The church's response to COVID-19 has been instructive. If, that is, we're willing to let experience be our guide. Here's what has stuck, and what hasn't, these past few months.
Good intentions, not so much. A United Church here in Calgary met as a congregation in the early days of the pandemic, to worship and to celebrate the birthday of an elderly church member. They took precautions. Still, twenty-four of the forty-one participants caught the virus, and two died. They're sorry, now.
Good connections, yes indeed. Many churches have learned about the power of the internet to keep their members connected. Not just Sunday services, but midweek Zoom gatherings and virtual Bible studies. Other clergy have spent hours on the phone instead, connecting one-to-one with their people, wondering why they hadn't done that before.
Bible quotes fall flat. I know scripture is one leg of the classic three-legged stool--scripture, tradition, and reason--but alone, in place of real empathy, it's a vacuous substitute. It's even dismissive: I have nothing to say to you, but the Bible does. We forget that the Word of God came to us as a living person, not platitudinous sentiments on a page.
Story-telling enlivens. Real stories of real people coping with fear and isolation, with illness and fatigue--these have proved inspirational during this time. Even the wacky attempts of house-bound people--musicians, families, late-night talk show hosts--encourage us all to take advantage of the situation and tell our own unique story.
Rules don't cut it. While some church judicatories debated the dos and don'ts of online services--Can a priest bless bread and wine by proxy, across the airwaves?--others removed their hand altogether and let invention take the lead. Those are the churches that have seen their attendance actually increase during our time apart.
Compassion does. Always. Do the loving thing. Reach out. Make the call. Drop the groceries at the door. Send the card, write the email. Such small actions speak louder than any sermon, and rekindle our hope that, when we love one another, God really is among us.
We say the world will be a different place, post-pandemic. Will this be true of the church as well? Will we have re-learned something about God's presence in the world? Grace comes not from on high, not from the safe and sanctioned repositories of the past, but in the moment to moment witness of those who simply pay attention. God was here all along, in the midst of us, bridging the distances between us.