Non-Subscribing Presbyterians have new website, services online

I was watching some Holy Week and Easter videos from Non-Subscribing Presbyterians in Ireland. I have known about them for decades but have never seen one of their services. Be sure to see and the several videos by the Rev. David Steers, including his effective use of a litany to create a moment of worship, here for Good Friday, and the Easter service from Killinchy, led by the Rev. Philip Reain-Adair.

Killinchy, where is that? I went to the website of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland, and saw that it had been completely revamped. Congratulations!

Communion and COVID-19: the remaining options

So, communion. I'd better start writing down these thoughts before the pandemic chips all the options away. I'd like to show there are options for regular, Maundy Thursday and Easter communion services.

My thinking has gone from we can be especially hygienic, to perhaps we can hold the service outside, to perhaps we can have walk-by distribution with social distancing and now I don't think any public, in-person service is likely to be safe by Easter. Safety in distribution has long been a communion ethical concern, especially among Protestants, so this isn't exactly a new thought. And even if we (collectively) don't refrain, it's possible civil authorities might stop any meaningful gathering.

If I can, I'll show some of my influences later, but as of March 26, 2020, I think these are the best options for a communion service to minimize risk for communicants and presiding ministers. Please comment, because I'll spell out the effective conduct for those options that grab your attention.

There are four likely options:

  1. The pastor, and perhaps any other ordained ministers of the church, presiding over communion at home, praying for the congregation and informing them of this.
  2. The church having a service of spiritual communion by phone or video conference; that is, a guided visualization which expresses the desire for communion, using the rite (text) for communion, but without the elements or any physical artifacts. It may also take on elements of a eucharistic fast, paradoxically, to stir desire and make the consummation (the return to normal communion practice) that much richer.
  3. The church having a "purely symbolic" communion service, by video conference where participation by the laity in by observation and prayer. The presiding minister (who might broadcast from home or church) might or might not commune by mouth.
  4. The church having a distributed service where communicants provide their own bread and wine, and are led remotely by the minister. More akin to some prayer breakfasts, but with people at home. This assumes the "lowest" ecclesiology of any option.

#1 needs no special technology as such. Only #3 absolutely requires a video broadcast. #3 and #4 are not mutually exclusive.

I can hear you saying "I don't like any of those." Fine, but these are the options I can think of, unless you count "don't do it" or "risk infecting your people" as good options, and I don't.

Please comment and, as I said above, we can work though the details. (Don't comment minimizing the pandemic because I will delete those.)

Sermon: on healing

mosaic
UNMC chancel mosaic

I preached from this sermon manuscript online for the Universalist National Memorial Church, on March 23, 2020 using lessons for the common of Healers of the Sick from the 1963 Book of Common Worship of the Church of South India.  These are from the second Book of Kings (5:9-14) and the Gospel of Mark (1:40-45).


Good morning, and thank you for welcoming me into your homes. As far as I know, this is the first time a service from Universalist National Memorial Church has been broadcast to you, instead of being held at the church. We all know why; there’s no reason to rehearse the endless stream of COVID-19 news. But, given the occasion, I’m going to depart from my usual practice of preaching from the lessons of the Revised Common Lectionary, but instead use a set of lessons from the 1963 Church of South India Book of Common Worship for special days commemorating the Healers of the Sick.

At one level, this is an act of thanksgiving for all those who practice the arts of healing, including not only nurses, physicians and pharmacists, but therapists, medical researchers, nutritional staff, chaplains; and by extension administrators, cleaners and engineers. We thank those working double-time to produce masks and ventilators, and develop new vaccines and therapies. And I will remember those who care for the sick at home, and those who keep food and other supplies available, and those who watch out for their neighbors. Indeed, there are too many people to name even by category. May God bless and protect those helpers of humankind, today and always.

In our first lesson today, Naaman, “commander of the army of the king of Aram” suffered from a skin disease. His wife’s servant was an Israelite, and so he went to Elisha the prophet for healing. But Naaman was unimpressed by what little the prophet seemed to do in order to heal him.

In the second lesson, a leper asked Jesus (who knew about Elisha and Naaman) to heal him, which Jesus did. And Jesus asked the healed man to keep this a secret, but he proclaimed it openly and so people flooded to Jesus to be healed also.

So, from what exactly were Naaman and the unnamed man healed? After all, today we expect to have information about disease. How many days can you be contagious? Is my cough COVID-19 or just allergies? What kind of alcohol should I get? And so on and so on. If never see another one of those spiky ball graphics of the virus it’ll be too soon.

