One of the reactions I’ve had to the Coronavirus crisis that surprised me as I have been reconstructing the dailiness of my existence was a desire to go back to church. Ironically, the impetus arrived just about the same time as all churches and other religious — and entertainment and athletic and educational and cultural — venues were shut down.
Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been surprised by my impulse; church was where I wanted to be the evening of 9/11; and after my mother died; and when disease was ravaging my friend. I craved the solace of ritual, the comfort of community, the reassurance that I was not alone with my grief. I bathed in the silence, the liturgy, and the music, in the ineffable sense that it was OK not to be in control, and an almost-innate belief that there was a God who (or which) was fundamentally good, and that we were a loving people.
I miss that church, the one I used to go to. I miss it in the same way you miss an old friend, one you used to hang out with when you had, say, young children in common, but from whom you drifted apart when there seemed to be less to share.
Long before this coronavirus pandemic struck, I had stopped attending church regularly as we didn’t seem to have much in common anymore either. I continued to pledge financial support, to engage my women’s study group, and even to join a new church bridge group. I enjoyed my church friends. But I stopped shopping there for the spiritual nourishment I needed because they didn’t seem to have it in stock anymore.
I was seeking guidance in an era rife with discord and injustice, I wanted to know: How are we supposed to live in accordance with our faith in this world? I trusted my church to show me a “way” that good and loving people might act. That’s what I was seeking, and that’s what I couldn’t find anymore.
Nevertheless, I occasionally returned to church again in despair these last three years hoping that, well, maybe this time, this issue will prompt a meaningful, faith-full response. When a man who bragged about grabbing women by the pussy was elected President. When children were torn from their mother’s arms at the border and kept in cages. When white supremacists marched in Charlottesville with the President’s at first tacit and then explicit support. When citizens are mocked and dismissed for truth-telling. As ICE strikes terror in the lives of families who have known no other home but the US. As rancor and venom destroy civil discourse. After all, the Bible is full of such wretchedness and the Prophets and teachers do respond, even rail against it. But not my church.
Still, as I said, when the coronavirus hit home, once again my instinct was to go back to my church. It’s crazy, I know. I was seeking two things: (1) the solace of immutable truths in the face of overwhelming uncertainty; and (2) spiritual direction, i.e., how to be my best self in a pandemic, how to keep loving radically through my fear. Regrettably, I found neither.
I have to give my church credit, though: they made a very quick, very smooth transition to digital ministry, with high-quality production values in their live-streamed broadcasts. But the substance of the services fell so far short of the form, even when the Lessons seemed ready-made for our current catastrophe: (Ezekiel 37:1`-14) “Our bones are dry. Our hope is lost. We are cut off.” Really?!! A preacher couldn’t do something incredibly meaningful with that?!!! And then John’s Gospel (John 11:1-45) story of Lazarus (and Mary and Martha and Jesus) where “Jesus began to weep.” Yes, the story usually emphasizes how Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, but “Jesus began to weep,” is so powerfully real, so very important as we weep for a world being consumed by disease, for a nation we trusted to be prepared which was not, for people we cannot reach or touch or may never see again, for everything and anything that won’t ever be the same.
The sermon I heard promised me that God is with me and that, with God, we never really die, but live on in new life, like Lazarus, like Jesus. This was not helpful. I cannot believe God is with me just because I go to that church and confess that faith, and not with absolutely everyone else in this treacherous yet magnificent world, everyone of every other faith, or none at all. And when our collective fear of dying and/or losing loved ones is so very real and palpable, does simply retelling the story of rolling back the stone and calling Lazarus forth offer any comfort at all to those who mourn? I don’t think so. We who have lived five or six or seven decades know it doesn’t really work that way.
OK, I confess. The livestream got off on the wrong foot with me right at the very beginning, when, while the rector was welcoming people to the service and announcing Holy Week services, a text appeared onscreen. It read, “TO GIVE NOW, TEXT “give” to 855-XXX-XXXX.” It was so jarring, so prosperity gospel, televangelist-like, I checked to see if I’d switched channels or something. But no, that was his first message: Send money. Oh. My. God.
The world has run short on yeast before. Both literally and figuratively. As we have now. Throughout history people, and sometimes, even their institutions, have risen to the occasion. I do believe we will find a way forward together, a way to take care of each other. But I must seek it elsewhere.
Has your faith been more helpful? Please let us know.
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by Ann Sentilles
April 1st, 2020