Pandemic and Presence

Many years ago, I woke up at 4:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning and drove three and a half hours east to Carthage, just to have breakfast at the diner where my grandfather, when he was living, would walk to for his morning cup of coffee. I caught wind that they were closing and likely would tear the old building down, so I felt something in my bones telling me that, for whatever reason, my body, a living memory of my grandfather, needed to be in that diner before it was no more. The breakfast was ok. The coffee was bad. But I left convinced that I had done something important, even though I’ve never told that story to anyone until this moment.

When I was a pastor at my church, I pushed for us to celebrate communion more often than the “every now and then” schedule we had operated on for all the years prior. In addition to this, I lobbied for the elements to actually be in the sanctuary during the service. Before this, the bread and juice would wait in the kitchen until it was time for the sacrament, at which point the servers would go get it and bring it in. I felt a strong conviction that there was something the absence of the elements said about how we honored them.

Also, while pastoring, I pushed back on suggestions that we install an ATM or credit card reader in the lobby to make it easier for people to give. Something about physically putting the offering in the basket seemed necessary to me.

Even though, because of the circumstances of his death, my father’s body was not in a condition to be viewed at his funeral, I rejected the suggestion of cremation and insisted that his body be present, albeit with a closed casket. I had a theological belief that bodies matter, and a conviction that what you do with them after they no longer hold life says something about what you believe will happen to them when they will hold life once again.

I still have strong feelings about presence, even though I hold them more loosely than before. The particulars are no longer hills that I care to die on. But I share them to say this: You can’t out-incarnation me. I’ve argued more in favor of church buildings and the importance of place and the necessity of physical nearness in worship more than almost anyone I know who isn’t Orthodox, Catholic, or their British derivatives. Although I have settled nicely into a pandemic Sunday morning routine that includes coffee, my recliner, and the Facebook Live airing of worship from my church, I have not slipped into a disembodied gnosticism with regard to that Old Time Religion I love so dearly. I love the playful reverence (or is it reverent playfulness?) that is UBC’s DNA and has carried over nicely into the virtual world. I look forward to seeing the names of my fellow worshippers “join” in the comments section and interact throughout the service. But it is an incredibly flawed facsimile of the real deal.

Even so, we don’t need to go back anytime soon.

I was surprised to see an ethicist from my faith tradition argue, in a recent article, that it is time for moderate and mainline churches to end distance-worshipping, take all the precautions, and return to life as normal. I get that some churches have very complicated knots to untangle with regards to congregants who are discipled by Fox News and have internalized the idea that either all or some of the pandemic is a political game. I even understand that some churches hold their strong beliefs about presence as tightly as I once did, and have made a choice that the risk is worth the reward. But I don’t understand thoughtful believers who pride themselves in holding competing ideals in tension with one another being so flippant, seeming to shrug their shoulders and say “Ok, we’ve learned what we needed to learn and done what we needed to do. We miss church, so let’s disinfect the place and go back.”

In a time where the world is weary from the sacrifices we have had to make, this is a time for churches to bear witness to lingering discomfort. To model what a persevering faith can look like informed by science and experts. There are still people suffering and dying, and we are still learning about the virus. I won’t argue for an indefinite absence, and I respect that churches have to make difficult decisions. But to simply go back because “Hey, I miss it and need it,” is very short sighted.

And then there’s this: Scripture and Christian tradition does hand us a strong foundation of presence and incarnation. It’s what many of us stake our faith on. But it also gives us a theology of absence as well. It’s written all over the pages– Exodus. Exile. Captivity. Holy Saturday and Paul’s letters that lament the fact that he can’t be with the churches that he loves. Some of those absences were for a few hours, and sometimes the return didn’t happen until entire new generations had been born while the old ones passed away. Four months seems like an eternity in the internet age, but its barely a blip on the screen in God’s time.

I, like others, will continue to long for presence. And if history is judge, it will be sooner rather than later. For now, my coffee, recliner, and computer are imperfect substitutes, but they’ll do as tools to help us love our neighbors.

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