Simple, low-cost tips for video services

While some people go bird watching, I go denomination watching, especially during the annual meeting season. When I learned about the Primitive Methodist Church, I knew I had to browse their websites.

They are a small denomination with congregational polity (unlike most Methodists) and a focus on practical mission initiatives like a school for ministry, a campground and a investment/loan fund. Little wonder then that their National Mission Board suggestions for video production — posted at the start of the pandemic — are low-cost, high-impact, briefly stated and practical. An admirable list, and the suggestion “DON’T record with the camera pointing UP at you. No one wants to see up your nose” made me laugh out loud.

What a joy it would be if every denomination had such useful information. Worth emulating.

Requests open for UniversalistChristian.net

I’ve build some of my sites, including hymnsofthespirit.org, universalistchristian.net (documents) and universalistchristian.org (original writing and perhaps more) using the Jekyll static site generator, but I’ve let them go so long that I’m having a hard time refreshing and adding to them. Did Jekyll change, or did I just forget how to use it?

Either way, I’ve decided to relearn it but that’s taking more time than I thought. I’ll post updates, but in the meantime can you go to those sites, and especially UniversalistChristian.net, and let me know what you would like to see added?

Quickly-made presentations

Some day I’ll go into my document processing workflow, but I have a workshop coming up and that’ll call for a presentation. That’s the theme today. It won’t be a “PowerPoint” — that semi-genericized term for meeting-killing, over-engineered presentation visuals — mind you, but a set of slides that exist as a PDF file, that are much easier to put together.

First, the text, like almost all of my work products, is set down in Markdown, a simple way of marking-up text to use as-is, or to post-process into other formats. (For those in the know, I use Github-flavored Markdown, an extended version.)

For the production of the slides, I use the beamer class within LaTeX. LaTeX is a hoary and rather difficult typesetting engine. commonly used in the hard sciences and mathematics.

But I want something easier, so I use pandoc, a command-line tool that processes a Markdown file through beamer to get the PDF output. Try pandoc through a web interface; beamer tranformations don’t work though.

“The Easiest Way to Make Presentations! (Pandoc + Markdown)” (Luke Smith)

Confused yet? This video should clear it up, and if that doesn’t appeal pandoc has other presentation options. and since it has found a vital place at the core of my document workflow, I’d recommend try it in any case.

Cleaning up UniversalistChristian.net

One of the problems of writing about Universalism so long is that when I search the web about something I don’t know, I often find something old I wrote or transcribed, but had forgotten about. Or sometimes, something I’ve written about but have neglected.

I’ve been thinking about how the Universalists viewed elders (the church office) much like I wondered about deacons last year. That lead me back to the 1790 Philadelphia Convention, its Articles of Faith and its Plan of Church Government. Oh look: the page has typographic and styling errors. I need to work on that.

It and Universalist Christian Initiative (UniversalistChristian.org) need a general refresh. I’ve not touched either in three years, and that also means relearning the engine that generated them, Jekyll.

But it’s not just a clean up job, or a polity dive. I’d like to know more about the church building the Philadelphia Universalist had (an interesting story in its own right) and more about a shadowy minister from what are now the far exurbs of Washington, D.C.

UUs and the lost web

I regularly engage in “magnet fishing” on the web, but instead of old bicycle frames I hope to find connections to resources that might not otherwise be found. In this case, it’s for my current research but other times I’ll Google a fragment of the Winchester Profession. You’d be amazed what that scares up: sometimes a community church with a forgotten Universalist antecedent, or even more frequently in a church’s statement of faith, a phrase surviving like a fragment of DNA in a wholly un-Universalist congregation. Perhaps it just sounded nice at the time.

Today’s find hearkens to my own past. As a technically-savvy middle-aged gay man… I’ve seen things. Things in plain text, on a green CRT terminal. Here’s a bit of the internet that’s been untouched since 1997.

http://www.qrd.org/qrd/orgs/UUA/uu.txt

That’s the Unitarian Universalist Resource Page from the Queer Resources Directory and I hope it never changes or dies. I recall it from way back. Was it on Gopher (HowToGeek.com) then? Perhaps. (Warning: 1990s web styling.)

Note that uu.txt isn’t a webpage. Indeed, this file surely had a presence online, and on the internet, before it was on the web even though we tend to make those terms synonymous today. Internal references to mailing lists, anonymous FTP (file transfer protocol), bulletin boards, mailing lists and technologies of the same vintage — and the fact the file isn’t in HTML — make me think it had been around for ages, but that this was the end of the line.

But what a handy resource! Drawn together in a single file (large by the standards then; hardly a blip now) see have a window into the program of the UUA and affiliated bodies in the late 1990s. So not ancient history; I was either in my last year of seminary or a new graduate when this file was last touched, and already making my first proper web pages.

What does this file say today? First, it reminds me of the all-in-one manuals Universalists published in the nineteenth century, but more about them later. It also reminds me that you can create effective tools in resource-constrained environments. Did you notice how quickly it loaded? That’ll lead me to low-resource online worship, which I hope to pick up after I get a handle on my March 5 sermon.

Discord?

By discord, I don’t mean the unsettled state of being, but the community and communications application, so commonly used in gaming. Trying to get a sense of who uses it, and who might use it apart from gaming. I’ve used it in Esperanto and some religious settings and it seems to a lot of promise, even thought it is mostly unknown to adults of middle-age and older.

What has been your experience?

Context: Their site.

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.