My old-school pastor was also my father. He taught his protégés how to serve by accompanying him. It did not matter what texts you could exegete or what theologies you could explicate, he was determined to show you how to “do ministry.” For him, leading was about serving.
He taught us how to do pastoral care by visiting and listening to people in the spaces they lived or occupied. He believed in pastoral visits – whether hospital rooms, assisted living facilities or people’s homes. He asserted that pastors should get to know people by visiting them – and that you could not know people only through gathering for worship, study or meetings.
“To be human is to be embodied. Embodied people touch other people.”
We would hop in the car – him in the passenger’s seat and me in the driver’s seat – and he would tell me who we were to visit that day. People found joy in seeing the pastor, and his mentee, park in front of the house or pull into the driveway. When the weather was nice, people would often sit on the front porch (air conditioners were scarce in those days), ice tea or ice water nearby, and welcome us to join them. “Can I get you something?” was both courtesy and hospitality. You don’t see that much anymore.
Today, COVID-19 is a big, ugly, dangerous thing that is changing the way we work, play, worship, learn and live – and for far too many, the way we die. This is likely the case for the foreseeable future.
Changing behaviors is tough. Among the behaviors we are trying to reshape in this coronavirus context is the tendency to hug, handshake and high-five. We have learned a new phrase – social distancing. Maintaining six feet of physical distance is intended to reduce the likelihood of exposure to the virus through coughing, sneezing and touching. While we normally try to avoid people coughing and sneezing around us, embracing this no-touching aspect is new.
To be human is to be embodied. The Bible teaches us that a living being resulted when the Lord God breathed into a body made from the dust of earth (Genesis 2:7). Bodies are beautiful creations of God. This is true whether short, tall, small, large, dark, light and every other variation.
Embodied people touch other people.
Physical contact is one way we encounter and engage each other. (My focus here is on healthy encounters and “good touch.” I am well aware, however, that pervasive demonic expressions of physical and sexual abuse abound in our culture.) People often find themselves talking and touching innocently, playfully, jokingly, empathetically. Someone tells a joke, and the other one laughs and taps a leg. She gets your attention by touching your arm. He walks past a friend and says hello along with a light pat on the back. They share distressing news and lean on another’s shoulder who then embraces with a hug.
Friendly, lovingly and encouragingly touching is frequent and familiar to many of us.
Beyond our individual physicality, Christian people value the physical presence found in community. The 17th-century hymn, often sung during Thanksgiving time, reminds us: “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing.” The 21st-century gospel song asserts: “I need you, you need me. We’re all a part of God’s body. Stand with me, agree with me. We’re all a part of God’s body.”
Churches gather for worship, study, service and fellowship. We assemble in times of joy, sadness and uncertainty. Weddings, baptisms and funerals have a way of attracting people who infrequently participate in church experiences. Some people rarely “darken the door” of a church but still value its presence in their community. Do you remember the many who found themselves in houses of worship in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks? When trouble comes, people have a way of finding themselves near the cross, or with the gathered community in the church building on which the cross stands.
The coronavirus crisis is threatening the physical and financial health of hundreds of thousands of people. It will certainly affect many more. COVID-19 will be fatal for some and catastrophic for others. Some people, businesses, schools, non-profits and churches will not survive while others will be adversely impacted for years. This is the kind of communal calamity that would call people together for prayer, worship, encouragement and support. Social distancing, however, is necessary radical change required in this disastrous situation.
“I rejoice to see people working to change their behaviors for the sake of the Gospel.”
Changing behavior is arduous but not impossible. We are not old dogs, so we can learn new tricks. Although we cannot be physically present with sisters and brothers in the Lord through gatherings of the church, we can find ways to connect. The apostle wrote to the church in Rome: “For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you – or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (Romans 1:11-12, NRSV). Physical fellowship was not possible, but an alternative approach was used to express personal care, concern and community.
Churches (and families, schools and businesses) are working to find alternatives to the physically gathered community for prayer, worship, service and fellowship. Telephone calls, electronic communications, video conferencing and the like are being adopted in a hurry. Some old-school pastors and other congregational leaders who never saw the need for much more technology than a telephone are rapidly embracing alternatives for connecting. Prayer teleconference calls are increasing. Visitation by telecommunication is growing.
It is good to see people working to bridge social distancing in the life of the church. While some seem to be using nervous energy to show up on social media more often than they are prepared, I rejoice to see people working to change their behaviors for the sake of the Gospel.
There was a day when you could walk down the road to sit on a neighbor’s porch and drink a hot cup of coffee or a cold glass of tea to connect. There was a day when groups of people met in each other’s houses for Bible study and worship. There was a day when congregations gathered in buildings. Social distancing has disrupted our habits of work and worship. We can adapt, whether adeptly or awkwardly.
We do not, however, have to let social distancing disrupt or destroy “the tie that binds / Our hearts in Christian love; / The fellowship of kindred minds / is like that to that above.”
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