Ministry in the Time of a Pandemic

by Anna Madsen. The joke about, and in, my family is that we are the Vortex of Chaos. Clearly, and utterly unrelatedly, it would make an awesome name for a band. But that notwithstanding (even though so very true), we really are the Original Vortex of Chaos.

Just in the last few weeks, for example, I’ve had to:

  1. wrestle the Minnesota DMV to the ground for a problem that began in 2018 when the State sent me new license plates instead of the new tabs I requested—a problem which was purportedly solved in early 2019. But this past June it became clear that the State still has my vehicles associated with the plates it mistakenly sent (and had me return in 2018), rather than the ones that have never left my cars, meaning that I’ve been driving illegally for two years.
  2. wrestle Best Buy to the ground because the dryer that they delivered and were supposed to have installed last week (because ours busted the first week of COVID-19 lockdown, because of course it did) was delivered but not installed. Nor was the old one taken away, despite paying for both those minor details, necessitating over the course of the entire following week not one, not two, but three more delivery/install/schlepp away teams to finish the job.
  3. wrestle, albeit vicariously via my amazing 83-year-old father, maple flooring to the ground. The slats that had been stored in an outbuilding for countless decades before we arrived were (albeit to the naked eye not) entirely warped, meaning that the reflooring of the family room, a job that should have taken two weeks max is now very much into the two-month period. And so is the inability to use the family room or the living room or the dining room because laundry that we fold in the family room, games that we store in the family room, plants that get light in the family room, and furniture that we have in the family room are now everywhere but the family room—extra chaos points for navigating my son’s wheelchair in said house.
  4. wrestle the Minnesota Health Insurance programs to the ground because two different departments are quibbling with each other about what our income level is, leaving it questionable about whether my family is or is not covered.

Also, a squirrel got to our car battery; the dogs were (deservedly, to be honest) attacked by a $800 dollar injury-causing porcupine; we got chickens because of course we did; and we are thoroughly engaged in this next election and campaigning for those whom we believe best represent God’s vision for the world because as Christians, we are called to care about and act on behalf of the least of these, not least of all by way of a vote.

The Rev. Dr. Anna Madsen

All of these chaos-generated and chaos-generating claims affect not just my life, not just the lives of my children, but the lives of others, including those of the editors of this journal!

Because that’s how a vortex works. And that’s just a day in the life sans COVID-19.

In similar but different ways, the church, too, is a vortex of chaos, these days even sans COVID-19. Coming to terms with the racial injustice embedded within the ELCA’s history and structure; rethinking the word “normative” as it pertains to sexuality and gender and faith; identifying the proper line—if there is one—between prophetic and pastoral ministry; reimagining the optimal size and scope of congregational ministry and the forms of rostered callings within church; seeing declining numbers of people and of offerings and of congregations—any one of these pieces alone would be worthy of full-on attention. Bundled together, it’s a vortex of chaos.

When you add a global pandemic to the mix, it’s hard to know if the best way to cope is to laugh or to cry.

As for me and my house, we end up doing both, and sometimes at the same time.

I was invited to write a column for Connect Journal on doing ministry during a pandemic. The word “pandemic” immediately caught my attention—they didn’t say “during COVID-19,” but “during a pandemic.”

“Pan” comes from the Greek word meaning “all,” and “demos” means “people.” A pan-demic, then, is an event that affects all people. It’s different than an epidemic, a disease which affects a significant group of people, but in a concentrated area.

In fact, on March 11, the World Health Organization held a news conference to announce that, because COVID-19 had not only been detected in multiple countries but that cases were spiking, the disease could no longer be considered an “epidemic,” but rather must be officially called a “pandemic.”

But my word-nerd self didn’t stop there: I got to thinking about how hard it is right now to be the gathered people of God, those who come together not least of all for the liturgy to worship the Lord, when gathering is precisely what one ought not do during a pandemic. So I went to my favorite (no, really, it is: I’m a nerd, I tell you) website to learn more about the Greek origins of word “liturgy.”

I knew this much, namely that the word means “the work of the people,” stemming from “laos,” which means “people,” and “ergos,” a work, or a task, that sets out to complete a specific purpose. What, though, I got to wondering, is the difference between the “laos”of liturgy and the “demos”of pandemic?

So I poked around and learned this: It turns out that the ancient Greeks understood “laos”to refer to common people, the ordinary folk. That’s a particular slant, or nuance, to this word.

But there’s another element of “laos” that is distinct from “demos,” and it is this: The “laos” lived within a shared community, and, in the Greek vernacular, “laos” referred to those who shared a common language and common ruler.

So while we tend to think of the liturgy as a ritual of worship, the word originally referred to the work, namely the business, service and donations that privileged people in Athens and beyond offered to and for the well-being of the peopleof the community. Moreover, it was considered a privilege to extend the benefits that one had for the benefit and the sake of those who did not enjoy the same level of economic comfort.

I’m not making it up.

When absorbed into the Christian vernacular, though, “laos” specifically referred to the people of God, and their shared mission became known as the “liturgy.” Note that I said “mission,” and not “worship.” 

