Please refer to this page for updates on COVID-19, coronavirus, for the Diocese of East Tennessee.
Please refer to this page for updates on COVID-19, coronavirus, for the Diocese of East Tennessee.
August 13, 2021
Hi, I’m Bishop Brian. I want to speak to you today, an update related to COVID, particular, the delta variant. I know in the spring, as many of us had access to the COVID-19 vaccine, there was a great sense of joy, of possibility, of progress as numbers went down, as people thought about a return to post-COVID life. Our parishes have experienced that. You and I have experienced that, as well. But we now know for the last few weeks here in Tennessee, we are seeing a huge upsurge in the number of COVID cases related to the delta variant. So I want to speak to you today about bringing back our masks.
I am grateful for our Episcopal schools across the Diocese of East Tennessee. All of our schools are going with full masking indoors, taking very careful precautions guided by the CDC. I applaud and affirm the good work of our Episcopal schools right now. They’re focusing on keeping kids safe, faculty, staff, students, visitors to campus, to keeping them safe. They should be applauded for that work, and I’m grateful for them, but strongly encourage in our parishes as we gather in doors to be masked, knowing that we have people that still can not be vaccinated. We have children that have not yet had access to the vaccine. We want to do everything we can to limit spread to allow us to be able to gather safely in-person because there is so much to be said to be in person.
Here at our diocesan house, all of our staff, we are all vaccinated, but we have now returned to masking, to limiting interaction indoors, just to keep us safe, and folks who come to this building, to keep them safe. Also, just aware right now that that there’s an emotion that maybe many of us are feeling, maybe you’re feeling around anger about the progress we have made as a community, as a country and now to see some of these setbacks, realizing in the state of Tennessee, we are quite low on the percentage of vaccination rates and quite high right now on hospitalization and caseload. Would encourage you to acknowledge that you’re angry but to not allow that anger either to be turned inwards or outwards in ways that’s destructive. This is a good time to remember our work early in the pandemic on the four M’s for mental health, mindfulness, movement, meaningful connection, and mastery. This is a time to continue to practice those and to continue to practice deep places for prayer, to allow your lament, to allow your anger, to give that up to God and to continue to turn towards each other, both friend, neighbor, and stranger, and see in their face, the face of the Christ, whether they are masked or not, to see them as the Christ.
Again, thank you, thank you, thank you to our Episcopal schools and the good work they’re doing to keep our kids safe. They are doing those practices because they care about kids, and we care about kids as Episcopalians. So continue to persevere in this time, to treat this coming season of an opening to school year and a more robust church year to know that God continues to work in our midst in our communities and in our churches. So mask up. Get vaccinated. If you feel in any way sick, please stay home. We’re in this together. We want to continue to be the people of God in East Tennessee now. Thank you.
May 19, 2021
Dear Friends in the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee,
Greetings! Pentecost Sunday 2021 is quickly approaching. As we pray again for the descending of the Spirit upon the people of God, we do so with encouraging news regarding our response to the COVID pandemic and updated CDC masking guidelines for fully vaccinated persons released last week.
Your Diocesan COVID-19 Task Force continues to stress that decisions for regathering for in-person worship and formation are best made at the parish level. Please be in touch with me as you re-evaluate your in-person worship protocols and make adjustments to them, as you see fit, in light of recent CDC guidelines.
At this time, I would invite you to reflect on the passage from Romans 12, particularly as it relates to the gift of encouragement. This is both an encouraging time and a time to be encouragers of others as we move forward at “the speed of trust.”
As you re-evaluate your masking policies, remember the CDC guidelines assume persons are fully vaccinated. I would encourage you to make sure any changes you make to your parish protocols make space both for fully vaccinated persons and for those who are not yet vaccinated. It is important to continue to encourage all who can to get vaccinated at this time.
Also, be mindful and communicate clearly on how you intend to keep children safe in our common spaces, as they will be the last eligible for vaccines. As a body of believers dedicated to welcoming all in Christ, please be sure your updated COVID protocols reflect Christian hospitality and welcome.
Even with this hopeful threshold in our response to the COVID pandemic, we will be living in the aftermath of this pandemic for a long time to come. Our COVID page on the Diocesan website will be adding resources to support grief work and those living with mental health challenges, many of which we will only begin to see as we find ourselves more and more in front of each other in real time and space.
My prayer is that Pentecost 2021 will be a time when the Spirit descends upon us all again and gives us new ways to tell the old story of God’s abiding and hopeful and renewing presence for all of God’s Creation.
March 10, 2021
Hybrid Church-A Way Forward for Church Leaders, by The Rev. Tim Schenck, is an excellent resource for parishes to consider when discerning how we go forward from the pandemic.
The Tennessee Medical Reserve Corps takes both medical and non-medical volunteers to assist state-led efforts. You can go to that website to sign-up to volunteer.
December 30, 2020
December 2, 2020
Dear East Tennessee Friends,
“Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”
This past Sunday, the First Sunday of Advent, we read from the Book of Isaiah. It was a great help to me to hear that I am clay and that God is the potter. We all are a work in God’s hands. If as the calendar 2020 draws to a close, you feel like a cracked pot, or a ruined bowl, there are many others who share that sense, that feeling with you.
