Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Staying Safe In Church!

Dear Friends,

I was visiting a church where, just before the distribution of Holy Communion, there is the “Passing of the Peace” when all in the congregation greet each other, shake hands and hug. Hearing muffled coughs and aware that I just transferred everyone’s germs to the palms of my hands, I surreptitiously coated my hands with the hand sanitizer I always keep in my pocket. Alrighty then..the congregational cooties are gone – I’m safe and sanitary! We then stood in a circle around the altar to receive the bread and wine, the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus. The man standing on my left was sniffling and he choked out a chest-rattling cough into his right hand. I took a step away. Then everyone in the circle took hands with their neighbors to say the Lord’s Prayer in unity with each other. I’d never seen this church do this before and my mind began to race as the obviously sick man now pressed his right hand into my left. It was wet and sticky with what he had just coughed up out of his lungs. The pastor, who had not sanitized his own hands after greeting both healthy and ill in the congregation, now stood before me. Tearing off a piece of bread, he pressed it into my now wet and contaminated hand, “The Body of Jesus Christ given for you..” I had two options. Pretend to eat it, palm it and bury the Body of Christ deep in my pocket or put it in my mouth. 

Instantly a scripture flashed into my memory, “if they drink (ingest) anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them.” Mark 16:18 I prayed, “LORD, make this sanitary, holy and healthy” as I chewed and swallowed it. Thankfully that was one prayer God answered and I did not get sick. Seven days later, the coronavirus was unleashed on the world and churches are making some major changes to their services. 

In the Catholic Mass and Eastern Orthodox services, right before the Eucharistic Prayer begins, (“The Lord be with you..”) the priest washes his hands in a basin of water and rubs them dry with a towel. Many Protestant pastors use hand sanitizer just before handling the bread and wine. I do in our own Holy Communion service. Every time. Many churches are now making hand sanitizer available as people walk down the aisle to receive communion. At a Protestant church, a Eucharistic minister squirts a dollop of sanitizer in the person’s hand before the pastor hands them the bread. 

Many churches and dioceses are suspending the unsanitary practice of “Intinction” where people are given a wafer or piece of bread that they then dip in a common cup of wine. Every Eucharistic minister who assists with Intinction will tell you that people often inadvertently dip their fingers in the wine along with the bread, turning the wine into a bacterial soup. 

Some Catholic and Protestant bishops have banned drinking from the common cup by anyone including the priests/pastors. Whether out of an abundance of caution or an abundance of fear, the Episcopal Church, Los Angeles has joined with many Catholic dioceses in our Country in banning all communion wine at their services – even when served in individual disposable cups. 

Pastors have told people not to take hands during the Lord’s Prayer and many churches are telling their congregation to not shake hands, hug or touch people at all. Churches have emptied, or covered with plastic wrap, the holy water in baptismal founts or other vessels that people dip their fingers into when they enter and exit the church. Many of our Nation's megachurches have cancelled their Sunday services. Some denominations have told their churches to cancel all baptisms. Potlucks are now considered to be high risk and many churches have cancelled the hospitality time after services where food is prepared by different people and laid out where many unsanitary hands can touch it.

How should we greet each other in church? An increasingly popular “safe” greeting is one hand over the heart and the other uplifted in a wave that’s reminiscent of the Japanese/Chinese “good luck” porcelain cat statue. Another recently approved greeting is for two people to bang their shoes together, but kicking each other in church just doesn’t seem like a gesture appropriate to the Passing of the Peace. A mainline Lutheran church is instructing that people "bow reverently to one another," but the church that I sometimes visit is so small and crowded, the greeting time would be filled with the sound of skulls cracking together. 

Perhaps we should all consider what every “Trekkie” (Star Trek fan) knows as the Vulcan greeting? Actor Leonard Nimoy, who was Mr Spock, made that an essential part of his character. Nimoy was raised by his Orthodox Jewish parents and they spoke Yiddish in their house. In an LA Times article, he said that when he was a young boy he remembers being at the synagogue for the High Holiday services when the rabbis stood up to bless everybody by making a sign with their outstretched hand as they chanted the Hebrew blessing that many of us hear in church every Sunday, “May the Lord bless you and keep you...” Numbers 6:24-26 The rabbis' hands formed the letter “Shin” that looks like a “W” and is the first letter in the Hebrew “Shaddai” which is a name for God. The Jewish actor, Leonard Nimoy, used that Rabbical hand gesture as the “Vulcan greeting” that was typically accompanied with the words, “Live long and prosper” or “Peace and long life.” 

If you see me at church, I won’t be scuffing up your good Sunday-go-to-meetin’ shoes or waving like an Asian good luck charm. I’ll be giving you the “Vulcan” Jewish Priestly Blessing that you may prosper with peace and a long life.

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