Last week I had a chance to do what many of us are doing as we stay at home riding out the pandemic storm. I watched one of my favorite movies on DVD. I wasn’t able to watch this film in one sitting, so I just pressed pause and left it for another time. I made some more progress the next day but still couldn’t finish watching, so I hit the pause button again. This time, it didn’t work. When I came back on the third day, my DVD player refused to resume where I’d left off. I had to go back to the start and select a scene near where I’d stopped so I could finish the show, then work my way back to where I’d left off.
Life for a lot of us feels like we’ve hit the pause button on a DVD player. We’re stuck in a holding pattern—a well-reasoned and necessary holding pattern—to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 Coronavirus. Most of us are at home and only go out to buy necessities at the store. A few are working in essential businesses (thank you for what you are doing)! We’ve closed the church building and moved online for the duration. I know it’s not the same as meeting each other in person, but we have learned how to worship God and maintain our connections as a faith community through the internet.
I don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like when this over and, let me say, you can be assured it will be over. The pandemic will end someday. Everything I read and hear suggests the “stay at home” orders we are under right now will come off slowly. Getting back to work and travel and church will look less like my successful use of the pause button, where I just press a button and resume playing, and more like the second pause, where I had to search for the nearest scene and put up with some overlap before I could move ahead. I suspect that will be the case with every aspect of our lives. We’ll have some work to do before we get back to something resembling our patterns of living before the pandemic struck.
For now, we remain on pause.
On April 26, I preached on the Emmaus Road story in the Gospel of Luke. As two of Jesus’ disciples were making their way to Emmaus, a stranger joined them on the road. We, the readers, were told it was Jesus, but the disciples did not recognize him. When Jesus asked them what they were talking about, they stopped in their tracks and with sad looks on their faces, they recounted for him the terrible and strange things surrounding the crucifixion of their Teacher, Master, and Friend that took place just a few days before.
This pause in the middle of the story is strategically placed to allow those disciples to paint a picture of the sad reality they were living. Jesus was dead. This they knew. People do not come back from the dead. Despite what the women who went to the tomb that morning told them, those disciples believed the story of Jesus had come to an end. “We had hoped,” they said to the incognito Jesus, “that he was the one to redeem Israel…” (Luke 24:21). “We had hoped.” Three of the saddest words in all scripture.
Unbeknownst to those disciples, God had already changed the script. Jesus challenged their hope-lost narrative of defeat, explaining to them as they resumed their journey how scripture showed the Messiah of God had to suffer in order to redeem. By the time they reached Emmaus and sat down to dinner, they were ready for the big reveal. Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to the disciples. Immediately, their eyes were opened. The stranger at their table was Jesus, who vanished from sight. Astonished and elated all at once, they could do nothing else but rejoice, and they raced back to Jerusalem with the news—Jesus is alive!
The Coronavirus has forced a pause in the middle of our stories. “We had hoped…” for a lot of things this year: consistent work, trips to the shore, graduations, family reunions. All of these have had to be put off for another day. We lament the loss of what had hoped would be this year.
But there is good news. In the middle of our lament, God is working to bring forth something new. What this means for the church is new ways to connect with people.
- Since the start of our online worship, we are reaching some people now who we were not able to reach before this. We don’t want to cut off these folks once the restrictions are lifted, so we are now planning to maintain online worship after in-person worship services resume. In-house worship will be limited for a time as we strive to maintain safe social distances. We may only be able to accommodate 20-30 people to begin with. So, online worship is here to stay.
The pause in our lives is also an opportunity for us as people of faith, and as a civilization, to work toward some positive changes in our world. I’m not the first to make some of these observations, but they point a couple of areas where faith and justice intersect, calling for change:
- The highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths have been among lower income groups and minorities. They were more susceptible because of poor socio-economic conditions that forced unhealthy lifestyles on them. The virus, it turns out, is not a great leveler, affecting everyone equally—it is affecting poor and Black people disproportionately. Can we do better? Can we make a way for better living conditions and better health for our lowest paid workers?
- Earth’s environment is getting a breather due to less human activity. Cleaner water is flowing allowing fish and wildlife to return in places they weren’t seen for years. Air pollution is down 25-30 percent in some places. Climate change threatens to alter the lives of many living species, including our own. Here is clear evidence changes in human behavior can positively influence our environment. Can we do better? Can we begin serious work toward a carbon-free future, a future that will improve living conditions for all God’s creatures?
- More animals are being adopted at animal shelters across the nation. This is a good news story. People are discovering the joy of having some furry companions during our extended stays at home. I only hope they don’t start returning them to the shelters as we go back to work.
My prayer is that all of us will use this pause in our lives to reflect on how God is calling us to live out our discipleship in this extraordinary time. What are the places in our lives that need to change? Where are the places in our world that need change? Can we change ourselves and our world? Yes, with God’s help, through the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Let me close with a prayer, one that I’ve used before. It comes from Richard of Chichester, a bishop of the Anglican Church who lived in the 1200s AD. He is probably best known for penning these words that were popularized by a musical, “Godspell,” in the last century. The prayer goes like this:
Day by day, dear Lord, of thee three things I pray: to see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, follow thee more nearly, day by day.
Lord, may we use this pause wisely and grow closer to you in these days.