On Sunday, March 8, I gathered with our church community and shared a sermon titled “Analog Church,” based in part on a book I’d recently written. The teaching focused on the importance of continuing to gather in real, tactile, embodied ways, in the midst of an ever-increasing array of digital options. A few days later, we announced to the church via digital platforms that we’d be “gathering” online for the foreseeable future. The irony runs deep. In the months that followed, churches closed their doors, reopened, reclosed, and debated the ethics of both. In more recent weeks, the masses have taken to the streets following the George Floyd tragedy, to declare that Black lives matter, and to confront injustice. Much about this era of pandemic and social change feels uncertain.
When faced with uncertainty of almost any kind, my first and most natural tendency is to problem-solve. Maybe it’s nature, maybe it’s nurture, I’m not sure; but when the future is unclear, my instinctive response is to immediately work toward clarity, often by any and all means necessary. Figuratively speaking, I put on my running shoes, grab a flashlight, and begin to move as quickly and swiftly as possible, cutting into the darkness of the unknown. But if this global pandemic is teaching me anything, it’s that sometimes uncertainty calls for a radically different response.
The people I serve in our church community are anxious, frustrated, and confused. In just the first month since our church closed its doors, I’ve practiced 6 feet of social distancing at a cemetery and in the NICU of a local hospital. The first was the graveside memorial service of a faithful friend in our church who passed away in her 80s. The second was the dedication and prayer of blessing of a newborn who entered our world several weeks early and passed into eternity far too soon. There have been countless texts and phone calls from people losing their jobs, their income, their sanity, and their security, as they navigate this uniquely disorienting time. Rather than trying to see 10 steps ahead as usual, I’m learning to walk one step at a time in a way that even the most heavy-burdened among us can keep pace. As we bear more and more of one another’s burdens, we find ourselves gradually moving more and more in step with one another. This has been an unexpected gift in this season — in our church, at least, we are experiencing a togetherness despite our physical separation, born out of our collective anxiety, frustration, and confusion.
Of course, this togetherness is most significant in its ability to point us toward that which we lack in this time. Our digital connections are not enough. Zoom fatigue is setting in. Constant connection over screens feels less than human. We’re grateful for what our technologies offer, but our longing for embodied presence is heightening. This is a good thing. This is our whole human selves longing for whole human experience. We hold on to the hope that that day is coming. But it’s also exhausting. We don’t know when or how soon things will change. In a way, this waiting is a microcosm of a much greater waiting.
The writer Paul tells us in Romans 8:20-22, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” It is not only the human that is broken, but the entirety of the human experience itself. We see this in the frailty of our bodies as they fall victim to a new disease, despite our hope that modern medicine can save us. We see this in the ongoing battle against racism, both systemic and individual. And we see it in our daily lives, as we are confronted with the un-rightness of so many things. Violence, sickness, and disease should never surprise us. They are constant and continuing echoes of the fall. This novel coronavirus and the continuing acts of racism don’t mark the first time nor the last time that our facade of flourishing will be disrupted by the reality of creation’s disintegration.
And so, as we wait for these pandemics to end, one of the most helpful things we can do is to give voice to the collective “groaning” of creation and the people who inhabit our corner of said creation. We can walk alongside people, with all of their anxieties, frustrations, and confusion, down unpaved paths. We can cast light as we walk patiently and carefully ahead of those we lead, taking one step at a time, pointing to a brighter, more hopeful future, where there will be “no more death or mourning or crying or pain.” (Rev 21:4)