Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Caring Nearness in a Time of Distance

Below is my column in today's edition of the Grand Haven Tribune.

I never thought I would crave some things that were routine in my life, things which are now impossible to come by as we live under the current “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order and try to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

I miss popping over to Arturo’s Tacos, Mr. Kozak’s, Don Luis or Righteous Cuisine for a quick lunch when the day has gone long and I just need to sneak out of the office.

I miss the familiar sights of my morning commute to the church, the question of whether I’ll be ahead of or behind that school bus stopping time this morning, whether my favorite Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office deputy will be hanging out where the speed drops to 45 mph so I can show him I learned my lesson after a stop (or two).

I miss the flow of people in and out of the church office, familiar faces poking in to say “hi” or to come and pet our standard poodle puppy, Maisie, who will function as the church dog until she is trained as a therapy dog for my wife’s work.

I miss the laughter and hugs of Sunday once-a-month family dinners, watching cousins and adult siblings connect and feeling the joy that physical presence can bring.

And I miss the altar. I miss the grounding that it gives me to stand there. I miss holding up bread made in the homes of our parishioners and wine chosen by parishioners, saying prayers over that bread and wine and knowing that Christ becomes truly and physically present to us once more.

I miss the nearness of all the things I love and I yearn for this distancing to be over.

We’re learning how to make it work, I think, as best as we can.

One of my parishioners who doesn’t even like doing email joined our Tuesday afternoon Zoom Bible Study that I lead. Seeing her face put the largest smile on my face as she pushed herself to learn a new technology, something she truly tries to avoid.

I’ve loved seeing all the Facebook posts supporting local businesses and restaurants that are trying as hard as they can to stay afloat. The Tri-Cities Pastors’ Gathering, of which I am a part, has been more active then ever in our Facebook group, sharing ideas and advice, prayer requests and hope. And each church, in its own way, is trying to figure out how calling people to worship can happen in a time of pestilence and quarantine.

But we all know, deep down, that this is not who we are. We are not minds connected by pixels and fiber-optic lines. We are not souls trapped by bodies that we will hopefully somehow overcome through technology or spirituality. We are embodied beings, people whose existence is inextricably bound up with the bodies we inhabit. That is why Christians believe that when God came to save us, he took on a body. He felt the limitations of mortality: got hungry, felt a backache when he picked up something wrong, even felt the rush of anger when he saw a perceived injustice.

It’s too early for us to know how this will all end, how long it will take for life to return to some semblance of normal. It feels like the news changes every day and a column I write on Monday could easily be obsolete by Wednesday. But when it does end, even as we perhaps continue some of our newfound virtual and online skills, our salvation will be a bodily and physical one.

We’ll walk down Washington Avenue with summer tourists, perhaps no longer annoyed by their presence but grateful that all those bodies create resources and support businesses we love. I know I look forward to sitting on the sidewalk bar at Long Road, enjoying one of their exquisite cocktails as we watch people walk by. I’ll see someone I know and run to give them a hug, not afraid that it might result in the death of one of us.

I’ll walk back into my church building, with all my people. The walls will vibrate with the resounding organ and the joyful voices. We will grip hands tightly at the Peace. We will eat the Body and drink the Blood, understanding better now than we ever had why it is that God gives the church sacraments – outward and physical expressions of inward and spiritual grace. Because we need to experience salvation in our bodies in order for it truly to become real.

And I really hope that we learn something from this, not just a renewed gratitude for physical presence and embodied grace, but a renewed compassion for all the bodies we have ignored, seen as not our responsibility, locked in cages or told were inherently disordered just because of the way God made them or where they were born.

Having had our lives uprooted – just a bit – by this pandemic, I hope we have more grace for those whose lives are entirely destroyed by violence and poverty and famine.

I hope we realize that all bodies are our responsibility. I hope we do better. I’ll try, and I hope you will, too.