The 1939 Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland musical “Babes in Arms” is pure fluff and should be forgettable entertainment from the dusty past, but it survives in the collective memories of some of us because of a trope, or cliché. If I say to you, “Let’s put on a show!” and you reply, “My dad has a barn!” then you understand me completely. That’s where it’s from. Someone make the costumes.
It became cultural shorthand for ambitious types who decide to do it themselves, and that would be us, as it turned out. Or at least it’s the phrase that ran through my mind a lot back in the second week of March, when a constant in our lives disappeared. Church was closed.
And some of us began looking for a barn, if you follow.
I had and have a unique perspective on what has happened with St. Andrew over the past six months. When Session decided to postpone worship temporarily on March 9, and as staff and other leadership scrambled to come up with alternatives, I couldn’t help but be aware. I live with one of our pastors; I’m not on the front lines, but I can see them from here.
Since I’ve enjoyed fooling around with editing video for years, it was an easy offer on my part to help out. Julie Kae, Ali Webb and Pete Jones had spent the final choir rehearsal, just the three of them, recording hymns for possible use, unclear at the time where we’d be heading. This formed the basis for our virtual worship services, and was a crucial part of the process (thanks Pete, Ali, and Julie Kae!).
I think it’s important from a historical standpoint to point out how uncertain we were from the start. We really expected – or at least hoped – that we’d all be back together in a couple of weeks, by Palm Sunday at the latest. It was fairly simple to add lyrics to the hymn videos, and we had several of those for our first Sunday worship in absentia. The next week, we added some videos made by Scott and Maggie, and soon we were constructing a virtual worship service in pretty much the same way it’s always been done.
And now we’ve had 26 of them, half a year, right through Palm Sunday and then Holy Week, past our annual congregational meeting, and now through the summer. Since I became the ad hoc IT guy, I’ve had a firsthand look at how this has all evolved.
I’ve got lots of stories. I can tell you how certain elements you’ve come to expect from our virtual worship were established almost entirely by accident. I can describe the increased hours our pastors and leaders have spent, how much work the Task Force has been doing, all the retrofitting and upgrading of our facilities that has taken place slowly and relentlessly since March, preparing for our eventual return.
And I could tell you lots and lots of stories about mistakes, particularly mine. There are some font choices that still haunt me.
But I’m a guy who watched this happen in real time as it landed on my desktop, and I’m also a guy who loves church. Who loves worship, and who particularly loves St. Andrew Presbyterian and our community of saints.
I miss it, and you. I miss the way it was, and I’m eager to return. I’m sometimes pessimistic, and at other times hopeful, but mostly I just don’t know. I’m just the video guy.
But I have some insight because of that, and this is what I wanted to share.
As it became clear that our closure was going to be indefinite, we began looking for lectors, people to read scripture on video to be included in our worship. We slowly built up a routine, learning how to exchange large video files online, learning what works best and how to help each other.
Pat Sharpe has tirelessly sought out lectors, and you’ve all come through. I’ve been charmed by the readers who seem graceful at this, behind the pulpit or in front of the camera. They seem to have a talent for not only being natural, but finding the appropriate settings in which to read, and they’re always a joy to work with.
The others, though, are the ones I’m thinking of. Most of us feel awkward talking to a lens, knowing that others will be watching, noticing, perhaps judging. As I edit these videos, I occasionally spot the signs, the uncertain look, the hesitation, the awkwardness that seeps through the screen. It’s really not a normal thing to do, and sometimes it shows. Even people with years of public speaking experience can appear stiff and uncomfortable talking to everyone and no one at the same time. It’s a remarkably vulnerable experience to watch.
It feels holy to me.
This is hard. You know it’s hard, and you do it anyway.
I watch these videos a lot. I see them many times, as I trim a few seconds, adjust the color settings, try to improve the audio. Over and over I watch, so I see things. I don’t expect you to notice the same, although it’s there if you look.
They shift in their chairs. Their eyes glance to the side, to the front, down and back up. They suddenly remember to smile. They say, “Let us pray,” and the voice quavers just a tiny bit, just nerves, and then they begin the prayer and I want to burst into tears.
What was once easy and relaxed has now become awkward and foreign, and still we persist. This is unfamiliar territory and we are still learning, but we never stop trying, and we will never stop loving each other. This is love, live and unrehearsed. This is how you know who we are.
Many of you have been kind and gracious to me, imagining that I’m toiling in front of my computer, trying to stitch together some semblance of worship, an echo of it, a facsimile. I’m grateful for this and still I try to explain – you have given me a gift. We’ve all had to adjust and change, to learn and relearn, and I’ve been able to watch. As I said, it feels like holy ground. If I ever wore shoes, which these days I mostly do not, I’d slip them off.
Candis O’Rear joked the other night on Zoom that she enjoyed grocery shopping, despite the anxiety, because it reminded her that people are three-dimensional creatures, not just flat images on our monitors.
Please listen to me: We have so many dimensions. I see them every week. I rejoice and I am in awe.
We’re going to see faces again. We’re going to sing together again. We’re going to be three-dimensional together, again, someday.
But these days, we accept the discomfort, and the difference. We learn new ways, we celebrate the old ones, we cherish it all, we stand before God and each other and our iPads and we say, This is the day that the Lord has made, and it turns out to be true, it always has been.