When this column was named 21
Century Congregations, my guess is that no one could have predicted the COVID-19 crisis and how that would shape Lent, Eastertide, and beyond in 2020. We have entered a new territory in our life together, one that includes rapid change and adaptation, loss of our ability to gather in person, and a prolonged Eucharistic fast. We are compelled to revisit our theological understanding of the Eucharist, and what it means that the body of Christ gathers via Zoom, FaceTime live, or other digital formats. And yet, as our Bishop reminds us, while the Church has left the building the work of the church goes forth into a world in great need of hearing the good news: He is risen. Out of the lonely death of Jesus on the cross, the emptiness of Holy Saturday, the joy of the empty tomb and appearance of the resurrected Lord, we encounter the central story of our faith. This current season brings the grief and sadness of death along with the grace and joy of resurrection into focus. I have been experiencing both grief and grace during the COVID-19 pandemic, and somehow they seem to weave in and out of one another, appearing in unexpected moments.
As a psychologist and a psychoanalyst, I pay attention to the various meanings people make of their experience. What is tragic for one person may be liberating for another. What is a deep loss for some is an opportunity for transformation for others. Some wish to see old structures buried and new structures raised up. Others are mourning the loss of rituals and practices that have been the predictable rhythm of a lifetime of worship. In the big tent of Anglican theology, there is room for this great range of perspectives, and I would argue we need the full range to tell the story of God with God’s people. So what are the stories of faith that you currently connect to through the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic? The story of God’s people includes so much hardship: exile, wandering in the wilderness, straying from God, persecution and suffering. In the midst of this, God comes to be with us every time, out of death comes life, out of defeat comes restoration and new growth, and through it all remains the possibility that we shall be changed. Change, can be both exhilarating and exhausting and I have listened to friends and colleagues speak of feeling a type of weariness now that according to the calendar Holy Week and Easter are behind us and we have developed our new ways of gathering through our amazing technologies. More than ever I am aware that Holy Week and Easter are never quite behind us---they are with us in various ways much of the time---death and resurrection are central to our Christian walk and in some sense are always ahead of us as well.
A few weeks ago the New York Times produced a video of psychotherapist Esther Perel talking about the wave of grief touching so many of us.
She predicts that many of us will know at least one person who has died of the coronavirus. In the midst of the pandemic other vital supports and rituals are lost: the ability to gather, to be physically close to one another, to touch one another, and the host of rituals that bind us together: worship, graduations, weddings, funerals, and baseball games. This loss brings loneliness and grief for many people. For others it also offers respite from an overscheduled life. One thing I know about grief is that it takes some time to move through the process and it often includes a dose of anger, irritability, frustration, and despair. In this pandemic we are grieving both together and alone, riding a roller coaster of emotion and uncertainty.
Grief is not the only experience that people report these days. In meetings of clergy this past week, many spoke of moments of grace emerging from altered lives. Some in our congregations have not been able to attend church---those who were previously homebound and excluded are now able to worship in our online communities. Prayer life and reading scripture have evolved and deepened for some. Others report enjoying the chance to be home with young children and to be present for developmental firsts in talking, walking, or other achievements. There is grace in the recovery of the environment and the sighting of animals daring to come out into a less travelled world. Walking, gardening, re-connecting with family members and friends across the distance are all providing moments of social connection and joy even as we are surrounded by so much loss. In the midst of grief and grace is the opportunity to encounter the Holy Spirit working in our midst to draw us ever closer into the mystery of God’s presence and abiding love.