This has been a hard year. COVID and economic downturn, a stressed election season and now a failure to recognize the soundness of our election process, a renewed recognition that the work of racial justice and dismantling structural racism is still before us—each one of those concerns would be enough for one year, let alone all occurring in this one. And all the struggles are upon us while it remains challenging to gather in person, to see each other face to face, in order to face this moment together.
We are clay. God is the potter. We often forget that. We often flip that image. We often seek to make God in our image, projecting our desires onto what it means to be holy, divine, eternal, everlasting. This year, 2020, when our lives have been out of control, it is a healing word to be satisfied, relieved even, with being clay, with trusting God to make and shape us anew.
In celebrating Advent, we speak of waiting for the coming of the Christ child and the Second Coming of Christ, the completion of all things. Advent also is a time to allow God to make something new of us. It is good news to hear that God does not throw away old clay, seeking to find new people, to begin from scratch. Rather, God begins again with us, cracked pots and ruined bowls, and makes and renews us. God the Potter delights in imperfect clay.
In this Advent, we are also trusting there is much encouraging news regarding COVID vaccines and improved treatments. It is not foolish to believe that 2021 could be a time when we are able to gather safely in all the ways we have in the past. While we wait, we do so at the beginning of a very hard winter, when COVID numbers are increasing and more and more of us know people who have been impacted directly by the pandemic. It is as if we are climbing a hill in the Appalachian region together and before we ascend to a post-pandemic top, we still have some frustrating false peaks to pass over.
The Diocesan COVID-19 Task Force wants to remind all of you that their guidelines for gathering for in-person worship envisioned this very moment. The process they outlined acknowledged that steps moving forward for in-person worship could also take a pause and even go backwards, as public health facts on the ground change. The Task Force continues to value that decision-making for gathering safely for in-person worship will remain at the parish level, in consultation with me, your bishop. While still endorsing that value, please know this is a critical time to re-examine your plans for gathering for in-person worship, if you are doing so, and make sure your process is consistent with current CDC guidelines.
Today marks 3 years since I was ordained as your bishop. Susan and I continue to be blessed by you and the East Tennessee region we all call home. Even in a challenging year, this work with you has been a joy. This work has stretched all of us this year. I hope the stretching will be one, not that overwhelms us and diminishes us, but rather one where we find new spaces in our lives where God’s grace and mercy abound. I pray that a kind of Divine creativity and innovation will continue to nurture us in this season.
We are called to be reconcilers in Christ. We are called to remain connected communities in Christ. We are called to be here and serve here now. We are the very clay that God is working with now.
Please pray for me as I pray for you.
November 13, 2020
Dear East Tennessee Friends,
Blessings and peace to you in the name of the Risen Christ.
I am writing to inform you the Diocesan COVID-19 Task Force has developed a Policy for Guidelines for Return to In-Person Service for Clergy and Parish Employees who have tested positive for COVID-19. Their hope is these guidelines will be helpful in offering clear, careful, and compassionate steps for safely returning to church work offices. The new Policy is found at the end of this letter.
I would ask that you continue to follow public health advice of masking, social distancing, frequent hand washing, and staying home as much as you can. With a renewed surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, we all have an important role to play in stopping the spread. Even as there is encouraging news regarding potential vaccines and effective treatments, we have a hard winter ahead.
Do not lose heart. I am proud of all the ways that our parishes and diocesan leaders have responded and worked together this past year in adapting and innovating in order to worship, serve, study, and grow in the faith given to us in Christ Jesus.
All of you remain in my prayers. Pray for me.
The Right Rev. Brian L. Cole
Monday, October 1, 2020
On Monday, October 5, at 12:00 pm, Chancellor George Arrants and diocesan leadership will talk clergy and senior wardens through concerns around meeting virtually for annual parish meetings. Register for the meeting here: https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZYuf-6rqDsqEtFksfPqeHOFoiFuPeb3zLI3
A following meeting discussing voting with Google Forms will take place on Tuesday, October 20, at 12:00 pm. Register for the meeting here: https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZIucuurqT4vGtyeLXaiT49m_aoDPCqV7A4C
A toolkit similar to the legal toolkit will be published afterwards and will be available on the parish resources page.
May 31, 2020
St. John’s Cathedral Knoxville
The Right Rev. Brian L. Cole
When a people share the same language and speak to each other and listen to each other, then words can be a powerful instrument for healing and wholeness, for finding a place of deeper forgiving and forgiveness. The right words, combined with a spirit of gracious listening, well, they become more than words.
They take on marks of the sacred and the Holy Spirit. Through my words and your words, or my listening and your listening, the Spirit makes us One. The Spirit heals what was broken or neglected and in disrepair. The Spirit is a translator and speaks all languages and gives us the wisdom of a common tongue.
