a resource for this time of COVID-19 social distancing
By the Rev. Cathy Gray
If you’ve ever been on a long trip with a small child - or if you can remember being a child yourself - then likely you are familiar with the refrain, “Are we there yet?” It starts out like the panting of a happy puppy: quick, repetitive, cheerful. After an hour or so it becomes as much a slog as traffic in a big-city rush hour: Are we therrre yeeeeet?
Reading the news in recent days I think I’m hearing a lot of that familiar, slogging whine: Can we go to chuuurch yet?
That refrain raises an old question for me. Just what is Church? The quick answer is, of course, that Church is many things. Many of us have faced and answered that question at least once before in our lives, some of us many times. Right now, we might add the question, “Where is Church?”
I believe that “Church” is whenever and wherever these things are present:
There is a bond among people, where people are gathered, seeking and finding joy, grounded in God, a gathered people seeking consolation, or hope, or clarity - again, grounded in God. Church is hearts united in prayer, hearts listening together for inspiration and wisdom - from scripture, through song, through sermons, through smiling faces - and, now, through those little floating bubble hearts that Facebook offers to us!
In the past several weeks while participating in Holy Family’s online worship, I have found deep consolation and the highest joy praying the Psalms with the background melody of a rushing creek. A sermon punctuated by birdsong is utter delight. Being offered God’s Peace by a tiny child...or by feet brandishing tap-shoes, color brought to us by spring flowers, and the deepening, lush shades of green as trees ripen toward summer. Seeing friends in the intimacy of their homes, standing on noisy urban sidewalks, snuggling with family pets, stuffed into that back of their car, and held safe in the branches of a tree...praying and offering their lives to God from all those places. And we can’t forget the technological brilliance of hands that operate all those recording devices (cell phones?) and those that quilt all the bits into a lovely whole, those who shoot it through the air to us on Sunday morning - and those e-offered comments and heart bubbles that (oddly enough) I’ll actually miss when we’re able to meet again in person! These things are all new - creativity, born from odd and troubling days. You have done this, People of Holy Family! This is Church - Church in the spirit of her most ancient and revered tradition. It is liturgy (liturgia) living up to its own truest definition - the work of the people!
If I was tech-skeptical at the beginning of this journey on the side rail (yes, I was), I am skeptical no longer. The Sunday morning ritual of gathering around the computer screen with a cup of tea, to be enlightened and inspired, to pray and to laugh, IS Church. It is a sacred and holy act (even when the center aisle of Facebook clogs up and leaves us in a moment of suspended animation!).
Church is that time and space where, collectively, we pin our hearts to God...and we’re doing that. We’re doing it in abundance, and we’re doing it in creative and open-hearted ways.
There are things I miss, of course: Real hugs. Joining voices in song and prayer. Children feasting on donuts - and, ok, grown-ups feasting on donuts. I miss being sniffed by Benson the Dog at 8 a.m. And I miss Eucharist - the gathered feast of Bread and Wine, the gathered ritual of people bound together in the harvest of God’s Earth. I really miss that! Eucharist is a vital, tangible way in which God engages and delights all our senses.
But it’s not the only way.
Have we learned from this side rail that God is with us, God gathers us, binds us, blesses us wherever we are? I hope so.
Church has traditionally been seen as a place of Sanctuary...red doors, a safe place, where we can let go of pretense and anxiety and fear. Right now Sanctuary has relocated itself into our homes, where we can be free from the anxiety of coughs and contagion, and free from living inside taped-off boundaries. Free to take off our masks in God’s presence, while having a better chance to stay free from a fatal disease.
Covid19 has pressed us toward new ways of being community, of being God’s people gathered...Church. If we are to find ourselves secure - safe - in God’s arms, then, for now, we must be together by being apart. I don’t want to read another story of people so desperate to gather in church that dozens of church members are made ill, die.
I do believe, with all my heart and soul and mind, that life is an integrated whole, that God’s fingerprints mark everything that is. But the hard truth we have learned many times through history is that God does not hold a magic sword designed for slaying viruses. That is a task for the wisdom God has granted us - and helped us to nurture and expand through the long ages of our life on Earth.
In this moment we best do God’s work of valuing life and respecting every person when we join our hearts and keep our bodies at home. Are we Church yet? Yes, I’d say - in surprising and creative ways we might never have imagined only a few months ago! We might need to “be Church” this way for some time to come...and, I I have no doubt whatsoever, we will be blessed and renewed and loved by God in every moment - Church, as we always are.