There is an interesting conversation going on over on Twitter (not that you should go there, I would never advocate it) about whether or not pastors should apologize for the way they handled covid. That video of the Pfizer person saying the vaccine went to market without testing to discover if it would stop transmission seems to be causing a stir, though I read one thread this morning about how everyone is misunderstanding the Pfizer person. As usual, I don’t really know who to believe, which is kind of the point. Trying to figure out what to do practically, over the last two years, has been, how shall I put it? Stressful.
The stress—witness the various dustups on Twitter—is ongoing. For example, I am still reflexively mentioning covid to the surprising number of new people who have recently come to our church when trying to explain how things work and why things are “the way they are.” “It was like this before,” I say, “but since covid….” And then I fill in a whole range of details. Oh, we’re still trying to get that ministry up and running. Or, oh, that thing, that’s probably never coming back. The enormous impactfulness of covid on our local congregation cannot be underestimated, and then extrapolate that over the rest of the world—of course it’s going to take years to come to grips with what has happened. “I get it,” said one clever person to me recently, “the church is suffering from long covid.” “That’s it!” I exclaimed, “exactly.” So anyway, here are five things about covid in our local congregation—how we handled it, and how it’s still playing out.
We decided that masks and vaccines fell under the banner of adiaphora and decided to respect everyone’s decisions and decision-making processes. In order to do this, we formed a committee with all the most diverse and strongly held opinions participating and no one was allowed to shame anyone else.
Adiaphora just means the subject under discussion is “nonessential,” that, in this particular case, it is absolutely ok to agree to disagree. So, according to St. Paul, the eating of meat sacrificed to idols is something that the individual conscience may direct, and should not mean that Christians must divide from each other. The other big one is infant baptism. Faithful Christians can disagree. Baptism itself? Essential. The ages of people? Nonessential. Water? Essential. How much water? Nonessential.
As we all know, there are a lot of issues that people try to make into adiaphora—cough human sexuality and identity cough—that don’t qualify. Indeed, it is the property of being human to always make things essential that are nonessential, and make things that are nonessential essential. Else how would we keep ourselves from being bored, I guess.
Anyway, it seemed clear, at least to us, that as people would feel strongly both ways, to mask or not to mask, and as the scriptures did not speak on the issue, and it did not pertain to moral issues, we would do our absolute best to let people follow their own consciences. Both sides, at least in our case, were trying, in good faith, to reason through the scriptures. Everyone needed space and time to do it and we tried very hard not to short-circuit or disrupt that effort.
This, as you can imagine because every church had to deal with it, posed logistical problems. There had to be places where only masked people could go, and other places where people could be unmasked. We had a big building, by God’s singular and extravagant grace, but even so, it took ingenuity, and talking up the goodness of people on both sides to those on other sides. Amazingly, people changed their minds–in both directions–as the months went by. Imagine that.
The main point, though, is that as a church we survived. God taught us about himself. We learned to trust him. Isn’t that what’s called for? We kept showing up. We kept meeting when we could. We got to be good at zoom. It’s just what we did.
Two years on, we still haven’t recovered everything. Our soup kitchen numbers are still way down. But our Sunday school has grown suddenly and that’s its own set of difficulties. We still don’t have prayer on the side after communion, but we have recovered our epic food competitions. The vestry is hard-pressed to abandon zoom, but we have people traveling upwards of an hour to attend worship in person. It’s a jumble, really, and still very stressful.
I think that’s really the biggest thing—it was an incredibly stressful task to keep people going in the same direction, to call them constantly to love and forgive each other when the loudest voices outside were recommending just the opposite. It meant explaining to people the emotional reasoning of the other side. It meant trying to get people to let other people off the hook. It meant being unwilling to demonize anyone for any decision they happened to make. For me, I think growing up in another place–and feeling like an alien everywhere–helped me abundantly. You can’t move to another country and be repulsed by what the people who always live there are doing and then ask them why they are so awful. Or rather, you can, but it shows you to be a really bad person. What you can do is ask questions. Why do you think that? Why are you doing that? And all the questions lead you to the underlying motivations that generally show some small spec of goodness deep down. You may ultimately still disagree at the end of the day, and be homesick, but you don’t have to have scorn for people who arrange their lives differently.
For me, I think that’s why the “love thy neighbor” rhetoric was so hard in such a time. No one was wanting to hate their neighbors. But there was an extraordinary amount of fear, of course. We didn’t know if we should disinfect all the groceries, and if it was going to be Ebola or something more like croup. And just because every politician is a liar doesn’t mean they don’t occasionally tell the truth. And that’s all before you pile up the loss of people. All our parishioners in nursing homes died in the era of covid—all of them, and all from isolation. We lost one person to covid, and that was too many. But in the midst of it, we didn’t have to accuse each other of not loving each other. We didn’t have to apply extra shame.
Shame is so very powerful, of course. And thus, it should be very judiciously employed. And look how God uses it. Whenever, in the bible, someone is being shamed, from the very first moment that shame first appears, God comes himself with clothes purchased in blood. Ultimately, when the narrative is at its most stressful, when the rulers and principalities are standing on their moral dignity, he surprises us all by giving himself to cover us in our shame and humiliation. We get it wrong. We make the wrong choices. We believe lies. We often refuse to believe the truth. And yet God is a very present help in times of trouble.
In the era of covid, I took to praying the Great Litany about three times a week. I’ve talked about it a lot because it deeply altered my posture towards not just the world, but the particular place I live, and the particular people I am called to love. And the thing about it that I found most helpful are the great number of prayers at the beginning about pride, hubris, heresy, and hardness of heart. I prayed it over and over and was, by the mercy of God, able to let go of both anger and grief.
Even as this seismic event takes its place in our collective memory, it is still not too late to learn these lessons. We can still begin to forgive. We can still learn to let the gospel take its rightful place in our lives and the church. We can still use zoom sometimes, even though in-person is so much better.