Which makes the diseases in today’s lessons that much more unusual. They were obvious to those who suffered them and to other people, but were evidently not life-threatening. And they assumed to know the cause. Back then, they thought illness depended on sin: either their own, or sin inherited from their ancestors. In other words, bad things happen for a reason, so clearly you are at fault for your own misery. This confuses personal responsibility over what we have control, with responsibility for those things we cannot control.

I’d like us to keep that in mind whenever it seems plausible that persons get what they deserve. Are they really? But I digress.

Now, we know that this “leprosy” wasn’t leprosy in the way we use the term today. Naaman and the man Jesus healed may have had psoriasis, a condition where the skin overproduces and comes off scales. It can be painful, embarrassing, debilitating. And while we no longer think it’s punishment for sin as they would have, it does attack one’s sense of self. In Jesus’ world, it was a sign of impurity, and so kept its sufferers from fulfilling their religious duties.

That is, it was an illness that kept sufferers away from away from God. So when Jesus healed the man and told him to go to the priest, it was so the priest could certify his re-inclusion into the community, and allow him to fulfill his religious obligations. The disease wasn’t, at root, about the skin, but about the soul. It may not be medicine as we know it, but the soul needs healing, too. I tell you: I think the secret that Jesus was trying to keep in that moment was that none of that blaming is true, and none of it from God, the rules about purity included.

Jesus, and prophets before him, healed diseases of separation: the leprosy here, but also blindness and paralysis. He healed those possessed by demons, for what other language did they have for the diseases of the mind. And he healed that greatest separation of all: the separation of life and death. Jesus healed the person or persons depicted, giving them health, function and life. But the people around the healing saw these miracles, and were changed by them.

We, too, hearing these accounts are changed by these healings. We empathize with the people who suffered in these passages, but it’s not at all clear that the people then did. Though empathy, we grow closer to God and to one another. We are also healed from a hardness of heart and a vision that excludes other possibilities. It’s a good lesson for how we regard people too. By not relying on the approval of others to measure our own worth.

This is part of the lifelong path of spiritual healing. In the moment, we could use a little emergency medicine.

Right now, we are physically separated in order to protect one another. That hurts. I’d love to be able to stand close and talk, or shake your hand or give you a hug. But we can’t do that right now. Even though we’re about a month into the pandemic, its effects have just begun. Something that seems easy, even thrilling now, might soon become burdensome, annoying and anxiety-provoking. And the longer we go, the harder it will be to be apart. Tempers will rise and nerves will shake. We’re still in that giddy, novel phase, like the when the winds and rain of a hurricane pick up, but before the power goes out.

So, let me offer some advice. Stay close to the church, even in this virtual form. This is a place of grace and caring, and something you can look forward to if you feel adrift. Keep in touch with one another, and especially pray for one another. Prayer isn’t a kind of magic, but a commitment to that closeness we have with God, and a listening to what God asks of us. And know that others are praying for your well-being. I am, and others, too. If you have a passing thought that nobody cares for you, remember that we not only care, but miss you, and carry you to our God and Creator.

After that, search out wisdom. Read the preaching passages for yourself, and other part of the Bible besides. You may find more in them that speaks to you directly. Read the spiritual classics, because wise people rise up in every generation and this is not the first time human beings have had to cope with epidemics (or economic downturns) in religious terms. Use that wisdom to preserve your health: physical, mental and spiritual. A deeper religious life doesn’t fix all your problems, but it does give you more language to interpret the world around you. Like Naaman, who wondered “is that all there is to it?” let’s accept that little bits of faith can unlock larger resilience and compassion. It’s this way that we find health and peace.

Friends: let us care for the sick, mourn the dead, support the healer, and grow toward health. In this unexpectedly challenging Lent, let us deepen in faith so might live in the fullness of life.

“Radio Times” archive expanded

Last year I wrote a series of articles on two service books, New Every Morning and Each Returning Day, used by the BBC during (and after) World War Two in their fifteen-minute Daily Service. My goal was to see if there were any lessons to be learned for conducting worship today, and I think there are at least hints. Particularly how much you can simplify worship, and how you can identify themes for worship. (I may pick up this series later.) The series begins here:

“New Every Morning” for radio worshipers

The other articles are here, here, and here.

So, what's changed? Last year, I used the BBC Genome to read schedules from the Radio Times, which had a little blurb for the Daily Service and longer outlines for the longer weekly services. Unfortunately, when I was writing the series, only the Radio Times issues for 1939 were online. So only the opening months of the war. The BBC's schedule was still being retooled for wartime (all of the local services were merged into a single Home Service, and later one for the Forces) and Each Returning Day hadn't been published yet.