When a people do not share the same language, then words can cease to be tools for understanding and instead become weapons that only add to the distance between us. In attempting to communicate to you, I only create a greater chasm between us. I am not getting through. My words are pushing you away while adding to the hurt.
When you and I understand each other and can speak to each other and can listen and learn from each other, then our hearts also grow close to each other. Like Jesus’ reminder this morning, the heart of the believer is an open heart, with living water flowing from it.
Now I realize in the language of modern medicine, a leaky heart valve is not a good thing and you should call your doctor now. But as believers who follow in the Way of Jesus, our hearts, our open hearts, are also leaking hearts, with water that overflows from my personal life into the communal life of our neighborhoods and parishes and country and world.
You and I are to be leaking heart Christians.
This past week has been a hard week.
At the beginning of the week, we passed the threshold of 100,000 deaths in the United States of America from COVID19. We have seen video images of the final minutes of George Floyd’s life and are faced again with the knowledge that we live both with the invisible virus of COVID 19 and the enduring virus of racism in a country that still says it believes in freedom and liberty and justice for all.
We pray for those seeking to find a vaccine for COVID 19. We desperately hope they will find that vaccine in record time.
We should also pray for the vaccine to cure racism. For centuries in this country, we have had moments when we believed we found it and we were all cured. Then, racism spikes again, and we realize we have only treated the symptoms and not truly found the healing medicine that would allow us to go deeper into the wound of racism and clean out all the infection and repair all that is distorted by the disease.
This past week has been a hard week.
At the end of the week, the news was not global or national. The news was local. The St. John’s community received word of the death of Dr. Frank Gray. So, those hearts here which are called to be open and flowing with living water, well, they are also broken open this day, grieving and shedding tears of sorrow and loss.
This past week has been a hard week.
So, thank God it is Sunday. Thank God it is Pentecost.
Thank God Jesus is the Word that can translate and create a new place where all of us who speak different languages and live in different worlds, through the Spirit, can find a common ground and learn and listen and speak with a new tongue.
Speaking a new language and being able to understand a new language, well, in the Acts of the Apostles that ability came to the people present in an instant. In record time, a diverse people possessed a mastery of languages and found common ground. The Spirit made them one.
The disciples were not filled with breakfast beer. The disciples had been given the gift of many tongues in order to communicate God’s story, which is one story for all people. It is a story for the sons and the daughters. It is a story for the old and the young. It is a story for the free and the enslaved.
It is a story, finally, of healing comfort, but a comfort that only arrives with change. Deep change.
How deep? The kind of deep that causes the sun to turn dark, the moon to go bloody and a smoky mist upon the land. That is an unnerving image. It is an image of a changing, disrupted world.
But the vision of the prophet Joel is not intended to make us afraid. It is intended to get our attention. There are things we need to attend to. We need to find common ground and learn a common language. We need to listen. To listen more deeply.
As a bishop, I have many opportunities to speak, to preach, to share a word. In this time, I still need to do that. But I also need to listen, especially to those who have no help, who have no advocate. Jesus cries out to those who are thirsty and offers them a drink. He can see, when we so often do not, those who have no help.
When we tell the story of Pentecost, we tell a story of divided tongues, as flames, descending upon our heads. This year, perhaps, the more important image of Pentecost is of living waters offered to the thirsty, to those who have lost hope, whose hearts have grown cold and hard and set against each other. This is not a time for false hope. This is a time to realize, for many of us, hope has dried up and is withering. The waters of Pentecost are arriving just in time, to bring back hope from the brink.
As a follower of Jesus, as a believer, as one whose heart is more open than closed, I remain an optimist about the American experiment. I remain an optimist that God’s Spirit has not brought us here, only to abandon us now.
If the sun turns dark and the moon goes bloody, we do not have to consider that this might be the End. Rather, we know what that sign means. God is still moving through the land.
God has not left us. God, however, does plan to change us, to take us from a divided place to a common place. The Spirit is to teach us a new language, to give us a new tongue, to be patient with us as we learn a deeper way of listening, as we learn how to tell and hear the whole truth and nothing but truth.
This past week has been a hard week. We need help. We cannot do this without help.
Unlike the Pentecost of Acts, this transformation we need as the people of God will not take place in an instant. It will take time for us to learn this new language. It will take time to learn to listen more deeply. It will take time to make amends and set things right.
So, thank God it is Sunday. Thank God it is Pentecost. The Spirit is still here, still descending upon us. And we are in a house. A house of prayer for all people.
All people. There is room in this house for more. There is always room for more.
Today, we can begin with words. Words of lament. Words from the ancient psalms, asking God to heal what remains broken in our land. We ask the Spirit to breathe upon us, to change us, to move us, to stay with us until all who have a voice have been heard.
The miracle of Pentecost was that all who were present heard God’s story in their native tongue. And in hearing that story, they saw that they were included in that story.
God’s story is not for one tribe. God’s story is for all that God has made. God has made us all.
Come Holy Spirit and heal us and give us the courage and the humility to sit together and listen, with hearts open, turned towards each other. May living waters renew our land.
Let us be found worthy of the ideals of this nation. And let the Church be a house of prayer for all, all, all people.
