Worship When We Can't

By Taylor Burton-Edwards

During my twelve year plus tenure at Discipleship Ministries, I've undergone two periods of serious illness involving my heart. In 2009, I went through four months of what was eventually diagnosed as pericarditis : chest pain, a cough that would not seem to quit and that any sort of rhythmic sounds (or even thinking about them!) could set off, fever that would not go away for weeks, and extreme fatigue. And in the spring of 2017, I had a heart attack which I mistook for the beginnings of recurrence of pericarditis (which does tend to recur in men) and so simply tried to ignore, continued working, and even drove over six hours before reporting to my spouse I was having some chest discomfort I'd get checked out the following week, to which her (most fortunate!) reply was, "No. We're going to the ER. Now." The saga of the heart attack involved the installation of two stints, a month of bedrest, and 36 sessions of cardiac rehab.

In both heart events, I found it impossible to attend or participate in worship. During the pericarditis episode, trying to sing or even being around or thinking about singing would set off the cough and increase the chest pain. For about a month after the heart attack episode, I found I just didn't have the energy to be with or around crowds of people.

After experiencing all of this, I have found I cannot look at worship and the level of activity (or inactivity) of worshipers the same way again. I have gained a new respect for the fact that people sometimes just cannot stand, or sing, or even be present for worship. They physically and/or psychically cannot. I know in my body what some of those limitations are. I know the frustration of wanting to offer or do more, but knowing I can’t or shouldn’t. And I find myself getting rather angry at worship leaders who try to get everyone to move a lot and sing loudly and who, whether they know or intend it or not, often convey the notion that unless you are doing that, you’re not really worshiping God, and so you are somehow a "lesser" Christian.

So what did I do while I could not worship with others at church?

First, I came to accept that I simply couldn't do it. I allowed myself both to be absent and to feel the loss from not being able to worship with others. But I also concluded the absence had to be okay. I was seeking to be faithful. I was seeking to offer what I could. But worship with others in church was simply not something I could offer for a time. Instead, I rested at home. I didn't sing or try to sing at all. I let go of my typical Sunday schedule, and simply let Sundays be whatever they would be-- without worship.

I also did not try to substitute television worship or online worship for the real thing. I did, though, take the occasion of being off work to watch a variety of examples of worship on television, via Roku, and online, but more with a sense of seeing what others were doing than seeking to join in myself. My overall reflection after doing that was United Methodists who televise or stream their services may not necessarily have the streaming and television aspects down as well as some others may, but we seem to offer consistently thoughtful preaching and engaged congregational singing. That was encouraging, both in 2009 and 2017.

As I recovered, I moved back into worship at a deliberate pace. I did not sing for several weeks either time. I would arrive just in time for worship and go home almost immediately at the end of the service the first few weeks as well. It was good to be back in worship, but also very tiring. It was probably a month or more after beginning to attend that I began to participate both in worship and in other parts of congregational life as I had done before becoming ill. And I was grateful that my congregations in each instance gave me room and time do to what I needed as I needed to.

What I also realized through this process, both times, is that not everyone who becomes unable to attend or participate fully in worship will ever return to or be able to participate as fully in worship as they had before. I had known this intellectually, of course, and had observed it as a reality with homebound church members I had served as a pastor. But these experiences have given me a much more visceral insight into what may be happening when people cannot worship. I have a real feel for it.

I can't speak and won't try to speak for all who can't worship. But I will speak for myself and others I have come to know with similar experiences. Thanks for understanding when we say we can't, we can't. Thanks for not worrying about our spiritual condition just because we're not there. Thanks for not pushing us. Thanks for checking in and staying in touch with no expectations about when or how we might return-- or even even if we ever will. Thanks for trusting us to return to our more normal levels of participation in worship at our own pace, if we are able to return.

And thanks to you, my readers, for understanding why this won't be a "5 Things You Can Do When You Can't Attend Worship" kind of article. In my experience, those of us who can't worship for a time are able to figure out what we are able to do given our own limitations, and these may be different for each of us at different times along the way. I can say we're not generally looking for more or other things to do. We have enough on our plates. Just trust us, trust God, and trust whatever relationships we've developed with you in the congregation over the years to show you how best to connect with and support us in what we can do for today.