It’s been nearly a year now since we have all to varying degrees been dealing with life in the midst of a pandemic. We have heard (and still hear) the staggering numbers of those contracting the disease, those who do not recover, and on and on it goes. Then we hear reports about treatments and new vaccines with conflicting information from sources that can be easy to question. We all get that now, but there is another area that is just starting to be recognized by some in the medical field about the great cost of this pandemic beyond those numbers we hear on our nightly newscasts. We are beginning to hear what the prevention model we have used is costing in so many ways.
Never before in recent history have so many learned what losing a sense of community with one another means. Few considered the cost on the lives of those whose lives they have tried to save through restrictions causing isolation. But a recent newscast featuring an interview with three heads of medical facilities in a major city are pointing to that very thing and the long-term impact of isolation on all of us whether we immediately recognize it or not.
No matter what age or personality type we may be, we were made for relationship and community. Yes, relationships and community are messy, but the absence of it has negative consequences in our lives as well that affect us physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.
Whatever our faith background we have missed the freedom of participating in it to varying degrees over the past year. Every other crisis that has occurred and impacted a large part of the population has meant those places where we practice our faith is where we have all flocked for courage, support, hope, prayer, and a sense of not facing those things alone.
If the weather was good some could gather outdoors, but in many places that was not possible due to weather or wasn’t permitted for various reasons. That meant we started trying to adapt to virtual times for our faith expression and what did we discover?
Most of us discovered that virtual technology was better than nothing, but never the same as joining together in person.
As some of us are not able to return to physical places of expression of our faith, have we learned to appreciate what was so easy to critique before all this?
We tend to idealize our places of faith and have high expectations of what it will be like there. In doing so we can forget some key things and perhaps now we can grow from learning them when and as we are able to return.
“Much anger towards the church and most disappointments in the church are because of failed expectations. We expect a disciplined army of committed men and women who courageously lay siege to the worldly powers; instead we find some people who are more concerned with getting rid of crabgrass in their lawns. We expect a community where saints who are mature in the virtues of love and mercy, and find ourselves working on a church supper where there is more gossip than there are casseroles. We expect to meet minds that are informed and shaped by the great truths and rhythms of scripture, and find persons whose intellectual energy is barely sufficient to get them to the comics or sports page. At such times it is more important to examine and change our expectations than to change the church, for the church is not what we organize but what God gives, not the people we want to be with but the people God gives us to be with – a community created by the descent of the Holy Spirit in which we submit ourselves to the Spirit’s affirmation, reformation, and motivation. There must be no idealization of the church. And lamentation ought to be restrained. Eulogy and anguish are alike misplaced. Churches are not little Jerusalems, either old or new.”Eugene Peterson in Reversed Thunder
Peterson’s words from his powerful book on The Revelation of John & the Praying Imagination is challenging like all of Peterson’s books, but challenge is often what we most need to grow and see things from a more complete lens.
Peterson reminds the reader that those churches John was pastoring that appear in the early chapters of Revelation were groups that met at specific places in various societies, but the admonitions to them and the failings noted can be applied to churches today as instructive because the very challenges of being in community with imperfect people and pastors is still true today. He gives us a startling reminder in the quote that follows:
“The churches of the Revelation show us that churches are not Victorian parlors where everything is always picked up and ready for guests. They are messy family rooms. Entering a person’s house unexpectedly, we are sometimes met with a barrage of apologies. St. John does not apologize. Things are out of order, to be sure, but that is what happens to churches that are lived in. They are not show rooms. They are living rooms, and if the persons living in there are sinners, there are going to be clothes scattered about, handprints on the woodwork, and mud on the carpet.”Eugene Peterson in Reversed Thunder
We want to feel affirmed in our places of faith and that is one of the things they are to provide for us, but they are also to be places of correction so we can see the areas that cause us to stumble and grow and mature. Through that both/and we can embrace the hope of the message of scripture despite being in a messy living room we call church.
We forget ourselves and our own condition when we expect our churches to be more like museums than living rooms.
In this time of missing community, being together in these messy living rooms, let us not forget that the life of faith is not a sprint and all of us has a need for growth that includes both affirmation and correction. Only when both are present balancing grace and mercy with truth and holiness, will we be sustained now and in the future