Ascension Day 2020
The Right Rev. Brian L. Cole
Andrei Rublev is arguably the most famous Russian icon painter ever. An Orthodox monk, he lived during the late 14th and early 15th centuries. His most famous icon, the Hospitality of Abraham, depicts three individuals seated around an altar. We think of it as an image of the Trinity, while also aware it depicts the strangers who visited Abraham and Sarah.
Icons are more common in the Eastern Church than in the West and are visual representations of the Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints. These images are intended to be doorways into prayer.
Once the icon image is completed, you have a flat wooden surface with a visual depiction of a saint, the Christ, the Virgin or a biblical scene. But, don’t be fooled. It is not a flat image. There are layers upon layers of story found in the visual and those images “say” more than we can describe with words.
So, it is fitting that Andrei Rublev took a vow of silence upon becoming a monk and remained mostly silent the rest of his life. He did not speak with words. Instead, he confessed his belief in the Word, the Christ, through paint and brush stroke, through holy and eternal scenes captured on the ordinary and temporal surface.
In 1408, Andrei Rublev was sent to a Russian cathedral in order to make new icons for the holy spaces there. One of the icons completed at that time was an icon of the Ascension. The Ascension, a story from the life of the Risen Jesus, mentioned in our creeds and in our Eucharistic prayers—this story of the Risen Jesus ascending into heaven was given to the monk as the latest image to depict.
Now, for a moment, let’s say it is not 1408 in Russia, but rather here and now and you are the monk, the silent one with the brush and the paints and the empty wooden surface before you. At the top of the work order is the task before you—ASCENSION OF JESUS. You can use any colors you wish, but when you are done, the folks are expecting to see the Ascension.
So, what do you create? What scene comes to you, with the paint and the prayerful gaze? How many are present with Jesus? Has he launched yet? Are there clouds encircling him? Is the crowd left behind one given to shouts of alleluia or is it an angry mob feeling abandoned by the Risen Teacher?
Andrei Rublev took a vow of silence. He did not leave his witness to us in words. He left his witness with paint, with a confessing image. And he left no written commentary about his icons. But we remember him still, over 600 years past, because of the prayerful images he left.
Rublev’s icon of the Ascension has a few things you would expect. Jesus is at the top of the icon, lifted above the earth. He is surrounded by a sacred circle, known as a mandorla, and heavenly beings attend to him.
At the bottom of the icon, the apostles are present. That is to be expected. Most of them are looking up, with hands raised, reaching up towards Jesus. It is not possible to determine if their hands are raised upwards in order to grasp the ascending Jesus or simply to give thanks, to cry out, to bid farewell to the One who promises to send the Spirit upon them.
What is remarkable, and possibly unexpected, about Rublev’s Ascension icon is what you find in the middle of the icon. In the center of the icon is a woman. It is Mary, the mother of Jesus. She is in the center of the painted image, with apostles standing on either side of her. Most of the apostles are staring up towards Jesus. But a few of those apostles are not looking up but rather are looking at Mary.
Now, to be honest, there is no specific reference to Mary’s presence at the Ascension, neither in the account given in the Acts of the Apostles or from St. Luke’s Gospel. Somewhere, a radio preacher might be thinking, “That ain’t Bible and I ain’t listening…”
Rublev, however, does not simply place Mary in the Ascension icon, sneaking her in on the side, as a face in the crowd, lost in a sea of apostles and the Resurrection community. He places her in the center of the icon. She is not looking up to heaven, acknowledging Jesus’ ascension into the clouds. Rather, she is looking at Rublev, looking at the one who will look upon the icon. If you want to comprehend the Ascension, it might be wise, then, to study Mary’s presence for a time.
It is worth recalling Mary’s presence throughout the story of Jesus given to us in the Gospel accounts. She is the young girl, present for the Announcing Angel. Inside of Mary, God’s love and reconciliation for all will grow.
She will give birth to Jesus, surrounded by the lowly and the forgotten. She will be present at his first miracle, calling out for his first sign and inviting all to listen to her son.
She will be present at the cross, when others have abandoned her son. She will be found in the community that gathers in the Resurrection, desiring to hold her son again, no longer dead, made alive again, fulfilling the promise for which Mary once sang in the company of her cousin, Elizabeth.
So, it makes sense, it makes Gospel sense, that Mary would be present for the Ascension. As her son goes to reign in glory, Mary, who has been faithful throughout the story of Jesus, is faithful now. In her faithfulness, she teaches us how to live now, how to listen and respond to this Ascension image.
She stands in the middle of Rublev’s icon and she is in a prayerful posture, a posture of waiting, a posture of anticipation.
While she waits, do not confuse her waiting with passivity. She waits with anticipation that the Spirit which descended upon her at the Annunciation, will now descend upon all in the days ahead.
The woman who first carried the Incarnation alone in her body now stands in the center of a community called to carry the Incarnation together. The solitary woman stands at the center of an apostolic community that will one day be countless in its number.
