The Church has been put in a strange position with the rise of COVID-19 in our communities. As institutions like colleges, professional sports, and many businesses close their doors in order to help “flatten the curve” churches are facing the pressure to do the same. More and more have closed their doors with the hope of being a part of the solution rather than the problem.
Some in the Church refuse to stop administering the sacraments, even with the health risks involved (Click here for more info). As a priest myself, it feels strange and even wrong to not hold public services even amid the danger. I have asked myself countless times this week, “What’s the line that differentiates negligence and faithfulness? In what ways is God calling us to be faithful at this moment?”
The gift of technology will allow us to be faithful in many ways, but not in every way. While we lock our doors, our flock will not be fed with the Body and Blood of Christ. We will be able to come together through platforms like Zoom and Facebook, but it’s not the same as kneeling next to one another in worship or sitting next to one another in the Parish Hall sipping on a cup of coffee.
What worries me most of all as a pastor is the inevitable loneliness that many in our society will feel by being disconnected over the next few weeks. We are being asked by health professionals to self-isolate and to keep our distance from one another. We look at others with suspicion, especially if they sneeze or cough. Our minds automatically wonder, “Do they have it? Will they give it to me?”
Many in our churches live alone, and many are elderly. For their safety, we are telling them to stay home. This is a life or death decision for many. But whether you are high risk or not, many of our folks will be isolated from the loving communities that support them and bring them joy week after week. Even the most basic of human greetings like shaking hands and hugging have been forbidden. We cannot underestimate the power of human interaction and touch. Whether you are a part of a church or not, this is something we will all struggle with for the next few weeks.
With all of that said, I believe we can think theologically about this season away from one another and our church communities. There are two biblical images that I want to explore which I believe are appropriate in our present situation. They are Exile and Solitude.
As I lock our red doors at our church and tell our members not to come on Sunday it feels like a self-imposed exile in some ways. We are called away from our homeland with the hope of returning soon.
Exile is nothing new in the Bible. We see Joseph sold by his brothers in Genesis 37 and ends up living in Egypt away from the land of Canaan and his beloved, aging father. Generations later we see Moses’ self-exile into the wilderness after killing an Egyptian. It is in that wilderness that Moses encounters a burning bush calling his name, and giving him a new mission in life. It is that very same Moses who then leads the once-enslaved-Hebrews around the wilderness for 40 years of wandering and exile before they can enter the Promised Land.
But when we talk about “The Exile” in the Bible we mean the Babylonian exile that took place in 597 and 586 BCE that culminated in the destruction of the Temple. One of the most memorable psalms that describe this tragic event is Psalm 137.
"1 By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
3 For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy."
The Jews spent anywhere from 48 to 70 years in exile before the first groups could return to their homeland. The experience of exile changed them as a community. For many, it solidified their faith and traditions. Much of what we know as Judaism today can find its roots in this exiled community that was forced to create structures that would last while they were strangers in a strange land. They had to come to grips with who they were, and how they related to God without being able to make sacrifices at the Temple.
So, exile is biblical and what can come out of an exile, whether it is 70 years or a couple of weeks, can be good and even transformative. It can deepen our relationship with God as we are taken away from our own places of worship and away from the sacraments that are at the center of our worship.
What I’m trying to say is that the absence of something is not always a bad thing. It can, in fact, lead us to appreciate and long for that which is absent in our life. Isn’t this what we do during Lent? We abstain from certain things, so that we may draw closer to God and then enjoy them again at the great celebration of Easter?
Who knows what will come from this quasi-exile? The Church will likely be changed. Mine already has, we now have a YouTube page and will be doing more online than we ever had in the past. But hopefully, the transformation will be deeper than just what we can do online. This experience will likely teach us something about ourselves, our faith, and how we relate to our community.
I think that last point is the key. During this pandemic we will learn how much we truly need to be in communion with one another. Whether we like it or not, this exile will bring a lot of loneliness to our members, but I believe we can shift the conversation from loneliness to rediscovering the gift of solitude.
At one of our recent book studies at the church, we were talking about the difference between loneliness and solitude. Many in our world are lonely. Studies have shown different demographics that are suffering from loneliness, especially millennials. (Click here for more).
Loneliness happens to us, but solitude is something that we intentionally do. We dedicate a certain amount of time to prayer and spiritual practices. The Apostle Paul went into the wilderness to seek solitude in preparation for his work as an evangelist. He said in Galatians 1:15-17:
“But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.”
Jesus himself sought solitude on a number of occasions in the gospels.
Mark 1:35: “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”
Luke 6:12: “Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God.”
And most importantly Matthew 26:36: “Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, 'Sit here while I go over there and pray.' ”
Solitude seeped in prayer is a good thing. It has the ability to disrupt our routines which have distracted us from our relationship with God. We must see this unique time in history as an opportunity to devote ourselves to a season of intentional solitude with the goal of drawing closer to Christ, and growing in our appreciation for the communities we are a part of.
If done thoughtfully, this can be a holy experience, and we will come back together more joyful and thankful. Already, I yearn for the day when we will all be back together. I imagine in my mind the joy it will be to come together. We will have journeyed through this chaotic time separately but also together.
Exile and Solitude. Two unpopular ideas in this day and age, and yet they may be the very motifs that can guide us through the next few weeks and months. The goal is not to stay in either one forever, but to grow closer to God through the experience.
As painful and awkward as that might be, I believe there is a lesson there for us as the Church. The Hebrews learned a lot about themselves and the God they were following in the wilderness and in Babylon. Moses and Paul learned a lot about God’s mission for their life during their time of solitude, and even Jesus found comfort in the quiet moments alone.
In each case, they retreated into solitude in order to find solace and strength, and then they re-entered the world better prepared to serve the world. This is not a vacation or a hiatus for us as the Church, rather it’s a calling to reflect and reimagine the present situation we are in; to see the transformative power that exile and solitude has done for God’s people for thousands of years, and how there is most likely a lesson for us too.
We’ll just have to see what it is (with God's help).