As someone ordained to represent Christ and Christ’s Church through serving those in need, assisting bishops and priests, publicly proclaiming the Gospel, and administering the sacraments, a newly minted Deacon may feel lost if ordained during a global pandemic in which everyone is required to stay home. A new Deacon may feel inadequate, unsure of how to live into her Holy Orders. She may be searching for meaning. I know she may be feeling this because that newly minted Deacon is me.
On 4 April 2020, roughly three weeks after North Carolina instated a mandatory shelter-in-place order, I was ordained as a transitional Deacon in the Episcopal Church. We had scheduled this ordination weeks before COVID-19 became a household name. As time progressed, “COVID-19,” “pandemic,” “quarantine,” and “social distancing” became commonplace terminology. So, we iterated our plans. As a bivocational clergy member and Army Officer, “adapt and overcome” is in my DNA. Never did I imagine, however, that this phrase would apply to my ordination; but there it was. We configured an ordination for two ordinands with fewer than ten people physically present. Yet, while only ten were present, nearly 2000 people joined via a Facebook livestream. This is how my ordained ministry began – with flexibility, in liminality, and from ingenuity. Thus, to be ordained a Deacon during pandemic is to be called to creativity. It is a charge to blur the lines between sacred and secular. It is a command to dream.
If this pandemic has engendered anything, it would be creativity. We have been forced to reconsider how we communicate, work, inhabit space, and even eat. For those of us in the Church, we have also had to confront how we do ministry. As someone called to the “special ministry of servanthood,” a deacon must consider: “What does it mean to serve?” and “How do we serve those in need?” Underscoring these questions is the perennial question of, “What would Jesus do?” Expressed another way, “What would the Embodiment of Love do?”
Embracing this call to service takes myriad forms in pandemic. One may take a monastic approach, quietly fulfilling her commitment to studying scripture and praying for the world. She may also find herself assisting in public worship, offering prayer or preaching via virtual means. Perhaps she is learning to view the world sacramentally – seeing God’s grace at work in the growing of plants, hearing God’s grace in the chirping of the birds, or experiencing God’s grace through the kindness of a stranger. She then may be assisting others to view the world in such a way too, thereby facilitating sacramental engagement.
Or, perhaps, she is embodying her job of dismissing the congregation to be a blessing to the world. She dons a mask and participates in community food drives, she helps congregants make meaning of their lives so that they may be beacons for others, and she serves as a reminder to be gentle – with ourselves and with others. As Bishop Rodman reminded us during my ordination, this new way of being the church “invites us to do our best, to recognize that we will make mistakes, to honor the fact that we are all figuring this out together…Leadership is a call to imperfection: honesty, vulnerability, and willingness to own the ways in which we fail to measure up.” A deacon can be this living reminder as she creatively approaches service to others as a continuation of the Embodiment of Love.
One aspect of the Embodiment of Love is that Christ blurred the line between the sacred and the secular. He invited us to live into the “already but not yet” of God’s kingdom. Now, as we find ourselves quarantined at home, barred from gathering in traditionally sacred spaces, we can accept this invitation. We must reconsider our normative definitions of sacred spaces, times, and rituals. In his ordination sermon, Bishop Rodman equated liturgical action in pandemic to “setting the table in the wilderness.” Given that the liturgical call of the deacon is the setting of the table, she stands at the forefront of setting this table in our current lived reality. She stands at the forefront of blurring the lines between sacred and secular.
This begins with the literal ordination, an outward sign that “things which were cast down are being raised up,” occurring in a season of perpetual Good Fridays. It then continues with the deacon living into her call to creativity. Creativity opens the door to – sets the table in – liminal space, which is Christian hope. This is so because we know that the “promise of scripture is that God is always setting tables in the wilderness.” As we find ourselves in wilderness, therefore, the deacon must encourage us to find the sacred in the secular as she sets the table for the Church in new ways. Envisioning what the Church would be, moreover, would not be possible without the ability to dream.
A pandemic ordination, therefore, demands dreaming. For me, this reality was emboldened by the fact that I was ordained on the feast day of Martin Luther King Jr., a perfect example of a dreamer who, in the midst of pandemic, envisioned what the world could be and set the table to make his dream a reality. His dream consisted of love, unity, and justice. His dream echoed the Gospel words, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream can be the dream of the newly minted deacon. His dream seeks to answer, “What would the Embodiment of Love do?” and it answers this question by creatively blurring the lines between the sacred and the secular.
This is how my ordained ministry began – with flexibility, in liminality, and from ingenuity. Being ordained during a global pandemic in which everyone is required to stay home is to be called to a ministry of creativity, finding the sacred in the secular, and dreaming. Yet, perhaps, this is what the whole Church is called to during these unprecedented times. Though this charge takes a particular form in an ordained capacity, it is a challenge to which we can all rise. We are all members of the body of Christ, called to make God’s kingdom come here on earth. As such, we all have a ministry. May we all embrace this period as we launch the Church – and the world – into what it could be.