The community of the Incarnation, of the teachings of Jesus, of the cross of nonviolent love, of the empty tomb, of the Resurrected Body, of the Ascended One, will soon be transformed into the Spirited Church. Mary, who first held the Incarnation inside of her body, will now invite the Church to hold the Incarnation inside of our bodies.
At the wedding at Cana, Mary tells the gathered crowd to listen to her son. If we listen to Jesus at the time of his ascension, we hear an invitation to return to the city, to the place where we live, to wait for the Spirit that is to come, to be prepared to receive the blessing of the Ascended Christ upon our lives, here and now, now and forever.
Mary’s presence in Rublev’s icon helps integrate what the Church believes about Incarnation and Resurrection and Ascension. They are not offered to us in isolation, with an invitation to choose your favorite portion of the Jesus story.
In the Incarnation, we believe the holy and divine, in humble submission, entered the human story. In the Resurrection, we believe that the divine and the human, together, overcame the disordered and demonic attempts to shout down and to kill God’s love for us. In the Ascension, we believe that the human has been given a place in God’s life in glory.
While the apostles captured in Rublev’s icon look in every direction, up to heaven, at each other in wonderment and doubt, over to Mary, waiting with the one who knows how to wait and to receive—the Ascendant Jesus and Mary , found in the center, both look ahead, at us, at the writer of the icon, sitting in prayer, waiting for illumination and understanding.
It is easy to feel abandoned upon hearing the Ascension story. Who wouldn’t want Jesus to stay, to keep on teaching, healing?
But he has not abandoned us in the Ascension. The minds of the apostolic community have been opened by Jesus. They remember his promise to be present with them, now and always. What they have seen and heard and touched in his life, will now be true in theirs, too.
At the center of that community, Mary remains. The young girl who first carried the Incarnation in her body, will now teach the apostles how to carry Jesus in theirs.
It will not be easy. I have heard it said that the best jazz is always on the verge of falling apart. So much of the early church’s life together will be like the best jazz, with a simple tune that goes on and on, with musicians learning to trust each other and improvise with each other and to flesh out this believing in the One who was and is and is to come, together.
Like the best jazz, there will still be moments when it will feel as if it is falling apart. In this time of COVID 19, it feels as all we have known is falling apart. Yet, even in this time, the Ascending Christ has not abandoned us. The Spirit will descend upon us again.
And the center will hold. Christ is the center. And in this Ascension story, Christ has not left us. His mother stands in the center, too. She will teach us how to wait, how to listen, how to lead.
She remains a door. We are all invited in.
May 8, 2020
Dear East Tennessee Friends,
In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus declares that loving God fully and loving our neighbors as ourselves are the two great commandments. Everything else we do as followers of Jesus builds on these calls to love.
The Diocesan COVID-19 Task Force is releasing today Guidelines and Questions that will assist all of us in discerning when and how best to return to some form of in-person, public worship. As you read and study their work, please do so prayerfully, remembering that the call to love God and neighbor is always our first priority.
For some time going forward, how we gather will require creativity, imagination, and flexibility. Whether online or in-person, we gather not simply for ourselves. We gather as a school of prayer, to learn to live differently. We live for others, not for ourselves.
I remain grateful for the COVID-19 Task Force and their good work.
May 6, 2020
“The darkness deepens, Lord, with me abide
When other helpers fail and comforts flee
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me…”
Abide with Me, Henry Francis Lyte
Dear East Tennessee Friends,
I am writing to you on the Wednesday after the fourth Sunday of Easter. I write to you as we all continue to live in the midst of changes and chances of the COVID 19 pandemic.
In writing to you now, I do so aware that the new reality of life in the midst of a pandemic is how we will live for the foreseeable future. Until we discover a vaccine and share it widely, we will all have to learn new and creative ways to be the people of God together.
I have heard many speak of how long this year’s Lenten season felt as the pandemic arrived in the middle of it. Even though it is now Easter, a lingering kind of Lenten discipline will be with us for some time. We will have to be creative and imaginative as we care for each other and for self, as we continue to care for the least among us.
In this moment, I am taking real comfort with the image of Jesus as the One who abides with us. Abiding, lingering, remaining, keeping faith with us in the midst of the storm. As someone who loves to believe the illusion that I am in control, COVID 19 has exposed the falsehood of that.
Yet, Jesus abides with me. The Good Shepherd cares for sheep, leading us through good pastures and the valley of the shadow of death. I am not in control. While, that knowledge might cause me to fear, if I can go deeper into that knowledge, it can also teach me to stay close to the One who abides.
Jesus abides. In this moment, when all of us may feel helpless, he remains the help. We will find our way together through this season of pandemic, if we stay together and continue to stay close to the Risen Christ who abides with us and remains with us.
The COVID 19 Task Force will be releasing guidelines later this week for clergy and parish leaders to consider as we make plans for some kind of in-person public worship. We do so, aware that this plague season is requiring all of us to go beyond old limits of creativity and imagination.
My prayer is that this plague season will not undo us or cause us to remain in despair. My prayer is that this season will teach us again that Jesus abides with us. If we believe that, we will have enough to meet this moment.