Glancing back to that series, I was prompted to look again at the BBC Genome, and lo! the many years of issues filled in! (Which you probably guessed if you saw the title.) Now I have more data to get a sense of the services.

Here is the service for June 5, 1944, the day before D-Day.

from page 61 of ' New Every Morning,' and page 38 of ' Each Returning Day.' Jesu thy mercies are untold ; Psalm 32 ; Help us to help each other, Lord

That is New Every Morning service 14, "Suffered under Pontius Pilate." The alternate Psalm is 16; I suspect Psalm 32 was the Coverdale version. There is a touching prayer for "the afflictions of thy people."  I would like to think it was used. Besides "Jesus, thy mercies are untold," there are five other suggested hymns, but "Help us to help each other, Lord" isn't one. The service continues at some point with Day 17 in Each Returning Day, "For the gift of sympathy."

Amen to that.

How the wartime Daily Service might have sounded, first notes

It's been more than a month since I order my copy of the BBC's wartime supplement prayer book, Each Returning Day: A Book of Prayers for Use in Time of War and I've not gotten it, so let's move ahead with a few notes on New Every Morning I've picked up while we wait. This helps us understand how the book was used. I started this series here.

  • The New SCM Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship described the Daily Service as "a simple daily office comprising a sentence of scripture, a hymn, a prayer, a Bible reading, psalmody, intercessions and thanksgivings, a closing hymn and blessing." With descriptions in the Radio Times it should be possible to figure out how the service was set out.
  • The New SCM Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship also notes that "[w]omen as well as men led the service." Notes elsewhere about BBC staff leading the prayers suggests that it was a lay office. (Ordained women ministers from Dissenting churches did lead the fuller broadcast Sunday service in this period.)
  • Winter's Tale describes how tight the service was timed. For example, the Lord's Prayer might be read at "anything between a brisk 24 seconds and a reverent 36" with blessings timed to choose one to fit the remaining time. It was 15 minutes long.
  • In the article "Hymns on the Air" by Cyril Taylor (Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland bulletin, October 1947), we learn that the Daily Service "contains two hymns, the first being linked with the opening prayers of worship, thanksgiving, or confession, the second with the closing prayers of intercession."
  • The hymns came from Hymns Ancient and Modern and Songs of Praise (and didn't vary as listeners followed along in their own books at home) plus metrical psalms and paraphrases "which we know will be particularly appreciated by listeners in Scotland." Hymns were often shortened for time, and the tune was selected for its suitability for an octet, so none of the grand ones like "NUN DANKET or EIN' FESTE BURG, or even OLD HUNDREDTH."
  • Not so relevant to our concern, but interesting all the same: the BBC had a studio specially consecrated, looking something halfway between a period office and a chapel, used until destroyed by German bombs. It was lovely and must have made religious broadcasting seem that much more special.

“New Every Morning” for radio worshipers

I've neglected my public writing far too long, but neither have I had much to say. About a month ago, I started reading documents related to World War Two. This is not a new interest, but the occasion was accidental: I found a set of official bulletins from the Office for Emergency Management -- entitled Victory -- and that prompted a search for more. Turns out there's a BBC history project, where years of the magazine Radio Times were scanned and the schedules digitized. All of 1939 are available to read, and with them the opening months of the war for the British. Add other documents and you get an amazing story that I've just begun to investigate.

The BBC had a basic problem: German bombing could knock out a part of the pre-war regionalized service. The solution was to consolidate the various radio programs into a single Home Service with transmitters blanketing the country. At first, the whole country's broadcast service was reduced to news bulletins, recorded music and exceptional amounts of theater organ. This was during Hitler's Phony War, and the BBC developed a other entertainment, documentary and informative programs, plus regional segments, including news and notices in Welsh. Religious broadcasting was a conspicuous part of the programming, including the Daily Service, which marked its ninetieth anniversary earlier this year. Naturally, I'm interested in what they came up with, not the least because they were responsible for a pan-Christian audience. (I've yet to find reference to Jewish or other religious programming during this period.)

Since 1936, and through the war and post-war period, the BBC Daily Service used a service book, New Every Morning, with a supplemental book Each Returning Day published during the war. How were they used? Did they appeal to an ecumenical audience? What limitations were put on the service to perfectly hit the fifteen minute broadcast window? I ordered copies of each book from British booksellers, and New Every Morning has since been delivered.

I think there are probably lessons for worship services with wide appeal, worship services for dispersed groups, and brevity. (Brevity being one of my ongoing beefs with Protestant liturgy.)

