"just as I am" got a whole lot more real
We’ve always been “get dressed and go to church” people on Sundays. But this past weekend, it was pajama church. And couch church. Because, like millions all over the world, we’re sheltering in place. Public gatherings now are a threat to community, rather than an opportunity for community. And screens, which were seemed to be the single biggest threat to building real community a month ago, are now our best opportunity and biggest lifeline for relationships.
Who would have thought screens and Sunday Services could change places so quickly?
Here’s the truth: I don’t like it. My eyes are squiggly from a zillion zoom meetings and while I love my house and my family, I also really miss other people and activities. My friend Peter reminded me recently that this yucky feeling of discontent and the pain of separation is actually a good thing in a way: our longing signals our love. We don’t miss things we don’t care about. Missing hugs and handshakes and neighbors and rhythms is a wake up call that all those things we often complain about having to do, are really things we *get* to do.
He’s right. (He usually is). Exhibit A of his insight came last weekend when the 5th and 6th grade Sunday school class we teach were invited to an online group meeting. These kids are tweens: still at the age where they don’t get a choice of whether they go to church. If their parents say “we’re going”, they have to go; and we’ve weathered more than our fair share of grumbling at having to stop reading a favorite novel, put on pants, and get thy booty to church on a Sunday.
But after three weeks of not being allowed to gather, the tweens were ready. Within seconds of sending out the evite to invite them, the “yes” replies began rolling in. The video call itself was a hive of energy and catching up—like wrangling conversational cats, if you ask me—but at the end of the call I got text after text from parents saying how much their kids loved it. For once, it was absolutely clear that they didn’t have to go to church.
They *got* to go.
Adults don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves quite as transparently as truth-telling-tweens, but I think we’re in a similar boat. Being physically apart and having to rely on online church services and intentional video chats has already done some good work in us: reminding us that we need each other. That we *get* to be part of a community. That church is not a building, it’s a people. That there’s a unity of the Spirit that doesn’t require us worshipping in the same place: that was the big shift Jesus talked about in John 4, remember? Once upon a time, people had to go to a specific temple in a specific place to worship. But now we can worship the Father “in spirit and in truth”, no matter where we are.
These are good things to remember. It’s also good to be reminded that my children’s spiritual formation (and indeed all of our spiritual formation) is something we are responsible for. Growth doesn’t just happen accidentally, by spiritual osmosis. We can’t just outsource spiritual nutrition to the ministry staff: we have to be self-feeders and take care to make sure those in our household are being fed, too. Online church is not my favorite, but it’s been a good invitation to worship alongside my children and to pay attention to how they’re engaging. It’s been a while since I did that, and this has been an opportunity for reflection and repentance.
It’s been good, too, that people who haven’t been able to come to church for years because they can’t leave the house or have moved far away have been able to reconnect. One home group leader mentioned that moving their weekly group meeting online meant someone could come for the first time in three years. Young parents who haven’t been able to join a group because of childcare concerns might actually be able to join a bible study via Zoom. This whole disruption has closed down the way we’ve always done things like a giant door slamming shut. But an amazing thing happens when you close a big door: you can suddenly see light leaking in through other small places you hadn’t noticed before. There’s a shock as our eyes readjust, but then we see light sources and little details we didn’t before.
This, too, is a mercy. When we “resume our regular programming”, we will be mindful of people who had perhaps got lost in the shuffle.
Nobody expected 2020 to look the way it does.
Acts 17 tells us he appointed the exact times and the places that we should live. We are here, and we are here now, and none of this is a surprise to God. (I keep reminding myself of this as I would certainly not have chosen to launch a book in the midst of a global pandemic!) But it comforts me a great deal to know there’s more than just a plan, there’s a Planner, and that in all these plots twists, “God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.” (Acts 17:27)
Which brings me back to the online church thing. Because “he is not far from any one of us”, we can worship even if we can’t gather in places of worship. And because “he is not far from any one of us”, we can “live and move and have our being”, as the very next verse says, knowing we are his children, and we’re always in his presence.
Even if we’re not wearing pants.