You all remain in my prayers. Pray for me.
April 22, 2020
“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear…Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” -John 20:19
Dear East Tennessee Friends,
I am writing to you on Wednesday after the Second Sunday of Easter. I am writing to you in a season when many of us are spending countless hours inside our homes, keeping social distance in order to limit the community spread of COVID 19.
After the very first Easter, in the aftermath of the Resurrection, Jesus’ closest friends are in a house together. The door is locked. They are afraid.
Jesus, who had been placed in a tomb, is now risen. His friends, who are alive, have locked themselves in a house, with great fear. That locked and fearful house had become a kind of tomb.
Jesus enters that house. He enters without unlocking the door.
He does not require his disciples to gather up their courage before he enters. Upon entering, he does not offer words of rebuke or shame or disappointment.
Rather, he offers them peace. He breathes on them. The Spirit makes more space and opens up what had been locked down and afraid.
This time of a global virus is a time when being afraid makes sense. Along with the potential for grave illness, we are living in the midst of economical upheaval. We are not in control on any front.
If you are at home and you are afraid, Jesus is not about to enter your home and offer words of rebuke or shame or disappointment. Jesus desires to bring peace and breathe upon you. The Resurrection season is a time when fear is met with peace, when locked spaces are met with Spirit-filled breath.
At this time, the facts on the ground regarding COVID-19 still necessitate our need to do all we can to combat community spread. I would ask that you continue to engage worship, pastoral care, and Christian formation as a dispersed body, still refraining from gathering in person.
The Diocesan COVID-19 Task Force is working on several fronts. One matter relates to what it will look like for us to be able to gather again in person, safely, for worship and ministry. We are developing guidelines to aid parish churches when that season arrives. The Christian ethic of care for the other, the weak, and the least among us will guide our thinking with these next steps. Until that time arrives, I am thankful for your willingness to bear the many burdens of this extraordinary time together.
You all remain in my prayers. Pray for me.
April 8, 2020
“Hear my prayer, O God;
do not hide yourself from my petition.
Listen to me and answer me;
I have no peace, because of my cares.”
Dear East Tennessee Friends,
I am writing to you on Wednesday in Holy Week. Psalm 55 is the Psalm appointed for Morning Prayer today. Like you, I have been praying fervently these last several weeks for God to hear and listen as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to upend our daily lives. This is a time when the cares we are carrying, both for ourselves and others, might overwhelm any sense of peace we know now.
At this time, the facts on the ground regarding COVID-19 still necessitate our need to do all we can to combat community spread. I would ask that you continue to engage in worship, pastoral care, and Christian formation as a dispersed body, still refraining from gathering in person. In continuing to abide by public health and community guidelines to shelter at home, we all are learning a new way to love the neighbor and care for the common good.
I want to continue to commend all the means by which parish clergy and lay leaders are staying connected to the parish churches where they serve. I am also gladdened to hear the lengths being taken to call, write, and keep all the Body together in this time. While this is not a trial any of us would seek, I am aware that some parish communities are experiencing a deeper sense of knowing each other, even as that interaction has come at a physical distance.
Since I last wrote you, a COVID-19 Diocesan Task Force has been established. This group is assisting me in leading through this virus season and reflecting on how we will rebuild and be renewed in the aftermath. The Task Force is focusing on matters related to the following: pastoral care, legal, financial, diaconal, liturgical, and communications. We are meeting weekly. The members are George Arrants, Dianne Britton, Ronda Redden Reitz, Howard Vogel, The Rev. Howard Hess, The Rev. Josh Weaver, The Rev. Lee Ragsdale, Mary Embler, John Hicks, The Rev. Joe Woodfin, McKenna Cox, John Bellamy, and The Very Rev. Doug McCaleb. Please keep these persons in your prayers.
In John’s Gospel, when Mary Magdalene recognizes Jesus in the garden, she runs to him in order to embrace the Resurrected life in her midst. However, Jesus asks her not to touch him, not to hold on to him.
I have never understood that request.
If your friend and your teacher, the Resurrected Jesus stands before you, it makes sense to run towards new life and embrace. Jesus asks Mary to keep a distance from her. Granted, he is not practicing social distancing.
However, this year I will reflect on his request. There is Resurrection Life in our midst, but for now, keep safe distance from each other so that all life might flourish. Keep distance from each other, so that those health care workers and doctors and nurses who are tending to the sick will not be overwhelmed by more virus cases.
Keep distance from the Resurrected One, so as to remember he is not your own private savior. He does not belong to us alone. The Resurrection belongs to the world, to witness to reconciled life where any are suffering or afraid or alone or holding too many cares.
This year we will practice a new kind of Easter. This will not be an Easter of crowded church and fanfare and fragrance. This will be an Easter of standing at a distance, looking out to the horizon, seeing and believing that the Resurrection is drawing near to us. The Resurrected One will enter our locked rooms and breathe peace on us. It is that Peace which will carry us into a new kind of Easter season.
You all remain in my prayers. Pray for me.
