I’ve had a bit of a love-hate relationship with churches and organized religion for decades now.
Some of the absolute nastiest behaviors that I’ve witnessed in my lifetime have happened in church.
Holier than thou-ism.
I could tell you stories that would make your jaw drop. Odds are good you have stories of your own.
And yet, year after year, I have continued to (mostly) show up (although, admittedly, sometimes I miss more than I probably should). There is a need, deep in me, to not just worship God but worship God in the community of others.
There is a theory evolving in science that maybe some of us have the “god gene” – something in us that makes us more willing to believe than others. If the “god gene” is real, I am certain I have it, I feel a need for God that doesn’t quite make sense. I cannot prove God exists, but for me, He is mostly definitely there. Listening. Wanting me to join in community with him and his people. Wanting me to be that community for someone else.
Others would say that what I am describing is the “still, small voice” inside, convicting me when I stray too far from the teachings of and ways of the church – the holy spirit, they’d say. Maybe they are right, too.
A few years ago after moving with my family back to Mississippi, we got involved in a church that has felt special, somehow. I really, really like the people there (shocker, right?). They are smart, funny and often strikingly honest about where they are – and are not – in their own faith journeys. They work hard to live out their Christian faith and to love God and others. But they don’t pretend they don’t fall short – daily. Their transparency and lack of pretense is refreshing, and it makes me feel safer, somehow.
I’ve even quashed some of my extensive church trauma enough to be involved in some elements of church leadership – something I swore off years ago.
Our church – like yours, I am sure, if you happen to have one – has had to make some dramatic shifts as COVID-19 has required us to engage in social distancing.
Our services are now online (my church attendance is looking better than it has in AGES!). We also are having to find new ways to really reach out and hear each other, attending to needs.
We have a phone tree, where a little team of us reaches out to people. We ask simple things. “How are you doing?” “What do you need?” “Are you and your family ok?” “Do you have food? Medicine?” “How can we pray for you?” This feels, to me, like the absolute purest thing that we can do in these times.
I was a little nervous when I made my first calls. I thought people might be annoyed at the interruption. But, because we are social distancing, people seemed to really welcome the call.
I heard the people a couple of generations ahead of me reflect on their fears and their faith, and discuss the idea they haven’t seen much anything this in their lifetimes. I have heard people talk about what it’s like to have college students at home, or to work in healthcare on the front lines, or to worry about adult children a few states away.
I’ve done similar things for my neighbors. Many of them don’t actually go to my church, but because church is virtual, the walls between church and community are more blurred than ever. I try to show up for my them, too. I think God likes that.
Today, I decided that I also will start sending out notes to people, using the cutesy cards I have been buying and hoarding for years for no clear reason. If the letters are received like the phone calls, they will be a success. And I will get more from sending them than the recipients will.
These experiences are making me recall my childhood church – a small Southern Baptist church in the county, near where we lived. The church was too small to have the sorts of youth or children’s programs that are popular today. But man, I knew those 90 or so regular attenders loved me – even when I was a messy haired, ragtag middle schooler who frowned too much, was incessantly negative, and made way too much noise whispering to my friends during the service.
They showed me they loved me by talking to me each Sunday. They asked the questions I am asking on the phone tree now. How are you? What do you need? How can we pray for you? Are you eating your vegetables?
They showed up, sending vegetable beef soup to the house when my mom was sick for long stretches of time. They remembered my birthdays and cut out the newspaper articles I wrote to give to me. They asked about my grandmother when she had surgery, even though she lived an hour away. They were a financial safety net my family never quite needed, thankfully, but it was comforting just the same. They were, truly, family.
And my immediate family returned the favor. We asked about others. My mom was part of a little phone tree herself, making calls on Sunday afternoons. She made a point of contacting anyone who was missing from church that day. And every Sunday afternoon, we would “go visiting” – my mom and I. We had no agenda. We didn’t necessarily tell people we were showing up – we just did. We went where we felt most lead. People were almost always there and happy to visit. We listened. We cared. And then the next Sunday, we did it all over again.
In the days of COVID-19, I find myself longing for those visits again. I suppose it’s because it feels like we have returned to a quieter place – a timespan when people have time to talk on the phone, where if we drive by their houses, we know they will likely be home. Things feel fragile, too. There is a hyper-awareness that we need each other – even while we can’t see people face to face. We are supposed to stay separated when we need others the most.
So in the era of COVID-19, I guess I am feeling a need to return to the old ways right now – to that old time religion. Whether it’s in my heart, my genes or the holy spirit, it’s there. I will keep trying to figure out what it means and what it should look like.