I believe in the power of Christian community to grow faith and the spiritual life. As a preacher, I’ve often said with certitude, “There’s no such thing as a single, solitary Christian! You can no more be a solo Christian than a finger lopped off from the body.” But five weeks into COVID-isolation, I’m rethinking the connection between believer and body.
To be fair, Jesus calls his followers into community. During his ministry, Jesus’ followers numbered as many as seventy-two people. The new covenant of his blood was shared at table with the Twelve. He asked Peter, James and John to stay awake with him as he prayed in Gethsemane. Hanging on the cross, Jesus told (presumably) John that his mother, Mary, was now John’s mother—creating adoptive family among the disciples. As I like to say to people joining the church, “Jesus has called you into communion with himself—which means you’re stuck with all these other people Jesus has gathered to him. The church is the laboratory in which you learn how to love the unlovable. It’s where Jesus schools us in how to love our neighbor as ourselves.”
I still believe these things to be true. But this season of social distancing has opened my eyes to something else equally as true: separation and solitude are just as essential to faith and spiritual growth. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). I stumble over the word “daily.” The choice to follow Jesus is not a once-and-for-all moment. It’s a daily decision. A choice to seek God—to read the scriptures, to be in prayer, to be still in God’s presence, to listen for Christ’s voice, to do whatever foolish and risky thing that voice may be calling you to do (without putting others at risk, I would add!). As a student of contemplation, I believe this also includes periods of solitude. Jesus fasted and prayed in the wilderness for forty days. With regularity, he retreated from the crowds to deserted places to pray. If Jesus did this to stay grounded in God, how much more do I need to! Jesus included this part of the journey when he said, “Follow me.” Imitate me, and how I deepen my capacity to know, love and obey God by spending time alone with God. Relationships are built on trust. And trust takes an investment of time.
On Easter our family worshiped with Trinity Church, Boston. (Thank God for YouTube!) While in seminary, my wife and I frequented this grand church’s Holy Week and Easter services. As we settled into the live stream, we were a little disappointed. Except for some inspiring organ music, with images of their stained-glass windows, none of the prerecorded service was in their beautiful, cavernous sanctuary. It was all done from the rectory and homes of the parishioners. Dozens of choir members offered Zoom-like anthems and hymns from the safety of their homes. (Even the organists played from instruments in their own studios!) Various clergy offered prayers and readings from their home offices. I began to sense how beautiful and touching this was, in itself. Even when driven asunder by pandemic, the church was being the body of Christ. The church is not a building, but a people.
But what unhinged me was the “communion” liturgy. Sitting at his dining room table, with a plate of food (including a bottle of Tobasco and shaker of LSU Geaux Dust; he was obviously a Louisianan!), the rector explained that the meal they would experience was not the customary eucharistic celebration. He explained how God was present in each home, at each table as people gathered for their Easter meal. What followed was a long series of parishioners who’d snapped video sitting at their dining room tables, with food on their plates, and drink in their cups, reciting a portion of a rewritten eucharistic liturgy. Some tables included parents and children, or spouses and partners. But many had only one place setting, only one person—an icon of how social isolation has led some into solitude. As the pastor concluded this liturgical mosaic, he evoked as a gift those who gather at a table where their only companion is the Risen Lord.
For all the beauty of community and communion and fellowship—from sanctuaries filled with thousands of worshipers, to home-based small groups—at the heart of the Christian faith is the individual abiding in a relationship of trust with the Living Lord. Without this, the community of faith is not much more than just a community. Perhaps those of us in the church have become so enamored with the beloved traditions, institutional grandeur, inspiring music, high-impact productions, fellowship events, feel-good missions, etc., that we’ve taken our eye off the main thing: people who seek, encounter and follow Jesus in their daily lives. The real work of discipleship—the life of faith—is learning how to listen for and follow the Spirit’s leading Monday through Saturday. This is how the church gets imbued with the fragrance of Christ.
What is God teaching me amid this crisis? That perhaps I’ve got it wrong in assuming that gathering Christians together is somehow the way disciples of Jesus are made. Mike Breen put it this way (and, if you’re a church person, I’ll warn you that this is hard to swallow): “If you make disciples, you always get the church. But if you make a church, you rarely get disciples. We need to understand the church as the effect of discipleship and not the cause.” (Building a Discipling Culture, p. 5) Jesus told his followers, “Go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). But about the church, Jesus said, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18; also see 1 Peter 2:4-5). Jesus builds the community of faith—not us. It is an outgrowth of individuals who seek and follow Jesus to the point that they find themselves in communion with others who are doing the same. As they say, “Birds of a feather flock together.”
In this respect, the church is a grace—a gift that Jesus is giving to the world. He collects each of us one-by-one, folds us together, salt of the earth, quietly slipping in the yeast of the Spirit, kneads the dough of our collective lives, lets it rise, bakes, takes, blesses, breaks and gives us as the bread of life to a hungry world. It’s not something we can make or fake. It begins with Jesus’ initiative. He comes to each of us with the invitation: “Follow me.”
Here is a gift for the receiving. If you’re a seeker of God, offer some of the bandwidth of your life to Jesus…daily. If you’re a formerly-regular church-goer, let your hunger for Christian community drive you into the desert…daily. Go for a walk with Jesus. Speak with him about what burdens you. Listen for his voice in the silence. Break open your Bible and read it. Try doing what you sense he’s asking you to do. Sure, when the time is right, connect with others online. (I’ll say more about this in a future post.) But perhaps your calling now is to enter into your closet to seek Christ in this intimate space. Allow grace and time to deepen the trust between you. It’s been my survival strategy in this crisis. Yes, I can’t wait to gather with people again—my Jesus-peeps, neighbors, friends and family. But for now, I press into the desert of social isolation, trusting the One I meet there will press me back into community when the time is right.