There has been a lot cynical eye-rolling and snide remarking about President Trump's recent comment to the press which amounted to an attack on Governors in those states observing strict physical distancing guidelines including the closing of non-essential businesses and organizations. He said that they ought to "let" the churches be open.
Several religious leaders respectfully cleared their throats stepped up to the mic and said "we got this."
Of course, this was a typical off the cuff remark without reference to the actual guidelines the states have put out, completely unconscious of the guidelines most religious leaders have set out which are often more stringent than the governmental regulations.
In our parish, this has meant that we have not met for formal corporate worship in our church since the Fourth Sunday in Lent... we are now (as I write this) in the Seventh Sunday of Easter.
Those remarks raised a host of legitimate questions about church-state entanglements and the role of the president in encouraging expressions of faith, and so on. But that is not what caught my attention.
When I heard the President remark that governors ought to allow us to reopen, my first response was "Wha? You call this closed?"
That is, after I looked up from whichever screen I was on while interacting with a parishioner or having a meeting or Bible Study or putting together worship or holding an on-line prayer service or writing something for one of our parish electronic or dead-tree publications.
Of course, and I am not the first to observe this, the problem is with an understanding of what "church" means. If you read the New Testament accounts and pay attention to history of what the Church does best-- heck, if you look at the soup kitchens, food banks, pastoral visiting, on-line & televised worship (even before the pandemic!) and small groups you discover that we Christians are a magnificent hybrid. We are hard to pin down.
That's because we, the Church, are a community that is at once gathered and sent. We are tight knit body that meets in time and space, and is also dispersed into society and the cosmos. We form institutional expressions of every size and shape--from magisterial to town-meeting to face-to-face-- and we are intimately personal and relational.
What do you expect from a community simultaneously founded on incarnation and eschaton? Where we journey through parted seas, wander in the desert, revel in God-with-us while looking forward to meeting the Lamb at the Throne -- all at the same time! From the immediate, intimate relationship between the holy and the human; that balances a rich history, the immediacy of the present, and the vastness of unfolding future, Christians travel in the places where kairos (God's time) and chronos (our time) meet.
So how can a virus close that?
There is a little line in the Episcopal Church's Burial Office that always catches my breath. I always try to put a little extra "oomph" into my spoken delivery hoping that it will not be a throw-away or bounce off the emotional armor that grieving people must necessarily build. It found in the Proper Preface of the Holy Eucharist for "The Commemoration of the Dead" and it goes like this:
"For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed not ended...."
We generally interpret this in much the way it's seen in a Tom 'n' Jerry cartoon. You know, when Tom uses up one of his nine lives and out floats a ghostly version of himself and he will be issued either a harp or a fire extinguisher.
But the Christian Hope is that in Christ all things will be filled, fulfilled, completed, and made whole. This is much more than harps in heavenly clouds; but when God, who has overcome sin and death in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, gathers to Godself all creation and finally and fully heals all the breaches between us and all humanity, creation, and God's own self. I believe that this is not just a once and done deal, but an ongoing, always unfolding experience. It is at the same time wondrous and bewildering, because we are stuck in chronos while participating in kairos.
This epidemic has caused all kinds of disruption. The business leaders and economists who preached disruption theory as the key to innovation must be getting impatient-- maybe even eating their words?-- because right now disruption doesn't come in an explosive moment of insight and energetic invention.
Nope. Disruption has arrived in the requirement that we do... nothing. In a society built on progress or innovation which is understood to be dynamic and in motion, being still and being solitary is at best weird and at worst painful. The novelty has worn off and we are getting antsy.
Still, we must "sit and stay" before we can get our treat. So let's use our antsy feelings and turn that energy into something. There are active things to be done: walking, running, excericising; and also bringing food to the homebound, to soup kitchens, and pantries; making calls to the lonely or isolated; sending cards; and so much more. And there are the things we never had time to do, or could not clear the decks to get around to: contemplation, prayer, writing or journaling, painting or drawing, learning new music, even trying new radio or video experiences. This disruption of our rhythms is also a chance to re-set.
And in all this, the Church doesn't just happen, it is. We are. We have another moment of free grace-- that used to just arrive when we stood in line or was stuck on hold-- where we can choose between exasperation or presence, between impatience or appreciation. Between profanity (in the truest sense) and holiness.
So for those whose notion of church has not yet grown past the big gathering in the big room, this is a chance to experience something more. Of course, for those who never really delved into the meaning of things, for whom life is nothing more than reactivity and chance, this will seem strange, even laughable. Their impatience is understandable. But, as Scrooge would eventually learn after his own Christmas pilgrimage, it's better that they have their malady in laughter than in more disagreeable forms.
I can't wait for the moment when we can all gather back in our big rooms and beautiful churches and have worship with all the loud singing, proclamation, and praise we can muster. For now, though, here is our chance to revel in the mystery and wonder of living in an in-between time.