Last Sunday, March 15, 2020, the congregation I serve registered a greater attendance of those viewing online than those present in person for worship. This did not take place because we have finally moved into studio television production or due to the amazing popularity of our ministry.
We experienced a surge in online viewing due to the protocol of social distancing. The 59 persons who came to church spread themselves out over 3 worship services in a sanctuary built for 300, refraining from physical contact. Over 150 more viewed from home.
My congregation, like many, is practicing social distancing out of love.
Social distancing is a protocol for disease prevention. Our world is currently experiencing a pandemic. The COVID-19 illness is spreading around the globe at an unprecedented rate. It is more lethal than influenza. It is caused by the novel coronavirus to which humanity has no immunity. There is currently no vaccine. There is a scarcity of tests, of hospital beds, and of protective and therapeutic equipment.
For some, the illness comes and goes after a fever and aches, but for a terrifyingly high percentage of individuals of all ages, especially the elderly and those with underlying health issues, the disease attacks the lungs leading to fibrosis and lethal pneumonia.
Social distancing is proven statistical tactic to slow the spread of this and other contagious diseases, to buy precious time, and to relieve pressures on overwhelmed healthcare systems.
The Washington Post has published simulations to illustrate how this works. By having fewer social contacts, potential carriers have fewer opportunities to unintentionally infect others. Everyone is a potential carrier.
Like the Biblical concept of sabbath, social distancing comes at a cost. The cost is economic, social, emotional, cultural, and physical. The cost can be measured in time, preparation, separation, simplicity, and scarcity. Social distancing is an aspect of sabbath.
The scientific benefits of social distancing teach us that sabbath is part of natural law, not a mere ethnic or religious idiosyncrasy. We were not created only to work and consume. We must rest. We must stop. Life demands it. Nature demands it. Love demands it.
Unfortunately, the world has broken the sabbath for so long that it is now at risk of being broken by one.
Fearing scarcity more than death, unthinking crowds of consumers have shoved into overwhelmed marketplaces, risking mass infection, even when there is no real scarcity. Meanwhile, the wealthiest are selling their shares, converting their wealth, driving down stock prices, hoarding real-estate at record low interest rates, exploiting the social inequity that has forced so many to work without rest.
As pastors, we are disciples of Jesus the Good Shepherd. The Lord is now calling us to do the unthinkable. We must scatter our flocks in order to save them. We have preached faith in God. We must now have faith in God’s people. They will return to us. They will not forget us. They recognize our voices. They follow our leadership.
We will use technology to be present in voice, mind, and heart even as we are absent in the body. We will share vital information. Our prayers will be as those of Jesus for the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman, spoken at a distance but equally powerful.
As we withdraw from social contact and spiritually network, we will become participants in a great cloud of witnesses, a spiritual social network, knowing that as the plague spreads, many may enter the eternal cloud.
Our Lenten discipline challenges us to grapple with our own mortality and frailty. A few weeks ago, I placed ashes on the foreheads of those attending our Ash Wednesday services knowing that some will hear those liturgical words for the last time: “From dust you came, and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the gospel.”
In our frailty, we humble ourselves and recognize our need for grace, seeking to be reconciled to God and one another. Our lives are finite. We do not want to leave this world with unsettled conflicts. Two weeks ago, my brother and I were called to my father’s death bed to have our last words with him. The call was unexpected. We had been unaware of the gravity of his illness. God allowed us precious time with him, time we used to pray for the forgiveness of his sins and offer him our own forgiveness.
The Lenten discipline challenges us to resist worldly temptations. Like Christ, we are also tempted to consumption, to take dangerous risks, to dominate others. These are the cravings that drive the mob. The Holy Spirit silences the tempter, calling us away to be socially distant and spiritually present.
Lent is a journey with a destination. It leads to Pascha, the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, the source of our hope.
This feast is named for its historic context within the Jewish Passover, where God’s people are delivered from a mysterious plague of death while staying at home under the mark of lamb’s blood.
Social distancing for the sake of love may seem awkward because avoiding people is usually practiced out of loathing. In a polarized society, fear of contagion is cultural, directed not to a biological disease but rather toward the other, with symptoms of selfishness, materialism, resentment, pride, propaganda, factions, prejudice, and inequity all of which perpetuate the neglect, persecution, and suffering of the poor, the vulnerable, and the misunderstood.
Within the United Methodist Church, this polarization also exists and has led the denomination to the point of schism. Even before COVID-19 emerged, UMC leaders were weaponizing the terminology of pandemic against their enemies. The plan of schism has even been named “The Protocol of Grace and Reconciliation through Separation.” Like the protocol of social distancing, the Methodist protocol also intends to separate people. The protocol of schism, however, is antisocial rather than social, separating people permanently under the empty promise to relieve the most privileged of the annoyance of disagreement, the frustration of disunity, the scandal of disobedience, and the irritant of diversity.
What will history say of Methodist loathing and voyeuristic fixation on the identity and intimate lives of others as thousands die from a true pandemic? Will historians say that United Methodists had the love to lead their flocks to practice social distancing in response to COVID-19 only to emerge after the plague in a state of mutual loathing and antisocial separation?
In this sense, this sabbath that is being forced upon us can have one more benefit. It can remove us from our echo chambers and tribes. Like Nicodemus, we can step away from our faction to meet with Jesus in private. Entering the online cloud of witnesses, we have the opportunity to listen to different voices, to hear different testimonies, and to grow in understanding and compassion.
We need each other much more than ever before. Evidence suggests that COVID-19 disproportionately impacts adults over age 50. Fifty-four percent of UMC membership in the USA is over 50. United Methodists are in the crosshairs of COVID-19. If we are wise, we will begin beating our swords into plowshares now before we are forced to beat them into shovels.
During this time of separation, with God’s help, let us withdraw socially but reach out spiritually. Let us keep this discipline for conscious sake, not for wrath. Let us keep it for love, not for loathing.
Let us keep it for a season, not forever.