we danced barefoot down the grey, marble-floored hallways of our seminary. A drummer walked with us, and a group of people followed.

I think it was a holiday. I think we led people to a special service. I don’t remember those details exactly, but I do remember the joy: on dancers’ faces as we turned and leapt, in the drum beat and clapping hands, in my own body as I danced in public for the first time. I found myself with others in the middle of something larger than any one of us, something whose gladness went deep. 

So much time has passed since then. Even if it hadn’t, the pandemic would stand as a sharp dividing line between now and what came before. At the seminary—the same seminary, where I now serve on staff—we began working remotely just before our city’s lockdown. Hallways emptied. Classes went online. So much changed.

I knew that I got to keep what many others did not: work, income, food, and healthcare. Still, it felt like daily bread taken away to lose the physical presence of so many people and places I’d built my days around. I had a hard time shaking the lethargy of that early pandemic time, missing the nourishment of physical presence. When I’d swing by the seminary building, as I sometimes still needed to do, I’d go quickly in and out. Some of that speed had to do with an eerily empty building, not wanting to spend too much time thinking about the people missing from those hallways. 

One misty afternoon, though, I paused. Just inside the building, floor-to-ceiling windows showed me the chapel across the courtyard. The emptiness prompted recollection. I imagined lights turned on inside, making its windows glow with warmth. I’d often seen them do that on misty days. The place felt dense with memory. I don’t know how else to say it. I glanced across the courtyard, through windows in the opposite wing, and that was when I saw them: the dancers. Colorful scarves, young women in leotards leading a drummer and a crowd, mouths smiling and hands clapping—I saw us dancing as we danced years ago, our joy in one another and in what we were doing still vivid, still clear as day.

Tears filled my eyes. I missed those friends and professors. I missed so many people I’d come to know in those hallways over the years. A sense of loss welled up inside me. I missed my father, too, who died right before the pandemic began. He’d come to campus not long after that dancing day for my graduation. Though he had trouble walking by then, he and my mother persevered, and I remember how they stood beaming as we met by the auditorium for commencement. 

Memories can return with such inexplicable power and presence. I’ve started letting myself welcome them a little bit more lately. Far from adding to my sense of lethargy or loss, as I’d expected, I’ve actually found the memories waking me up and making me smile. I thought at first that they helped me look away from a difficult present. While that’s true, I’ve also started to notice memories doing so much more than that. 

Walking the empty halls, I’ll hear a mentor’s voice echoing back to me from over the years, and I feel as comforted as when she first spoke her encouraging words. I’ll see a colleague’s playful grin as we prepare a practical joke on our supervisor, and I laugh. I’ll feel the glow from my father’s expression on that graduation day as he told me he was proud of me, and it lingers like an undiminished blessing, still. Honestly, some days it really does seem as if the dancers still dance down the marble-floored halls, and my father still smiles for me, and what I grieve isn’t really gone. 

Beneath the loss, if we dwell with it and look at it long enough, I think we can often see that love remains. “Love never ends,” writes Paul. “Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:8a & 13:13 NRSV). Love given and received, love holding us together, love shaping who we are and showing us how we want to live – by the grace of God, remains. Dancers still dance their colorful dances through the hallways of our lives, loved ones still smile for us from beyond the grave, and what we grieve we find is never really gone. 

This essay originally appeared in the May 6, 2021 issue of Bearings Online.

Sabbatical As Renewal Is An Invitation To Imagination

People of faith across generations have persisted in spiritual practices they believed would sustain and bless life over the long haul. Like prayer, like community, like Sabbath and sabbatical, some practices spread through a person’s soul or a community’s life and, in one way or another, bless us profoundly for the long-haul.

In the case of pastoral ministry, regular renewal and sabbatical times are opportunities to receive sustenance for the long-haul. Renewal leaves help leaders with uniquely demanding schedules carve out time to renew their resources for that ministry. These leaves express a community’s commitment to faithfully structure itself in ways that will sustain life for all its members. While not all businesses and institutions in our culture prioritize sustaining and blessing structures, the church has prophetic opportunity to embrace exactly this sort of blessing process, for its leaders and for itself.

Another way to think about this is around pastoral passion: at some point in a pastor’s discernment regarding call to ministry, she was able to tap into a wellspring of joy around the calling – however inchoate at the time – that led (in most cases) to her taking on the challenges of eschewing a more financially lucrative career, obtaining theological training and ecclesial vetting, and forming herself as an emerging pastor. Sabbaticals are times to re-tap into that vein of connection with God and with God’s people so that joy in the calling might reenergize the work of the calling.

If a pastor were to walk into her office after a few months away feeling energized and refreshed for ministry, ready to step back with vigor into her pastoral duties, then what might she have been doing for those months prior? The answer, of course, varies radically among pastors, and that is a good thing. Renewal leaves should be designed so that an individual pastor in all her individuality can live into the joys of her particular avocationas, spiritual disciplines, relationships, and so on in ways that will be vitalizing beyond what any one-size-fits-all program can hope to achieve. The same holds true for congregational activities undertaken during the pastor’s leave period . . .

Sacred Habits & Me

Sabbath itself challenges many cultural contexts, ancient as well as contemporary. Whether it’s a Sabbath day after six days of labor or a Sabbath year after six years, the concept pushes us to expect, both for ourselves and for our neighbors, periods of time when we will not necessarily expect the production of tangible results. Practicing Sabbath provides a divinely-sanctioned opportunity to value the lives of entire communities based on grounds other than productivity and usefulness for work. However, somewhat paradoxically, precisely this “stepping away” from day-to-day productivity can be the catalyst for greater excellence in a congregation and a pastor’s ministry.

– excerpted from “The Practice of Sabbatical as Renewal,” a chapter co-authored with Robert Saler, in Sacred Habits: The Rise of the Creative Clergy (Intersections: Theology and the Church in a World Come of Age) Paperback – September 21, 2016, by Rev. Chad R Abbott (Author, Introduction), Rev. Carol Howard Merritt (Foreword). 187-203.

Sacred Habits: The Rise of the Creative Clergy is now available on Amazon.