"Any idiot can find God on a mountaintop--the real challenge is finding God in the company of others as annoying as me." -Lillian Daniel
I just came back from a three mile walk in the June countryside of Vermont. Little theophanies were everywhere: a barrage of all shades of sun-spackled green, fragrance wafting from fields of wildflowers, crickets chirping their morning song. I didn’t see any people at all, only signs of their virtue: hybrid cars parked in driveways, signs proclaiming that “black lives matter,” and swings hung from trees for children.
God is easy to find without people mucking up the landscape.
As I walked, I thought about how it was far too easy to shut down the church I serve one day in March; to empty out the human bodies and seal it like a tomb. The church leaders and I sat in the windowless basement chapel, six feet apart on plastic chairs we didn’t normally use, having sprayed them with Lysol. The fabric chairs (we’d put them in storage) could be riddled, we thought, with the COVID 19 virus. We could be, too.
We looked at the evidence and closed our church building, “effective immediately.”
Effective immediately: no more in-person meetings like this one.
Effective immediately: no more hugs to remedy the epidemic of skin hunger. Effective immediately: no more open-mouthed belting of old time-y hymns to drown out the hissing organ cipher.
Effectively immediately: no more potlucks of foods and people that never would have found their way to the same plastic tables without a matchmaker God.
I cried, a little embarrassed at my attachment to the old forms. This will be fine as long as we are back in the church by Holy Week, I said.
One of my church’s lay leaders --an unflappable, 30-something high school history teacher, mama of three young boys--looked stricken at our decision.
Jesus ran to the sick, she whispered to me.
We had done the right thing, it seemed, but there was nothing right about it.
We had (blessedly, faithfully) learned, during the cold Civil War our country and community were fighting, that it was harder to hate people up close. Now we were being sent home to our bubbles and bunkers to rage at screens with their mocking blue light. We were sent home, where our only experience of each other would be the carefully filtered lives we were willing to put on Instagram. We would see each other only from behind masks, distanced six feet apart in grocery stores and doctor’s offices.
My church is a purple congregation in a red town in a blue state where Trump won the election in 2016. The aftermath of that election threatened to tear our congregation apart, so we had been toiling away in the thorny ideological battlefields of our small town for four years. My congregation was determined to work on the project of unity, that, as far as we could tell, the rest of the country had abandoned. We didn’t shy away from the hard conversations about values and virtue as polite New Englanders often do. We can do hard things, we said.
As the country’s lines were drawn, and the sides were defined and policed for purity, we insisted on nuance and complexity. Derision, division and contempt were weapons used to talk about things that matter, and we chose a language of Love instead: a small town Pentecost. While the whole country turned shrill in its declarations and debates, we practiced listening for understanding. In an era of sinful dehumanization, we heard our call from God as a clarion one: rehumanization.
The work we were doing depended on us being up close: talks over coffee, reading kindness in each other’s faces, laying our hands on one another’s shoulders and backs in blessings of babies and confirmands. We used our hands to bless so often that we were convinced they had a direct connection to the heart of God. After years of trying to win over hearts for Love in the midst of those who staked their truth claims in shifting ideological sands with bumper stickers and flags, we closed our church building.
Jesus ran to the sick, that parishioner said, the day our ambitious project died. And I couldn’t get her words out of my head.
I was trained as a chaplain back in 2011 at Mass General Hospital in Boston, which is literally the best hospital in the world if you read US News and World Report. The doctors on the neuro floors where I visited patients were the world’s leading experts in every rare disease science has defined, and so I had no business being in those rooms at all. I was the least useful person in the hospital; a chaplain intern. Whenever a surgeon came and interrupted my feeble prayers at the bedside, you could feel the whole room exhale as if God had finally just walked in.
Holding a hand or rubbing a foot or simply sitting beside a bed, praying, was all I had then, and it is still all I have. I am ordained in Jesus’ name, pastor and friend to a congregation of 400 souls, but I have no magic words to ease suffering. The healing I offer comes only from the courage to show up; a ministry of presence.
During the global pandemic, I offered what I could, which was a ministry of absence. I was given a microphone and a camera to broadcast the liturgy (the work of the people). Call or text or message or Facetime or email or Zoom me, I said. My phone barely rang.
For once I had time to concentrate on my teenager’s love life, my eleven-year-old’s TikTok videos, my seven-year-old’s drawings. I procrastinated writing my sermon until Saturday, without knowing why I even bothered at all. I was rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, the worship band playing “Nearer My God to Thee.”
Meanwhile, my congregants fearfully ordered groceries sent to their doorsteps, re-wrote their wills, and ached to hug their grandchildren. People died and funerals were scheduled “TBA.”
We vowed to be physically distant, not socially distant. We met on Zoom, Brady Bunch grids of 2-D people who weren’t capable of eye contact. We connected with stilted prayer hands emojis in comment sections. We were determined to carve out the kindest part of the internet and claim it for Jesus.
It wasn’t enough; to search for God there. It is a delusion that we can be fully human in virtual space. Religious community needs and feeds bodies.
Jesus ran to the sick, my congregant had said. Those words haunted me every day for a year and four months.
The Bible begins in a garden but it ends in a city. The divine mystery is revealed in the hospital room; the soup kitchen; the crush of bodies on the subway train; the hairdresser’s chair; the loud barroom with the sticky floors; the choir; the crackhouse; the church.
