H1N1 & The Church

With the H1N1 visus reaching pandemic status, I’ve heard a lot of responses about what churches are doing to respond. Some of them are better than others, some make me want to scream!

In the wake of this pandemic and in preparation for flu season, our 2 churches have implemented some changes to our communion practice that will make us all a bit more comfortable. Our servers will now be sanitizing their hands before handling the elements (I have always kept some germ-x under the pulpit especially for communion Sundays). Instead of those receiving communion tearing off their own piece of bread it will now be torn off for them by the server. The servers will be tearing off large enough pieces to keep people’s fingers from getting into the chalice. I think this change effectively deals with our uncomfortableness over the spread of germs through the sacrament. This change is one that I find to be good.

Some churches, however, are preparing to stop having communion altogether. Let me rephrase this…they are preparing to not celebrate communion fully. Many churches will not be including the cup of wine/juice as a part of the sacrament. Some Catholic Dioceses have placed a ban on receiving the host on the tongue. As far as I’m concerned, not receiving the sacrament fully is the same as not having communion.  This is a crying shame. We’re more worried about a virus than we are about participating in a sacrament that Jesus gave to us by clear example in the Scripture. This makes me want to scream!

Some churches, are doing away with Greeting/Passing the Peace. There will be no shaking hands, no hugging. Maybe we should take it a step further and we should have the ushers sanitize the pews after every service so the germs from last week don’t transfer. Or maybe we should fit every member of the church with their own official United Methodist BUBBLE! That way they don’t have to worry about touching the unclean. I mean, seriously, what’s next….no fellowship time after church? What if an “infected” person breathed near your cookie? This makes me want to scream! Maybe we should just lock the doors to our churches until flu season is over and the threat of H1N1 is over!

Thank God Jesus didn’t ask for sanitiation, didn’t ask for a bubble when he reached out an touched a leper. The most unlean of the unclean:

40A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”

 41Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” 42Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured. (Mark 1:40-42)

Maybe instead of all these extreme precautions we should encourage the members of our churches to take some responsibility as adults and wash their hands. Make hand sanitizers available at the doors and in the narthex. Not avoid human contact. Human contact that is a basic need of life.

The best resource I’ve seen for exercising discretion with all of this came from the UM General Board of Discipleship. These are the do’s and don’ts:

Swine Flu Officially Declared Pandemic: What to Do and Not Do in Worship
by Taylor Burton-Edwards
 
 
On Thursday, June 11, 2009, the World Health Organization officially declared that the influenza virus known as Swine Flu (H1N1) has reached global “pandemic” stage.What does that mean?

It means that there is now evidence that Swine Flu is spreading in at least two distinct regions of the world.

To date, approximately 30,000 cases have been reported, with 144 fatalities globally.

In addition to our existing resources on Swine Flu and Holy Communion, here is a list of “Dos and Don’ts” for worship that balances attention to theological integrity with appropriate pastoral concern.

What to Do:

  1. Do celebrate worship and the sacraments fully, and be not afraid!
    Use common sense, but always remember this: Jesus is more powerful than germs!
  2. Wash your hands before you touch food you will share with others.
    This simple directive has long been practiced in most cultures on the earth. It has an honored place in historical Christian worship as well in the use of the lavabo, a basin for Communion presiders and servers to wash hands. If having water present is problematic or awkward, the CDC recommends using hand sanitizer containing alcohol. Just be sure to make this action gracious, not glaring!
  3. Receive the bread from servers who have washed their hands.
    This has actually been the instruction in every official ritual the United Methodist Church and its predecessor denominations have published. We all receive from others, rather than taking the bread for ourselves.
  4. If you use intinction, have those serving the cup tilt it slightly toward those receiving so no one needs to dip their fingers into the juice/wine to receive.
    This takes a bit of skill. Practice with your servers beforehand if they have not done this before, using water in the cup. Then wash the cups and get ready to celebrate!
  5. If any infectious disease is actively spreading where you are, exchange the peace and greet others in ways that don’t require you to make skin to skin contact.
    Keep in mind that Communion poses hardly any risk for spreading disease. The major ways people catch this flu are through skin to skin contact and through airborne particles (coughs and sneezes).
  6. If you normally keep water in the baptismal font, be sure the font is cleaned regularly and the water is fresh.
    If you leave water in the font for a long period of time, it will start to grow harmful bacteria and other agents. So keep it clean! And keep the water fresh, preferably for each service (especially if people will be invited to touch it during the previous service). Pour the existing water into the earth. (Remember, this water will have been blessed, just as the bread and wine of Communion!) Clean the font with an anti-microbial cleaner, rinse thoroughly, and refill.

