“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34)
“A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy.” (Matthew 8:2-3)
Love means being with someone, touching their wounds and holding them in their pain. It means hospitality, sharing table, bread, and cup. It means laying on of hands and anointing the sick. It means washing feet and baptizing. It means sitting with the dying.
Except these days, love means NOT being with them. Love in the time of COVID means staying home alone, keeping our germs to ourselves.
It’s a different world. My church streams its service live on FaceBook every Sunday. Participants can sing along, but only to themselves because we can’t hear them. When we do Communion they serve themselves. No one tells them. “This is the Body of Christ, broken for you.” I talked to a pastor who baptized someone by phone. The pastor spoke the words, and the recipient poured water over his own head.
It’s a different world. Chaplains are forbidden to enter the rooms of COVID patients. If available, they use baby monitors to talk to them. But often, COVID patients die alone. There is no last Communion, no hand holding, no comfort.
Those of us who meet do so online. It’s better than nothing. Yet there’s something dehumanizing about it. No matter how much I try, no matter how well I can hear the person’s voice, at some level I’m always aware that I’m not looking at a person– I’m looking at a computer screen.
It’s hard to pray for someone (I mean really pray for someone) when I can’t feel their presence. I’m face blind, and I can’t read body language. When I’m with someone, I can somehow feel what’s going on with them. (I do this best with my eyes closed, which is why I often pray with my eyes closed.) I haven’t been able to do this digitally.
So what does love look like in the time of COVID? It looks like doing what we can. Being with someone on video is not as good as being with them in person, but it’s better than being alone. Prayer is never wasted, so a prayer that lacks intuition is still better than no prayer. And conversation, while many agree that it’s more work online than in person, remains an important form of human communication for encouragement and solidarity. Healing Refuge continues to meet three times weekly using Zoom. And I’m willing to talk to anyone, any time if they need it– by phone or Zoom.
Some say this is the future of the church, that things will never go back to the way they were. Maybe they shouldn’t go back to how they were, with once a week gatherings and little contact in between. But I pray they will go back to something better. When we can meet again in person, will we have become so used to communing from our couch that digital “community” continues? Or will we be craving human contact so that we make up lost time with hospitality, small groups, and visiting our neighbors?
I for one look forward to the end of this crisis. We may have learned to reach more people digitally, perhaps people who otherwise wouldn’t darken the door of a church. But I hope we also find ways to walk with them physically as well as virtually. Because Jesus didn’t heal the leper via Zoom or on FaceBook. The Sermon on the Mount wasn’t a live stream. And he didn’t post a meme condemning the merchants in the temple. He looked into people’s eyes and he touched them.
In this time of digital everything, let us never forget that there’s something powerful about physical contact. I didn’t used to understand that. When I went to Twelve Step meetings for the first time, everyone wanted to hug me. Even the guys! I hadn’t touched anyone for so long (aside from a handful of intoxicated sexual encounters) that it felt weird to be hugged. Now, I can’t imagine living without it.
But I do live without it. Love has changed–for now. We do what we can, but I wait for the day when I am overwhelmed with gratitude to be able to see someone face to face– because I remember when we couldn’t.