I grew up, as many of you did, in a family that went to church every time the doors were open. We were three-times-a-week church-goers, and the only excuse for missing church that my folks would countenance was a clearly verifiable illness. An oft quoted verse I heard was Hebrews 10:24-25, which urges believers not to neglect meeting together but instead to encourage one other to love and good deeds.
That commitment to active involvement in a worshipping community has stayed with me all my life, and no longer stems from legalism or fear. These days, I understand the intrinsic value of worshipping someone greater than myself, of being encouraged by my brothers and sisters, of singing together to the Lord, of remembering the heart of our faith through the Lord’s Supper, of praying through our shared praises and burdens, of calling each other higher as we speak the truth in love. Though your journey may not be identical to mine, my sense is that you also greatly value worshipping together.
Consequently, the global COVID-19 pandemic, with its ever increasing social distancing protocols, presents an unprecedented challenge to us. Never before in my lifetime have I seen a medical issue prevent believers from gathering in one place for worship. Yet COVID-19 is real, serious, and its spread can be greatly reduced if we work together and practice sound medical advice. The basics we have all learned by now: “Wash your hands frequently, avoid touching your face, be friendly but don’t shake hands, keep away from sick people, and stay home when you are sick.”
But the addition of social distancing protocols requires additional practices, such as avoiding crowds, and even closures of schools and workplaces, which is the stage we have reached at present. To maximize the benefits of social distancing, we may need to overcome something called presenteeism, a word I learned recently from a friend who works in Human Resources. Presenteeism is the opposite of its better known cousin, absenteeism, and describes when employees come to work when they shouldn’t, such as when they’re sick and contagious.
During a pandemic, presenteeism, that noble desire to be at work, go to church, and show up for your social commitments, works against the common good. And as counterintuitive as it sounds, “loving our neighbor” during this pandemic must for a season include not gathering as a group in one physical location for worship. The longterm health of our world, especially those who are older or who have compromised immune systems, depends on it. I’m thankful, in ways I did not fully appreciate even a month ago, for technological ways in which we can continue to keep in touch, care for one another, and even gather for shared worship experiences. May we embrace the challenges of this season with flexibility and resilience, wisdom and hope.