I'll let you know what I find.

“Ancient History of Universalism” is ready

Later: I've already made one fix to a note, and created a pretty hacky PDF of the book -- ignore the title page and how the chapters are numbered at the top -- by request. Again, better asthetics later.

Download the PDF at http://universalistchristian.org/books/ancient-history/ancient-history.pdf.

I've also created an ePub -- to download at http://universalistchristian.org/books/ancient-history/ancient-history.epub -- and I'd appreciate feedback on its readability.


Two days ago, I mentioned how I was processing the Ancient History of Universalism for the web. I've gotten to a good stopping place and would like to share the work with you.

It's on the site I use for my Universalist Christian Initiative, at http://universalistchristian.org/books/ancient-history/.

A fascinating read, but a slow start so you may want to jump into the middle. Chapter nine is a story of intrigue with a vivid mental picture of what is now the West Bank. I imagine it would have been thrilling to those who would have had no other way to "see" it.

And be sure to dig into the footnotes, which in several places show the progress of scholarship in the generations after Hosea Ballou, II, particularly this note on whether Theodoret was a Universalist and whether Universalism was condemned at the Fifth Ecumenical Council. Other notes, apologies from Ballou, for works he could not afford to buy or borrow to consult leave a twinge, particularly since they can be looked up online in scanned reproduction today.

Like this ... A Latin and Greek text condemning Origenism. (extract)

As you may note, it's a very basic design; the whole book with notes and index (no internal links, I'm afraid) is a mere 162 kb. My goal is to make bulky resources like these easy to download on the fly, with aesthetic improvements later. If you see typos -- I couldn't have gotten them all -- send me a note and I'll make periodic fixes.

Some process notes. I got the messy text from https://archive.org/details/ancienthistoryof1872ball, I edited the text with the Atom editor, in Markdown, and processed it with pandoc. (If you're comfortable with the command line.)

pandoc -s -S --toc -c basic.css inputtext.md -o output.html

I was inspired by a set of very vulgarly-named and written websites promoting simple web design, the names of which are outside the standards of this blog. Search for the most vulgar words you know, plus "website" and you'll surely find one, but there's a competition of imitators. I also consulted Practical Typography's section on websites for confirmation.

I've worked up the outline of a style guide for this book, which I learned years ago helps maintain consistancy and easy for modern readers. I really should type that up.

Unfamiliar tools for shared church work

I really was thinking about unfamiliar tools for shared church work; that is, tools where people can work collaboratively without having to all be in the same place. This is normal and increasingly common in business, but well all know that church is slow to change and underfunded. Or slow to change because it is underfunded.

About the time I had this thought, the news cane out the Metro will be shutting down at midnight tonight and all through Wednesday until Thursday morning. I’m just grateful my workplace has some systems — developed before blizzards — to cope, and most of my officemates will work from home. Of course, we will use Google Docs and Dropbox, and I bet many my readers do too.

But can you imagine the possible uses of something like Github, a software development tool used to manage the versions of documents. For churches, perhaps reports and resources, and to keep repositories of documents and graphics files? And webpages (Github Pages) easily stood up to share and promote those products. The humanities has a small presence of Github, but the Open Siddur Project (on Github) is objectively religious and liturgical, and makes me wonder about other possibilities. My sleepy Github account is here.

The other tool I want to point out now is Overleaf, an easy-to-use frontend for the very-powerful LaTeX typesetting software that’s widely used in academia, especially mathematics. Indeed, Overleaf’s market seems to be universitites, and if I were writing a thesis now, I’d be all over it. And if I were to get some people together to make a book or serious journal, I’d start there.

Are there unlikely tools you use that might be used in collaborative church work?

Test site for the new UUA WordPress template

So, in order to try out the new UUA WordPress theme, I installed it onto one of the domains I'm not currently using. I'm sticking to defaults mainly, because that (to my mind) is one of the benefits of a template.

I'll critique the experience of installing and configuring it later, and UU minister and blogger Cynthia Landrum (Rev. Cyn) has already reviewed the features.

But so far, I'm not sold and suspect the value of the theme will be the lessons shared in the theme's documentation; that really sets it apart.

My two sources for weather information

I rely on two indicators for weather: my sinuses and Forecast.io.

When I'm already congested, a strong weather front will give me a blinding headache. (Like today.) But that's not helpful for you, or Daisy, our bichon frise, who hates having a potty walk in the rain.

I recommend Forecast.io for amazingly accurate hyper-local, minute-by-minute weather forecasts, which sometimes (alas, not quite, today) gives the dog enough time outside to do what she must.