I wasn’t permitted to attend church for three years while I lived in northwest China. Our city didn’t have a government-sanctioned church and my organization didn’t allow us to attend non-government (underground) churches. Instead, I met with one other American and we took turns planning the “services.” We’d stream sermons, read scripture, sing hymns, and listen to worship songs online. Our version of church looked much like many of the services I saw streamed last Sunday, but a bit more homegrown. Despite longing for corporate worship at the time, I now look back with nostalgia at the simplicity of those days. The sacred ritual of church was distilled down to its bare essentials.
The timing of this pandemic during Lent is eerily apropos. In The Circle of Seasons, Kimberlee Conway Ireton describes Lent as “a time to reckon with the reality of darkness and death.” Ireton writes that as she acknowledges her mortality, she has a “sense of sadness at the reality of having to let go of all I hold dear.” From our particular vantage point in history, she could be describing us hunkering down in our homes during a global pandemic, hiding from the darkness. She says that “from its earliest days, Lent has been a season of dying, of giving up, of clearing out, of emptying.” We have all given up something in this season of uncertainty; we are reminded of our mortality with every click of the mouse.
From its earliest days, Lent has been a season of dying, of giving up, of clearing out, of emptying.
One of the main spiritual disciplines observed during Lent is the practice of fasting. I once participated in a two-week wilderness excursion with other college freshmen that concluded with a “solo.” We camped alone a quarter mile apart along the shores of Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We set up tarps and bug nets and fasted for the entire day and night. I spent many chilled hours alternately dozing and gazing across the turbulent waters of the lake. My stomach rumbled as I fantasized about bacon and eggs, hamburgers and pasta. After two weeks of surviving in the woods without soap, fresh food, or toilet paper, I ached for a shower and a feast. I felt pressure to have an intense spiritual experience; instead, I discovered the power of hunger and the loneliness of isolation.
I burst into tears last week as I passed within two feet of another girl running outside on the path next to me. My sudden emotion took me by surprise, but as an extrovert, nine days without contact with any human other than my family finally started to affect me. During this pandemic, many of us are experiencing an involuntary fast from human contact as we practice social distancing. Human beings were created to touch, gather, and interact socially, just as our bodies were made for food. I wrote a book about this – Invited: The Power of Hospitality in an Age of Loneliness – and I have spent the past seven months since it came out urging people to creep closer together and invite others inside our houses and lives. But a book about hospitality and community feels ironic and irrelevant at a time like this. The world and the church are in a shadowed season of fasting from what we need and want in terms of interpersonal relationships. As author and speaker Andy Crouch tweeted on March 13, “Honestly hadn’t planned on giving up quite this much for Lent.”
In Celebration of Discipline, theologian Richard Foster writes that “more than any other discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us.” Perhaps this pandemic will act as a sieve to strain away the drivel and dross that usually distract us from what matters. Certainly, our Western idols of busyness and productivity are turning to dust. We can no longer numb with hustle. Just as fasting from food reveals our soul’s hungers, fasting from productivity exposes our unhealthy anesthetizing. The conferences, meetings, sports events, ceremonies, and vacations we had planned vaporized within a week. While it’s healthy to grieve these losses, we want to be careful not to flood the void with alternate idols.
Last night I read the story of Noah to my three children, aged three, five, and seven. In the story, eight adults were stuck in a small space for months. Noah sent out a raven to wander the world looking for signs that their isolation could end. The raven never returned, and Noah later sent out a dove. The first time, she returned after flying over the land. The second time, she brought him an olive branch. The third time, she didn’t return, indicating the waters had receded and the living could re-enter the new world. If only we had a dove to indicate when our waiting will end.
Church history tells of ascetic monks and nuns who intentionally sequestered themselves away from the world for prayer, meditation, and simple work. They found spiritual value in the discipline of social isolation. Although we usually pass over passages in the Bible about famine or lack, we can find a new sense of empathy as we read about Jonah trapped in the belly of a fish, Paul scribbling letters from a prison cell, the Israelites wandering in the desert, or Jesus fasting for forty days in the wilderness.
Author Tanya Marlow, who is isolated at home the majority of the time because of a chronic illness, said in a recent Facebook post, “I will rejoice when all this is over, but – dear churches – when that happens, remember how it felt to be isolated.” Perhaps we will emerge from this crisis with a greater sense of compassion for homebound friends who can never attend church services on Sunday mornings. Fasting and physical deprivation have the potential to awaken the privileged to God and others in the world.
As a raging river coursing down a mountain canyon wraps itself around a boulder, human beings are reorienting to seek new ways to connect with one another. My mom leads a Bible study fellowship group for sixty women in the mountains of Colorado, and she marveled to watch some eighty-year-old women interacting on Zoom calls for the first time last week. My small church, which has mostly been offline, is now learning to congregate in a Facebook group. And I’ve been in touch with more people over the last two weeks than I have in the past year. Life wants to be lived.
Perhaps God will awaken privileged members of the Western church not only to our sin and idols that shatter at first shake, but also to the wonder and gift of uncluttered time. In our small group Zoom call, most of us expressed some measure of relief at being released from duties and deadlines. Our employers have low expectations for our output, we don’t have to shuttle kids to school and activities, and we are praised for staying put and spending time with our families. Some of us are experiencing a new kind of Sabbath rest as the rigors of life have eased their grip on us.
But many people in the world are scrambling to pay bills, educate children at home, and stay afloat in the storm. People are losing jobs. Strangers and friends are suffering. In some places, hospitals are forced to choose who will receive treatment and who will be left to die. People working in grocery stores, pharmacies, and hospitals are not only exhausted, but are described as those on the “front lines” because they are at risk of contracting the virus themselves.
How can those who are able to stay at home with ease find ways to serve the vulnerable from a social distance? We no longer have the luxury of proximity. Since this illness is spread through contact, the best way to love others is to keep our distance. That said, we can still check in via text message, video calls, or email. We can donate to local charities and food banks. If we’re buying groceries, we can offer to do this for our elderly or immunocompromised friends and family. We can donate hospital supplies or order take-out for hospital staff. Need is demanding increased ingenuity and creativity as we love from a distance.
For grace to be grace, it must give us things we didn’t know we needed and take us to places where we didn’t want to go.
In Acedia and Me, Kathleen Norris writes, “For grace to be grace, it must give us things we didn’t know we needed and take us to places where we didn’t want to go.” None of us would have chosen this pandemic. But after the carving away, stripping down, isolating, and daily reminders of our mortality, how much more will we revel in the physical comfort of a hug from a friend? Ireton calls Lent “a season of darkness,” but the next chapter is titled “Easter: A Season of Hope.” In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes that “after a time of quiet we meet others in a different and fresh way.” Think of the parties we’ll throw! Imagine the feasts we’ll celebrate when we creep out from our tombs and revel in the gift of togetherness again!
When I returned to the United States after years of not experiencing corporate worship in China, I worshiped with a crowd again in my Chicago church. I stretched up my arms as we sang, tears pouring down my face. My social isolation had increased my gratitude for the communal worship I had once taken for granted. Perhaps the church will discover fresh ways to exhibit love to a frightened world – and unearth some startling mercies during this horrific and holy season of uncertainty.