As the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic continues, congregations can seek financial relief from the federal government. Here are details about relief currently available:
**The Payroll Protection Program has been endorsed by the Standing Committee. You do not need their prior approval to apply. We only ask that you follow the guidelines to ensure that the loan is used for forgivable purposes. We also ask that you make the Standing Committee aware that you have made application to the Payroll Protection Program.**
March 31, 2020
“Batter my heart, three-personed God; for, you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.”
–From Divine Meditations 14, by John Donne
East Tennessee Friends,
I am writing to you on the death day of John Donne, poet and Anglican priest from the 17th century. I am writing to you in a time when all of us are experiencing a kind of battering, not from the Triune God, but from the upside-down world of the COVID-19 pandemic and the shared burden all of us are taking on to limit its spread in our world.
I am writing to let you know how grateful I am for all the ways I am hearing and “seeing” the people and parishes of the Diocese stay connected to each other in common prayer and worship, though dispersed. I am grateful for the creative ways in which pastoral care and Christian formation continue to be offered by clergy and lay leaders. You all are being tested and the bonds of affection you all share with each other are being strengthened. No one would ask for this test, but you all are being the Body and bearing burdens and sharing gifts with each other.
I am also writing to let you know of an action recommended by the Diocesan Finance Committee and affirmed by Bishop & Council regarding the Diocesan Budget and Parish Assessments. Because of generous external gifts given to the Diocese in the last two weeks, along with the matching of those gifts by Diocesan funds, we are forgiving two months of parish assessments to every parish in the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee in 2020. My hope is that this decision will create space in every parish budget as we all are facing extraordinary economic uncertainty.
I am grateful for the good leadership of our Diocesan Finance Committee and Bishop & Council and their proactive approach in acting quickly and significantly. I am grateful to these generous givers who have given to support our common life now. And I am grateful for all the past leadership of our Diocese, who have stewarded our resources wisely, which allow us to offer this relief at this time.
I would ask that all of you, as you are able, continue to give of your financial resources to support the work of your parish churches as we all are being stretched—spiritually, emotionally, financially, and physically. When this COVID-19 season ends, and it will, we will need to gather again, in person, to plan and prepare for how we continue to renew the face of the Church in the aftermath.
My first days with you as bishop have included many miles in my car, traveling to be with you, to show up for each other in flesh and blood. Now, for this season, like many of you, I am not traveling. Still, my prayer is that we will continue to share in ministry together, even as we are absent from each other in the flesh.
Despite that absence, we remain a Body together. May all of us be good stewards to the Body now. It is my hope and prayer that the Body will gather once again, in flesh and blood, and celebrate and sing songs of how the Triune God in our midst is still making us new.
March 25, 2020
The Annunciation of the Lord
Dear East Tennessee Friends,
I am writing to you on a most holy day, the Annunciation of the Lord. This is the day in the Church calendar when we celebrate the announcing angel declaring to Mary that she is most favored by God and will conceive and bear a son, who will be named Jesus.
In the Middle Ages, this story from St. Luke’s Gospel was depicted in sacred art with images of Mary, in her home, with a prayer book in her lap, as the Angel Gabriel enters her home with surprising, world-changing news. The Holy has entered her home. In the daily and the mundane, the most sacred and Divine has come to find a resting place. The first declaration of the Good News is at home.
The recent COVID-19 pandemic has upended our world. Our daily and weekly rhythms have been scrambled. For those who have not lost jobs, most work is happening at home. Children are learning from home and many parents are taking on new roles as instructors. Our health care workers and our public health officials are facing unprecedented challenges. Volunteers and local non-profit staff are continuing to care for the elderly, the vulnerable, and the least of these. In support of requests from public health officials and medical experts combating COVID-19, Episcopal parish churches in the Diocese of East Tennessee are learning new ways to worship and share in ministry together while we are dispersed, not gathering in any traditional corporate ways that we have known.
At this time, the facts on the ground regarding COVID-19 still necessitate our need to do all we can to combat community spread. I would ask that you continue to engage in worship, pastoral care, and Christian formation as a dispersed body, still refraining from gathering in person.
Over the last few days, I have had five opportunities to join in zoom conference calls with the clergy of the Diocese of East Tennessee. These calls have been opportunities for prayer, to hear from each other, and to learn from each other how worship and pastoral care and ministry continues in a season of pandemic. Your clergy and lay leaders are creative, imaginative, and faithful people. I am thankful for their presence and their leadership in this moment.
This COVID-19 season is pushing all of us out of our comfort zones. However, like the announcing angel who enters Mary’s home, I do believe the Holy and the Divine are showing up and revealing to us again and again that God is present with us wherever we are. The home I share with Susan has become a little monastery.
I invite you to go to the Diocesan website, dioet.org, for additional updates and resources. The Diocesan website includes resources for worship from home which can be found by clicking through the link on COVID-19 updates and scrolling to the bottom of that page.
