A Second Pandemic Program Year: Finding Handholds

My small parish in central North Carolina started gathering for Sunday morning in-person worship again a month ago. Literally, we have physically received Communion together during our principle service of worship four whole times since March 2020. And now, cases of COVID-19 are surging again. We JUST re-imagined how to gather in-person in low-risk ways, from the distribution of wine in small, compostable cups to the technology needed for hybrid worship. The spring and early summer felt so hopeful. We made plans. And yet, it looks like we are entering another surge.

What now?

We want to keep our people safe. Children are not vaccinated. Those living with autoimmune illness are extremely vulnerable. AND we want to keep our people connected. We are tired of Zoom. We dread reverting to physical isolation. We wonder how we will hold a community together any longer without in-person gatherings. Re-imagining the logistics of everything yet again is exhausting even to think about, which is totally anxiety producing.

Finding Some Handholds

The challenges, concerns, and anxiety of each particular context bubble up in phone calls, colleague groups, Facebook posts, and through the consulting I do through Lifelong Learning. I hear that parents don’t want to meet in person with the Delta variant on the rise but that kids are also “Zoomed out.” I hear that coming up with volunteer leaders is nearly impossible. I hear that the congregation is divided on masking for vaccinated folks.

I wish this was over. I wish there was a clear way forward. Should we move back to online only worship? Should we try to do Sunday School outside? Or delay the start date? Do we need to cancel that picnic?

I have no answers. The road ahead is uncertain. We are stepping onto a rickety bridge. From where is our help to come (in addition to The Lord)? Perhaps we need some railings, some “handholds” to cling to.

Below are three phrases that feel like reassuring handholds for me. In these phrases I find hope, comfort, rest, and a truth to hold onto in the midst of this weary-making uncertainty. I hope one of these resonates for you, or maybe they inspire something else that is a better fit. And if all else fails, let me share the guidance of a wise spiritual director: “When you pray, get as close to the ground as you can. Sit on the floor. Lie in the grass. Lean against a tree trunk. The ground, the earth beneath your feet, is a sure thing.”

I Know More Than I Think I Do
As my anxiety about the increase in COVID cases rises, I am drawn back to memories of the initial shut down in March 2020. My body remembers the long days and the tightness in my chest, but this is not the same. We will never know less about doing ministry during a global pandemic than we did seventeen months ago. We know more about the virus than we did back then. We know more about technology. We know more about how to do ministry in physically-distanced and low-risk ways. Remember what you know. We can bring back the drive-through blessing of the backpacks and the Zoom Bible Study if we need to. It will take some energy to shift again. It won’t be the same as in-person Bible Study. But we can do it, and we don’t need to completely reinvent the wheel like we did last year.

The Church Is Us
Three weeks ago I got to be physically present for the Baptism of a young child. I was close enough for drops of water to fall on my face as the priest sprinkled the congregation. It brought tears to my eyes. For many, gathering again in our sacred spaces has felt like coming home. We don’t want to give that up again.

And yet, we were reminded during the first part of the pandemic that the church is not the building, the church is the people. As this virus continues, we may have seasons of separation from our buildings and our ability to physically gather. That is a big challenge to the good and faithful work we are called to. AND we know that it’s not the building that is essential, it is the relationships. Space is important. Gathering truly matters. We are incarnate, embodied beings. And yet, in seasons when it is safer to be physically-distanced, all is not lost. We can continue to grow in our relationships with God, others, and creation because the church is not the building, the church is us.

A Settled Body Settles Other Bodies
Anxiety is contagious. Over the last year, I’ve realized that another person’s anxiety can impact my own even over a video or phone call. Their unsettled body makes mine feel unsettled too. But the opposite is also true: being in the presence of a very calm, non-anxious person, even over the phone, allows me to be more settled. As we continue to live in a season of great uncertainty, one of the greatest gifts we can give the people we care about is taking care of our own bodies so that we can show up in ways that settle rather than unsettle. As leaders, some of our most important work is doing the body-care needed to be grounded. A settled body settles other bodies. This is a huge gift in our pastoral interactions, our meetings, our preaching, and our teaching. There is so much we cannot control, but all of us can practice settling our bodies through meditation, singing, movement, spiritual direction, etc. What are you already doing to settle your body? What else could you do to maintain a settled body?

For more on this topic, I recommend My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem.

Photo by  VALERIA JARAMILLO  on  Scopio.

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