More than two months into the COVID-19 lockdown, we are all showing signs of strain. Nevertheless, I can attest to having learnt several lessons out of this unprecedented emergency.
First, we can be thankful that the pandemic occurred when it did rather than 20 or so years ago. Because we are all increasingly linked together via the world wide web and various social media, many of us are able to carry on with our lives and work. We can pay bills online, purchase items for delivery and converse with each other across vast distances. We can even worship God as our churches have moved to an online presence. As recently as the turn of the millennium we would not have been able to do this. To be sure, a lot of people have been laid off from their jobs, necessitating government intervention to tide them over until the worst is past. But many types of business are flourishing as they move to service the public in new and creative ways.
Second, I would not be surprised to see the pandemic bring permanent changes in how we live. Will more people be working at a distance from their places of employment? Will online teaching become a way of life for many educational institutions? So many functions have been consolidated into our tablets and phones that meeting with colleagues, students, buyers and sellers is much simpler than it was even five to 10 years ago. Recording a lecture to post online no longer requires specialized skills, aside from adequate preparation and a clear speaking voice. A trend already underway as the last decade was ending may now be more firmly established in a variety of settings.
Third, the ways we greet each other may undergo a profound change. Shaking hands may be replaced by a wave or a bow. Even before the quarantine, I had begun to pass the peace in church by making the sign of the cross to my fellow parishioners. I must admit that I am not enthusiastic about contactless greeting catching on for the long term. With my paternal Mediterranean roots, I am accustomed to embracing friends when I see them, and I hate to think of giving that up altogether. We are not Platonic souls relating to each other mind-to-mind only. Physical signs of affection are part of our makeup.
This brings me to the fourth and final lesson. Online church is not enough. It is a pale substitute for the real thing. Even though our own congregation – which has been preaching the gospel for more than 180 years – has figured out ways to make the liturgy interactive through its YouTube channel, it cannot successfully recreate the experience of sitting amongst our fellow members and adherents, joining our voices in singing God’s praises and celebrating our salvation in Jesus Christ. The church’s sacramental presence cannot be communicated online.
To be sure, I will not join my voices with those Christians who would flout the imposed quarantine ostensibly to defend their religious liberty. At the same time, I think I speak for virtually everyone in saying that I miss my fellow believers. We are called to care for each other in ways that draw us together bodily. The church’s sacraments cannot be easily relegated to cyberspace. The Reformed tradition historically frowns on private baptisms, and the Lord’s Supper is indeed a shared meal. For now we are compelled to remain apart, but we look forward once more to gathering physically to celebrate our unity in Christ. May God hasten the day.