Along with occasional video meditations and messages which I will keep sharing with you, I plan to write you again on Wednesday, April 8th and will continue to write you every other Wednesday until the COVID-19 pandemic season concludes. I do not know when the COVID-19 pandemic season will conclude. I do know that during this season we need to continue to function as a community, although a dispersed one, finding new ways of being “with” one another without gathering in person.
“Practice resurrection.” That is how one of Wendell Berry’s most famous poem concludes. These two words capture the kind of Easter season that you and I are about to enter together. The Resurrection is the event upon which we place our faith in Christ Jesus. That event is certain.
What is now asked of us is to practice living out the Resurrection in a new time. Together, we will inhabit and embody our faith, in our hearts and in our homes.
Together, we will discover how in this time of isolation and fear, we may be renewed as persons beloved of God.
Together, among the swift and varied changes of this world, we will find new ways to fix hearts where true joys are to be found.
Together, we will lay down our individual anxieties and fears and renew our acquaintance with God’s love and how we reveal it.
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
A Statement from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee
Friday, March 13, 2020
Father Brad Whitaker, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, has this afternoon been diagnosed with COVID-19.
Last week, Fr. Brad sent a letter to the members of the church sharing that he began to feel ill shortly after returning from the annual conference of the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes in Louisville in February. He was diagnosed and treated for pneumonia, which included a long period of recovery at home. Since that time, it has been reported that an attendee of the conference was diagnosed with the COVID-19 coronavirus. Upon receiving this news, Brad elected to be tested as well. Shortly after his email to our parish this morning, Fr. Brad received word from the health department that he, too, has tested positive for the virus.
Earlier this week, St. Pauls had already begun taking steps to respond to concerns related to COVID-19: Our parish has suspended in-person Sunday worship and other gatherings, groups, and meetings for at least the next two weeks. We will be continuing to sanitize the church facility during this time, and fully cooperating with the recommendations of the health department who will begin a full investigation.
As this continues to unfold, please continue to follow the recommendations of the health department and the CDC. Hamilton County Coronavirus Hotline may be reached at (423) 209-8383. If the health department gives us more detailed information, we will pass it along to you.
The Rt. Rev. Brian Cole, Bishop of East Tennessee offers:
“Jesus said, ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.’ (Matthew 11:28) The news that the Rev. Brad Whitaker has tested positive for the coronavirus is a burden that Brad, his family, St. Paul’s, and the people of Chattanooga do not carry alone. We are committed to bearing one another’s burdens.”
Please pray for Fr. Brad’s continued recovery, for the health of our community, and for peace and courage in our faithfulness as disciples of Jesus.
March 12, 2020
Dear East Tennessee Friends,
When St. Paul wrote to the Christian community in Philippi, he did so with thanks even as he was imprisoned. I write to you today with thanks even in the midst of the storm of the COVID-19 outbreak in our country and across the globe. As the facts on the ground have changed daily and hourly, I write to you now, hoping that this letter will remain helpful to you in uncertain days ahead.
As Christians, we are a body and we cannot say we have no need of each other. As the Body of Christ, we are called to care for the least of these, to help those who have no help, to look out for the most vulnerable, to bear each other’s burdens, to be for each other. It is not enough to know that I am currently healthy and whole. I also am touched by anyone in my community who is suffering and broken.
With the current facts on the ground as we know them from public health officials and medical experts working to combat the worst impacts from COVID-19, I humbly ask you to forego gathering for large public worship, meetings, and social events in our churches for the next two weeks as an act of keeping faith with those friends and neighbors in East Tennessee who are most vulnerable to this virus. I realize you may choose to gather this Sunday and then begin a two week suspension after the 15th. It would be my hope and prayer that large public worship would resume on Sunday, April 5th for Palm Sunday.
As Episcopalians, our common life together in prayer is vital to who we understand ourselves to be. The Diocesan website has a variety of ways for us to maintain connections of prayer. I would commend those resources to you, which are attached to this letter.
This also is a time to pray for a renewed sense of creativity and imagination. In the days ahead, how the Church offers pastoral care may change for some time in order to protect against the spread of the virus. So, we may bring back older ways of maintaining connection, such as phone trees and handwritten letters mailed to the most vulnerable and elderly. In maintaining social distance in order to limit the spread of COVID-19, we do not want to create gaps in care and concern for each other.
I understand that this potential outbreak will have impacts upon our parish communities in ways that we have not yet anticipated. Our Diocesan leadership is now making plans to stay connected to every parish and worshipping community to hear how our communities bear this and how we can best be present and for each other in this time. At the end of this outbreak, we will want to be able to say that during this Lent we did not give up on each other even as our common life required us to stretch together in new and potentially painful ways.
If you discern that it remains appropriate for to hold services in your particular parish setting, I urge you to follow the guidelines attached to this letter.
On Ash Wednesday, we were all invited to keep a season of a holy Lent, which included “prayer, fasting, and self-denial…” Today, what it means to pray and fast and practice self-denial has a new and more profound meaning for me.
For information on the status of COVID-19 and statements from The Episcopal Church, please see below.
Below are a few resources for community members on virtual worship, online Christian formation offerings, and other topics.