What Not to Do:

  1. Do not come to worship if you are sick with something you can easily spread to others.
    That applies to pastors, worship leaders, and participants in the congregation. There are no special “Brownie Points” awarded for showing up at worship, work, or anywhere else you can spread what you have. Stay home. Take care of yourself. And get well. Then come to worship and thank God for helping you recover.
  2. If you are well and able to come to worship, do not fear germs more than you love Jesus!
    Unless your own immune system is seriously compromised, don’t bother with facemasks, latex gloves, or other medical paraphernalia that give the impression that worship may be an unsafe place to be or that the elements of blessed bread and wine we share may be more physically dangerous than holy. If your immune system is seriously compromised, consider staying home and letting others extend the Lord’s Table to you.
  3. Do not cough or sneeze on others if you do come.
    If you have a cough or are likely to sneeze, practice making it a habit to grab a tissue and cover your mouth each time. Then, if you’re in an area where an infectious disease is spreading rapidly, excuse yourself to wash your hands at the earliest convenient time. Remember, it is airborne particles (from coughing and sneezing) and skin to skin contact (if you have these particles on your hand) that are by far the most likely means to transmit Swine Flu (H1N1) and many other infectious agents.
  4. Do not use little disposable cups or disposable “all-in-one” packages of elements for Communion (pop-top Jesus?), thinking these might be safer.They aren’t safer. It’s not just what’s inside that’s the problem. It’s what’s outside — the cups or sets themselves and all the people who will inevitably have touched these things without washing thier hands before you do. Neither the containers themselves nor the outside of these containers can be kept sterile. Worse, the use of elements in this form essentially forces the congregation to violate our teaching about believing and respecting the real presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine. The United Methodist Book of Worship tells us, “What is done with the remaining bread and wine should express our stewardship of God’s gifts and our respect for the holy purposes they have served” (p. 30). “This Holy Mystery,” our official teaching document on Holy Communion, further specifies.

    If any bread and wine remain, they should always be disposed of by (1) the pastor and/or others at the pastor’s direction, consuming them in a reverent manner immediately or directly following the service; (2) returning them to the earth by pouring (2 Samuel 23:16), burying, scattering or burning.”

    Throwing little cups into the trash that will inevitably have blessed elements in them constitutes neither good stewardship of God’s gifts (these are not recyclable), nor respect for the holy purposes they have served, nor the more specific forms of reverent disposal required by our teaching.

    Far better care for creation, the real presence of Christ, and the unity of the body in him can be expressed through the use of a common cup, or multiple chalices poured from a common flagon, or even individual nondisposable cups poured from a common flagon. All of these can be safely cleaned and reused, and none of them requires disposing of the blessed juice or wine in the trash.

  5. Be not afraid!
    This bears repeating. When we gather for worship, we are there to offer ourselves in praise, thanksgiving, and joy to our God, in songs, prayers, dance, art, music, drama, and with water, Scripture, bread and wine. The perfect love of God who meets us here casts out all fear.

So do worship! And do show reasonable concern for the health of others as you worship, especially during times when illnesses are spreading rapidly. But do not confuse appropriate concern for over-reactive panic. Rejoice, and fear not!

 

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