Mister Rogers in a time of coronavirus

Taking a deep breath, I pushed record and tried to smile into the laptop camera. Parishioners were counting on me.

But I felt drained of all my energy.

In my lifetime, the only thing that I can compare to the outbreak of the coronavirus is the feeling after 9/11. I sensed the same visceral desire to be in church. But unlike the Sunday after 9/11, this time worshippers stayed at home.

Don’t misunderstand me: This was the right decision. In the foreseeable future, we must continue stay home in hopes that the outbreak will be contained, that the vulnerable among us will not be exposed and that our healthcare system will not be overwhelmed.

And yet I wanted to sit in our sanctuary with its wooden floors and rafters. I wanted to look out of the large windows to the swaying pine trees outside — our timbered choir. I wanted to hear our human choir sing “Poor Wayfarin’ Stranger” as had been planned for months. I wanted to hear the congregation respond, “Hear our prayers,” to each petition I offered from the Lord’s Table laden with bread and wine. Alone in my kitchen, staring into the beady eye of my laptop camera, I didn’t want to preach the sermon I’d prepared. What should I say in a time of coronavirus?

Then I thought: What would Mister Rogers do?

I rushed upstairs and put on my sports coat. Once again, I hit record on my laptop… only this time I lip-synched “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” as I took off my jacket, zipped up an old hoodie (I don’t own a cardigan) and removed my shoes.

After the music ended, I tried to channel Mister Rogers. I looked directly into the eye of the camera and, in a slow and steady voice, shared my feelings about my disappointments and my hopes. I quoted that great line from the poet Jack Gilbert – We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of the world – and also quoted my colleague in Tarboro, North Carolina, who’d said that anytime his young daughters came into his house, they would be doused in hand-sanitizer and made to bathe in it! I smiled into the camera. “Let us pray,” I said in my empty kitchen and closed my eyes.

Until the outbreak is over, this is our new normal. O Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayers that we might be good neighbors in truth, humor and love.