There’s a story about the Appalachian Baptist preacher who declared, “In our church, we ‘love one another’ like Jesus taught. We reach out to each other with the right hand of Christian fellowship and the laying on of hands. We used to give each other the kiss of peace, but some people got to lingering a little, so we had to give it up!”
In 2020, the year of our Lord and COVID-19, “lingering a little” isn’t the only practice avoided by Christian congregations. The novel coronavirus compels us to relinquish touching altogether. Such “outward and visible signs” of Christian love, grace and community as the right hand of fellowship, the laying on of hands, passing the peace and anointing with oil have given way to socio-physical distancing, sheltering in place and shuttered church buildings.
In these days, Holy Communion with a common cup of fermented wine is questionable enough; but Holy Communion with a common cup of temperance grape juice is a potential death sentence. Baptism of infants or adults, with a little or a lot of water, is life-threatening for those who cluster around the baptismal font or “wade in the water” of the fiberglass baptistery.
Worse yet, the very “sanctuaries” in which Christians long shared communal worship are now potential danger zones for infecting members of the Body of Christ, especially senior adults or persons with vulnerable health conditions. At this moment in time nationally or globally, it’s nigh impossible to be physically present for worship with our sisters and brothers in Christ.
“COVID-19 has shut down those Sunday gospel encounters, and I find myself a bit lost without them.”
As congregational separation and virtual worship persist, I find myself longing for the healing touches consistently dispensed in our home congregation, First Baptist Church, Highland Avenue in Winston-Salem – sacraments of grace I’ve taken all-too-for-granted. Sunday after Sunday we hear the collective invitation to “come to the altar” or to join hands with folks in a nearby pew as we pray together. Some Sundays, ministers and members lay hands on individuals who face a new calling or dire circumstances, reaching out in collective love and intercession. Sunday services also include a “fellowship moment” when we greet each other with blessings, handshakes and lots of hugs, mindful of the minister’s admonition of “no long conversations.” (He knows we are a loquacious bunch.)
These days, I especially miss my “pew neighbors,” folks who consistently gather in the same section of the sanctuary each Sunday. For the last 23 years, our family has occupied a specific congregational locale, to the right of the center aisle, about two-thirds of the way back. Close enough to let the Spirit find us, but not so close that it can get out of hand. We are joined by other practitioners who consistently claim that proximate sacred space. Over the years we’ve become what the 17th-century Pietists called an ecclesiolae in ecclesia, a little church within the church.
Each Sunday we reach out to one another physically and spiritually, singing and praying together, sometimes bearing one another’s burdens, conversing before and after (OK, sometimes during) the morning service about assorted spiritual, communal and political issues that challenge us. One dear friend and I confess our shared love for Jesus and Democratic politics, usually in that order. Another often engages me in conversations about scripture. We frequently “share our mutual woes,” as the old hymn says, as well as small bottles of hand sanitizer, passed around after the “fellowship moment,” just to be safe.
These practices “tangibilify” grace, as Albert Cleage Jr. called it, in both the spirit and the flesh. COVID-19 has shut down those Sunday gospel encounters, and I find myself a bit lost without them. I suspect that’s happening to a lot of folks in many congregations.
When traditional resources for gathering around God’s grace are lost to us, what then? Perhaps the upheavals of the present moment are unwelcome yet poignant reminders that sometimes we don’t find grace; it finds us. When the shared comfort zones that bless and bind us to Christ’s body vanish or seem distant, we explore other venues for experiencing the “inward and spiritual grace” of God collectively and personally.
The early church learned that lesson quickly, often adapting “normative” practices when necessary. A wonderful non-canonical text called The Didache or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, probably compiled around the year 110, established the norm for administering baptism while also providing immediate alternatives should the ideal form not be possible. The Didache says to:
“baptize in running water, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. If you have no running water, baptize in other water [ugh!], and if you cannot use cold water, use warm. If you have neither, pour water on the head three times, in the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.”
For those second-century Christians, when circumstances often dictated that the ideal means of grace was not available, grace was present, nonetheless. Baptism was so important, indeed essential, that even when the best elements were not obtainable, the sacramental act was not to be abandoned. Even in less than favorable conditions, i.e., “other water,” the grace of God was there.
That’s where we are here and now.
At such a time as this we are called to practice the sacrament of not touching, a gift of grace made literally a matter of life and death. Like our second-century forebears, we too must go looking for other means of grace, worshiping alone or with our families via streaming or video-recorded worship services, Zoom gatherings or other internet tools, decked out in our Sunday best jeans or jammies and posting our “Amens” on Facebook.
“Perhaps the upheavals of the present moment are unwelcome yet poignant reminders that sometimes we don’t find grace; it finds us.”
These days we are learning to text or “phone in” our prayers, love and care to the quarantined, the ill and the dying, reminding them and their families that they are still part of God’s Beloved Community. We bless the “healing touch” of caregivers – physicians, nurses, ambulance drivers and other “front-line” people – best offered when they are garbed in layers of protective clothing. (And we lobby government to provide for these essential items.)
For the church, the gospel stories of Jesus’ healing touch to the disabled, the broken and hurting may be less immediate to us at this moment than the profound post-Easter affirmations of Paul to the struggling Corinthians, not only worth quoting at length but reading and re-reading:
“Hard-pressed on every side, we are never hemmed in; bewildered, we are never at our wits’ end; struck down, we are not left to die … As God’s servants, we try to recommend ourselves in all circumstances by our steadfast endurance: in hardships and dire straits … We recommend ourselves by the innocence of our behavior, our grasp of truth, our patience and kindliness; by gifts of the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by declaring the truth, by the power of God … dying we still live on; disciplined by suffering, we are not done to death; in our sorrows we have always cause for joy; poor ourselves, we bring wealth to many; penniless, we own the world” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9; 6:9-10, NEB).
Audacious grace. For us. In such a time as this. Thank God.
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