In the wilderness there are many temptations. Jesus knew them intimately, and we would do well to heed the manner in which he resisted their appeal. After all, we have been cast by a global pandemic into a wilderness of our own, a desert place devoid of conventional gatherings and embodied fellowship. We, like the psalmist before us, are now asking ourselves, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”
Indeed, how? That’s a question of theology, a question that explores the nature of worship and the scope and limitations of liturgical adaptation. But the question is furnished with the same temptations Jesus confronted in the desert, particularly the temptation to turn stones into bread. There are many ways to interpret this temptation, but I want to contend for the primacy of one particular reading – namely, the view that Jesus’ tempter was inviting him to forfeit his hunger.
“Ambivalence, not contentment, should be our posture right now.”
Of course, being hungry is hard; and obviously God does not want us to starve. But spiritual hunger is an essential part of our human makeup. We were created to hunger for God, and the paradox of the Christian life is that we are spiritually satisfied precisely when we feel deep hunger for the inner life of the Trinity. So, when the tempter told Jesus to turn stones into bread, he was effectively inviting him to worship his own stomach, to satisfy his hunger with carnal food rather than pursue the divine invitation to satisfy his hunger with, well, more hunger. See the paradox?
We are all hungry right now. We are hungry for God, we are hungry for each other and we are hungry for the rituals that bind our lives together through the communion of the Holy Spirit. But hunger makes us susceptible to temptation. As a scattered church with access to the gift and wonder of technology, our greatest temptation is to fill our stomachs with virtual media rather than allowing our hunger to provoke questions about what it means to be human.
Don’t get me wrong; Zoom and FaceTime are tremendous resources for which the scattered church should be grateful. But they are no substitute for our embodied liturgies. If that were so, “Zoom church” would have been the norm long before COVID-19.
Ambivalence, not contentment, should be our posture right now. We would be fools to eschew the gifts of technology during a pandemic, but the greater tragedy arises when we become satisfied with technology’s quasi-ability to facilitate communion. Being satisfied means losing our hunger for the embodied rituals, the local gatherings, the material acts that manifest the church’s visibility in the world.
And what about the long-term consequences of normalizing these inferior modes of worship?
As I heard one person say earlier this week, “Extreme measures have a strange way of becoming permanent.” I suspect the early church mothers and fathers would share the same concern. After all, one of their principles was “lex orandi, lex credendi,” which simply means that our worship practices, including virtual ones, become a framework in which our beliefs are (de)formed and (dis)oriented. Zoom church is adequate for now, but we should not allow it to become more desirable – more permanent – than the grand miracle of a physically gathered church community.
But surely we will not become satisfied, right?
“We cannot fill the void. That hole in our stomach should probably stay there until we reconvene in our sanctuaries.”
We underestimate this temptation at our own peril. A cursory scroll through Facebook will show many pastors – some of the most faithful ministers I have ever known – scrambling to match the production value of regular Sunday services and Wednesday night bible studies. The output is astounding, albeit mentally and emotionally unsustainable, and much of it requires an admirable skillset. But in addition to anxiously competing in a new marketplace of virtual church services (that’s for another article), one wonders if our churches are desperately trying to obscure the loss – and satisfy the hunger – we are all feeling right now.
I feel this temptation, too. I understand the desire to satisfy our hunger with virtual “duplicates” rather than allowing our hunger to cultivate a healthy longing for what we have temporarily lost.
But the truth is, we cannot fill the void. That hole in our stomach should probably stay there until we reconvene in our sanctuaries, which means we should temper our liturgical expectations, stop trying to do what is impossible, and allow ourselves room to grieve and lament.
So, leave the stones alone. Your hunger, paradoxically, will fill you up. When our church doors reopen and you finally hug your pewmate again, you will know exactly what I mean.
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