If you follow the word “leitourgia” in the New Testament, the word means a service or a ministry, rather than an order of worship: That sense doesn’t occur until the 1590s! In its original sense, then, liturgy is work done by the “laos” on behalf of the well-being of all the “demos.”

I’ve been hearing a lot of adjectives these days, ones that describe the discouragement and even despair about the state of things. One of the most wrenching adjectives, however, is that of being helpless. Last week, both of us standing in the kitchen, staring at each other, looking exactly like the wide-eyed emoji, my 17-year-old daughter and I attempted to make some sense out of the chaos into which we are chronically be-vortexed. “Are we contributing to our chaos? Are we creating it, orrrrrrrrr are we just regularly sworled into it?”

But at the risk of sounding like Han Solo, so much of it really isn’t our fault. We feel helpless because in so many ways we are helpless. Dear Merriam-Webster (if you don’t follow them on Twitter you really, really should) defines “chaos” as “a state of things in which chance is supreme,” or “the inherent unpredictability in the behavior of a complex natural system.”

Chance. Unpredictability. Helplessness.

But, hold on. We have not just etymological history from which to draw. We also have some Scriptural heritage that might inform our moment, like that piece about chaos found in the first words of the book of Genesis—a word itself which, wait for it, is tied to another Greek word for people, namely the Greek word “genos,” which is where we get the word “gene” and “generation,” because the root word meant “family group,” “kin,” “people of common ancestry.”

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void (in Hebrew, “tohu wabohu,” namely “chaos”!) and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

So, I’m not entirely sure of whether this is good news or bad, but the point seems to be that the pre-history of all people is chaos. We all spring from it; in a sense, it is our natural habitat.

But nevertheless, out of it, God’s agenda was to bring about some order—day by day, new creature and new creation, each representing something firm, something on which to count, something that simply by its presence offers a reminder that as long as we are not alone there is purpose in being.

And, if we are not alone, which we aren’t, because God is in the business (liturgy) of creating community, then there is help to be had, and help to be offered. Maybe, then, even in the midst of chaos, we aren’t helpless after all.

So all of that said, here we are, the people of God in the midst of global health chaos. Yet, in this moment, here we are, the “laos,” thelaity, called to engage in liturgy, namely the work of the people, to serve all (“pan”) the people (“demos”) in a pandemic.

As it turns out, people feel helpless. But also, as it turns out, people, namely the “demos” and the “laos,” can, in fact, help. In the past, we may have thought to center our help in the celebration of shared and common liturgy. Of course, and naturally, because chaos, that’s the one thing that we are being appropriately encouraged not to do: gather, sing, share cups, mingle.

But I’m left to wonder, then, whether the ancient Greeks can offer us a new framework for this moment. Maybe we bring some order into the chaos by instead offering some work in, some service to, the world. It seems to me that the people of God, the “laos,” are, in in fact all about the ancient self-understanding of community being identified by a common allegiance to a shared purpose and power, and to doing the business of that community.

What would it look like to reclaim that identity?

That shared purpose for Christians is to be ambassadors of “soteria,” which means literally “health, healing and wholeness” but is more commonly translated in Christian circles as “salvation.”

What would it look like to reclaim that identity?

We are called to do liturgy by being ambassadors of salvation to the world, to the “pan-demos,” in a pandemic.

What would it look like to reclaim that identity?

It is easy, and it is entirely, completely, understandable, to feel helpless.

But we are not. Order can come out of chaos. We can be empowered by the power that defines us as the “laos.” We can anchor ourselves, and the world, in a few ergo-esque things that mark the people of God, like, say:

  • Do justice.
  • Love mercy.
  • Walk humbly.
  • Give food.
  • Give drink.
  • Give clothing.
  • Give healing.
  • Give presence – even virtual.

Maybe, that is, rather than being a vortex of chaos, we can instead be a vortex of salvation, of health, healing, and wholeness. And in that way, we do worship, we do do the liturgy, we do do ministry during a pandemic.

The people of God serving the people of God. Pandemic liturgy. Which also, for the record, would also be an awesome name for a band.

Anna Madsen is a “freelance theologian” in Two Harbors, MN.

After graduating from Trinity Lutheran Seminary, she served a small South Dakota parish for three years before earning a Ph.D. in systematic theology in Regensburg, Germany. Immediately prior to her return to begin teaching as a college professor, an accident killed her husband and severely injured her young son Karl. Daughter Else was eight months old at the time.

This event shaped her theology and her life profoundly, not least of all by being a springboard to create OMG: Center for Theological Conversation. Here, individuals and groups, laity and clergy, come for questions, conversation, and study. Through OMG, she also speaks, blogs and writes.

In 2016, the family moved to Two Harbors, MN, and in 2017 began The Spent Dandelion Theological Retreat Center, where she offers her studio apartment, her 20 acres of gorgeous woods, her library, her consulting, and Minnesota’s North Shore for people to retreat, refresh, and be restored.

Karl (now 16), Else (now 13), and Anna are deeply involved in church, politics, and social justice, and loves to cook, eat, read, and travel together…and they adore their two dogs Gimli and Chutzpaw.

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