God is present in human bodies: tabernacles made good and holy enough to be resurrected from the dead.
As the months went on, we hunkered down with only our nuclear families and the small circles of friends deemed touchable because they lived in walled off homes with meticulous cleaning and shunning habits. We wore flags for our team on our faces, covering our mouth and nose, or raised them up on our truck beds: “Keep America Great.”
It is discomfiting the ease with which I grew accustomed to this new normal; how quickly the faces and voices that made up my daily life became out of sight, out of mind. Uninterrupted by the vastness of human need, I grew more familiar with my own.
When I answered the call to ministry in 2009, I dedicated my entire life to being necessary in other people’s lives. I had given up a lot for this call: a marriage, my kid’s softball games, and my comfortable anonymity. It was all worth it, I told myself, to gather people of all ages and walks of life in a room to sing, to pray and to celebrate the sacraments together. I was needed there.
This practice that I found requisite to human thriving was deemed non-essential the day we were sent home. In fact, it was considered uniquely dangerous.
Suddenly, I was on the outside looking into people’s lives, instead of a central figure in them. My presence wasn’t needed as an intercessor between people and God. It never had been.
I am not just an inessential worker. I am inessential even for the survival of my husband and children. If I died, they’d go on living. Of course they would; I’d want them to. (Though I’d haunt the woman who slept in a bed with my husband like Bruma Sarah). I am a small thing in the endlessness of time. I am not needed for the world to still spin on its axis.
Still, I felt the sting of friends and colleagues who seemed to shrug me off like an unnecessary pastime. So I closed my circle tight around me, too, like a mean girl in middle school: cocktails with the neighbors outside on summer nights, hugging and kissing only the family I made. (We still managed to get a raging case of headlice. There is only so much you can do to avoid contagion when you live, beautifully and terribly connected, on the earth.)
It was noble to shut each other out, we told ourselves. We whittled down our worlds to make them as small as we were. We needed our surroundings to be disease-free and manageable, which is to say devoid of most people. In the careful auditions for the roles we still needed other people to play, most didn’t make the cut.
On social media--all sound and fury signifying nothing--our neighbors became heartless pestilence. We shamed the unwashed and unmasked masses with scolding Facebook posts, fought over our children’s schools and the presidential election in the comment sections, and watched our faith in humanity and God slip away.
Meanwhile, I knew those left behind the day the world shut down; who took no refuge in shrill posturing on Twitter. Like the boy who isn’t found in the game of hide and seek before the recess bell rings, alone, watching the other players walk inside together, shutting the door behind them. Like the girl in the circle of musical chairs when the music shuts abruptly off, left without a chair.
Jesus ran to the sick, but I didn’t. I knew their stories only from afar.
I had gone to tell a widow that her husband died in a plane crash at our small airport the day before we closed down, approaching her front porch with the state policeman and the town’s chief of police like the three horsemen of the apocalypse. Unable to gather her family and friends for a funeral, she planted a tree in her yard by herself in honor of her green-thumbed beloved.
I knew the teenager whose body was riddled with slim, hidden scars. She called 911 when her parents were too frightened to take her suffering seriously, and waited with icy patience for the ambulance in her driveway to take her to the emergency room.
I knew the widower who grieved for his wife in the prison of his house. His adult children treated him like a child incapable of having a conversation deeper than what-did-you-have-for-breakfast.
I knew the never-married woman abandoned by her family of origin decades ago. Her years of hard labor in yoga classes, meditation circles, and tedious business meetings of like-minded political organizations didn’t pay off with a ticket into anyone’s pandemic pod. I don’t know how much longer I want to live. I am no one’s emergency contact, she said, her eyes pleading.
I knew the dementia-stricken patriarch with seven children locked into his nursing home, no visitors allowed. He had to be told every morning why his children and grandchildren didn’t come, the grim news delivered again and again by a nurse clad in a space suit made of personal protective equipment. He died of a broken heart, his adult children relieved when he was transferred to hospice because they could hold his hand while he took his last morphine-eased breaths. We lost a piece of our humanity this year, his daughter told me. We are going to have to contend with this for the rest of our lives.
I know people who swear they found God this year, too, alone in the miles of woods in their backyards; on untouched beaches with glistening sands; sweating away on their newly purchased Peloton bikes; on the tops of New Hampshire’s white mountains while skiing with their school-aged children; relieved to be left with an empty calendar devoid of social obligations, a home office that required only business on top, pajamas on bottom.
I know how they feel. Finally, we knew something about sabbath. We didn’t need the four walls of the church; we had access to the grandeur of God outside.
Trying to find God on my computer screen was a fruitless endeavor that left me staring into the abyss of my own face, but I could see God all around me in the canopy of trees; the vastness of the ocean; the children of my womb that I am biologically programmed to see the blessedness in.
It’s easy to encounter God when you’ve kept your closest contacts close, and your spaces wide open and vast. But I want to find God where God is harder to find.
Jesus took only his three best friends, Peter, James and John, to the top of a mountain to show them what God looked like.
This is my Son, the Beloved, a voice boomed from the clouds, the whole mountain bathed in light along with Jesus, transfigured. Divinity had never been more obvious.
They would build their home there, the friends decided, where God was easy to see.
But, Jesus made them change their plans and follow him down the mountain: to the throngs of people below, begging him to heal them.
Jesus ran to the sick.
Lord, give me the courage to do the same.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org