Christian Community and Proximity
“What does this mean?” Isn’t that question the beginning of real living? The non-rhetorical, I-don’t-already-know-the-answer question. Our real questions can be as basic as Do I go east, or do I go west. Now we are asking: If I do this, will someone get sick? Will someone lose their livelihood? Might someone die?
I’m reading Church of the Brethren history now and the old Brethren had different worship patterns. They loved worshipping together, but limitations imposed by geography and time meant they were unable to meet in congregational worship for weeks and months at a stretch. Still, they maintained a love for the body, the Brethren. They cherished one another. By their example we see that Christian community is more than physical proximity.
What about us? What does this time of pandemic and worry of contagion mean for our communion? This is a “What does this mean?” opportunity out of which new understandings are bound to emerge. As with birth, there will be labor pains.
Here’s an example of what I mean. I saw where Rabbi David Wolpe wrote of Covid-19, “I suppose the whole world is sitting Shiva.” Shiva is the Jewish practice of staying at home for seven days following the burial of a first degree relative. Observant Jews spend these seven days mourning their loved one. During Shiva, people are separated from the normal patterns and relationships of life.
Job seems to be sitting Shiva following the death of his children and a host of personal calamities. For seven days friends gather to comfort him; it was the tradition. Following these days, Job proceeds to ask the “What does this mean?” question with such intensity and fury that his friends become exasperated, even angry, with him. They lecture him about God’s ways. Even so, by the end of the story it is Job we admire. We find God chastising the friends who thought they were speaking on God’s behalf. It is Job – grieving, angry, frustrated – who speaks “what is right” of God.
“Sitting Shiva,” mourning and enduring the pain of loss, is not simply a period of doing nothing. The experience of loss leads to reordering. Lately, I hear calls that instead of pausing during this pandemic, what we really need is a “reset.” I like the move toward action in that statement, but I wonder if Job’s experience doesn’t reveal some presumption in it: Reset to what? What are we returning to? What is the reset?
Right now, most of us want to return to “church” and worship as we knew it Sunday, March 8. If we do that, though, will we have really explored the question, “What does this mean?” What does it mean to kindle a faith community apart from a meeting house or large gatherings? What are we letting go of to receive the something new God is doing in our midst?
The New Testament calls forth a church, an assembly, which has a corporate identity even when it is not in one place together. Is this a time for us to rekindle faith like that? A faith that does not substitute proximity for genuine communion.