Last Friday afternoon – Good Friday – I talked with three pastor colleagues, all of whom had “finished” their work for the weekend. They had concluded recordings of their Good Friday and Easter services. Now, they were contemplating what was usually the most stressful weekend of the year, suddenly recast as a weekend of family leisure.
As I am writing this piece on Monday – the day after Easter – I have already received two emails inviting me to register for upcoming conferences, one in June and one in September. I’m sure these pitches were written and scheduled weeks ago, when everyone figured that the time to send them was the day after Easter, when things would be getting “back to normal.”
Of course this Easter was anything but normal. Every congregation focused so diligently to get its online (or drive-in) worship together, in addition to the ongoing work of connecting with those who are most vulnerable. You could almost hear the collective sigh of exhaustion Sunday afternoon. It felt like a mountain had been climbed and everyone was in need of a break to catch their breath.
Breaks and rest are important. But now it’s time to be on the move. There are much taller mountains to climb.
It’s time to be on the move, first of all, because that is what the gospels tells us about the time right after Easter. “Jesus is not here; he has gone on ahead of you.” The first Easter is both an account of where Jesus is not – the empty tomb – and the announcement of where he is – already ahead of us, at work in Galilee. The church has been running to catch up to Jesus ever since, never more than in this urgent moment.
As we run to catch up with Jesus, here are a few things you may join me in wondering about:
How much of what we are experiencing as temporary may be more permanent? Many are already asking “will people come back” after this time of enforced distancing. Perhaps a better question is: what will make people want to gather together again? I have several email subscriptions – from my college, from news sites, from a daily poetry service and the like. Occasionally, one of them just stops coming. Often, it is months before I realize it has stopped. I liked it. I signed up for it. I read it every time it came. But I didn’t notice its absence in any critical way. Church is more than an email subscription, of course, but what will we miss and what will compel us to return our attention?
If, as we are hearing, there will be episodic stretches of time when we will need to resume distancing, how will that new rhythm change the choices we make about how to spend the “out and about” times? I had a dozen trips planned, for my job, from March through June. Whenever we re-open (however that looks), I’ve already concluded that only three of those are absolutely necessary, given everything else there is to balance and attend to in this new reality. Each “no” is a hard choice, but my filter is different now. Are we ready for the different filters (of priority, energy, safety, and attention) that people will necessarily apply to every part of their lives?
Finally, to return I’ve sounded over the last few weeks, I’m still wondering about how congregations reintroduce themselves – and Jesus – to their community. Like the email today inviting me to a conference months hence (which, by the way, already has not passed my new filter), business as usual is not going to cut it. There are so many ways that I am seeing our culture’s renewed longing for care, connection, and community. At our best, the church of Jesus Christ is formed around care, community, and the joy of connecting to God and one another. If our word of re-introduction is, “welcome, come in, our sign-up sheets are right over here so you can help us keep our stuff going,” folks will pass right on by. However, if it is instead, “we want to meet you in your need, be introduced to your questions and struggles, we have the depth and hope of the gospel to share,” then the world’s need and our vocation may meet one another anew.
God loves the world more than God loves the church (and, God loves the church plenty – the church was God’s idea). God loves the world more than the church. In all the ways we speak and act in these crucial weeks ahead, we will show if we truly believe that. If we do, we may gather a renewed community, as we all run to catch up with the Risen Christ, who is already ahead of us.