Nothing can make up for the loss — back to worship in a pandemic
When we all went into lockdown in mid-March, I had a pretty naïve idea of what was before us. I hadn’t been reading the dire predictions of economists who had been sounding the alarms for years that a global pandemic was on the horizon; nor had I read any of the science fiction that unnervingly imagined the potential consequences of exactly this sort of raging virus. Epidemiologists were not yet our daily oracle on how to structure our society and what case counts might tell us about what trajectory of infection and death we are on. I thought the kids would be out of school for three weeks, and that something similar might lie ahead for our churches. I thought that if we all stayed home for a modest stretch of time, the illness would have nowhere to go but away.
Even a few weeks seemed like a long time to be away from the worship, celebration, prayer, lament, song and fellowship that is the life of the church. And so as each special occasion that we had planned as a community, each feast day, came and went or had to be postponed, we started saying this to one another: “it will be so good when we can be back together again!” I had a very specific picture in my head of what “back together” would look like: the church filled, our favourite hymns sung, stories and hugs exchanged gladly and freely. I was sure we would dig in to a classic “Soup Sunday” — St. George’s favourite soup and homemade-bread reception — after the service. We would definitely eat cake.
If I had instead imagined the actual circumstances of September 13th, our church’s re-opening for in-person worship, I might have had a harder time getting through those initial weeks. Nowhere on my horizon did I imagine online registrations, carefully controlled seating arrangements, radically diminished and scattered numbers, not to mention such rigidly choreographed patterns of movement that a measuring tape would be our best friend for figuring out how to invite people to come up for Communion. I had no idea in those early days that the pandemic would still be raging, that so many of our people — for so many good reasons — would choose to remain at home. I couldn’t have conceived of all of the barriers — masks, physical distance, traffic flow, clean-up crews — that would mean that being able to even smile at my parishioners, let alone reach out and embrace them or even talk to them, would be made almost impossible.
I didn’t calculate the cumulative cost of death either. Two weeks before reopening, one of the saints of our church, the feisty force of nature that was Dorothy Dundas, died after a brief non-COVID illness. She was one of what now feels like a staggering numbers of beloved parishioners who died before we could be back together again. Each of these deaths hits our community hard. And each one was desperately hard to process without all of the usual rituals upon which we depend. We couldn’t visit our dear ones as they died; we couldn’t hold their family in our arms; in most cases we could only gather in the smallest of numbers to honour and celebrate, and many families chose to wait on any gathering at all.
At Dorothy’s funeral, just two days before re-opening, I shared this quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer in order to name the reality of the Dorothy-shaped hole now part of our community:
Nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love; we must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; God doesn’t fill it, but on the contrary, keeps it empty and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain.
In sharing it, I knew immediately that it spoke beyond that one specific grief and into that broader sense of grief and loss that our community would bear in coming back to our church’s gathering. Everything about this first in-person Sunday’s tightly managed and precisely choreographed plan seemed to scream to us of all that we had lost, all of the gaps that can’t be filled, and all of the gaps that—for our own safety—mustn’t be filled.
I had heard reports from other churches that had opened earlier than ours, that numbers diminished at their services as the weeks went by. Initial keenness waned, as the regulations and risks all felt too prohibitive. It was more fulfilling to continue to worship from home. I wouldn’t blame anyone in our congregation if what they experienced most of all in our gathering was such a consuming sense of what had been taken away, that it might be impossible to receive any of the joy that is supposed to come in our being together.
And yet, what Bonhoeffer is actually offering in these words is hope. Consolation. He is not rose-tinting anything or sweeping the reality of grief under any carpets. He is saying that in being honest about what we have actually lost, there is a grace. There is something that God makes possible in the honest-to-goodness gaps of our lives.
Interestingly, our Sunday readings for a few weeks right now have been offering us some practical advice about the ins and outs of being church. Jesus is acutely aware that the community he is beginning to call into existence is going to be full of people. That might sound obvious, but it’s amazing how often both those inside and outside the church lament the fact that the church couldn’t eliminate a few more of our human imperfections upon entry. It really never fails to be an enormous disappointment when it becomes clear that church people are just as much a mess as everyone else. This mess doesn’t seem to surprise Jesus in any way; he is under no illusions about exactly the nature of this community he has chosen to be the vehicle of how his life will continue into the world. And so we have been hearing in our Gospel passages over the past couple of weeks, some very concrete advice about how to navigate really challenging things like forgiveness and conflict with one another across the relationships that make up our faith community.
There’s a metaphor in Jesus’ words for the time we’re in right now. And there’s also a metaphor about protocols in a pandemic for the basic reality of negotiating these human lives. When Jesus uses the symbolic number seventy-seven to name how many times we are to keep coming back to one another in forgiveness, what I hear is exactly that “cost of pain” that Bonhoeffer names. Along all of the fractures of our human relationships, including pandemic-related ones, we need to keep hearing that God-given call to figure out how to love and serve one another. And also, figuring out how to love and serve one another in a pandemic, so that we lift our voices in prayer together and communicate our care for one another without also communicating a microscopic virus, offers a powerful image for just how challenging it can be to negotiate all of the ways that we get it wrong with one another, just how much patience and charity is actually needed in our interactions together. The pandemic makes visible how broken we really are.
The thing about the seventy-seven times that Jesus invites us to seek forgiveness one to another, is that it’s a number that speaks to God’s activity through and through. Seven is the number of fulfillment and wholeness. It’s God’s number. It’s the bringing together of heaven and earth, the overcoming of each and every divide. It’s the number of our redemption, and it’s only possible through God. That’s why we don’t have to just “get over” our grief, we don’t have to minimize our losses, we don’t have to pretend away the glaring gaps of who and what is no longer with us. Jesus is the in-the-flesh revelation of the God who doesn’t shy away from the heartbroken mess that is our lives. In fact, Jesus is committed to working in and through that mess as God’s chosen vehicle for how love will be made known. It is in God’s commitment to being at work through the mess, that is also: how our mess gets redeemed; how beauty and goodness and forgiveness and healing do get revealed in and through us; how a Communion does get established between us that even death can’t break.
My goodness, it was complicated to be together this weekend. And the glaring losses were, to be honest, the first thing that was obvious to me in our gathering.
And yet, as we leaned into the weirdness with one another, as we smiled with our eyes because our masks covered our mouths, as we negotiated our movements around one another with exceptional care, as we experimented with what it felt like to hear just one person lift our songs of praise for all of us, as we sanitized and sanitized and sanitized again, as we didn’t touch because that’s how we reach out right now, and as we still were so very aware of how much we actually need the Holy Spirit to bring us together, exactly what Bonhoeffer named was revealed to us too. That there is a Communion with one another being offered and even strengthened, particularly as we give up any pretense that any of it is easy, or that any of it is possible without God.
The amazing thing about being in a church’s sanctuary (and I’m convinced the fundamental reason why we are so attached to our buildings) is because that sacred space can make alive this Communion in a way that is rarely so powerfully possible anywhere else. Dorothy, and all of the others that we have lost over the past six months, they were with us as we so stiffly and uncertainly figured out how to gather again. Their faithfulness, prayer and service left a mark on our community, and they left a mark on our space too. That spiritual energy does soak into the fabric of our bricks and mortar in a way that is easy to feel and hard to explain.
When that first favourite hymn of the morning was offered, I could just about hear those dear voices joining in the chorus of heaven.
I am certain they were singing a little more loudly to make up for the fact that the rest of us couldn’t sing.