*inhale – exhale – inhale – sigh*
If there is one thing that I became uncomfortably familiar with at the beginning of this Covid-tide, it was my own (sometimes bad) breath! In light of the mask mandates, the rising cases, and the reticent to go out – much less go somewhere inside, I became starkly aware of the role that the seemingly simple act of breathing plays in our societies, cultures, and even religions.
In Christianity (among other religions), the language of “spirit” is deeply related to “the breath,” and thus, the Holy Spirit is that common breath of our sacred community. As my church began gathering again in person during the summer of 2021, it seemed like we were a swimmer who had come up for air – gasping sharply and quickly to regain our composure. But then, as Delta cases rose and we went back to virtual service on September 19th, it felt like our common breath was cut short again – as though the swimmer dove under the surface before fully regaining their breath. However, although disappointed, we should not be dismayed. Our common breath, our sacred breath, that Holy Spirit is not so much the sharing of air as it is the sharing of those things that animate, inspire, and empower us to love one another as our Christ has loved us.
Over the past few months, it has become abundantly clear to me that nearly every church is struggling in one way or another to catch their breath – to regather the Spirit, and this contemporary predicament is no respecter of persons, church, or denomination. Ministers I know to be Christ-centered both in theology and practice are on the verge of resigning from ministry due to the increasingly polarizing of politics in America compounded by pandemic anxiety. These ministers feel as though they are failing – drowning, if you will – because they feel as though they are disappointing their congregation in these bizarre times.
Many of these pastors – even some whose ministries remained relatively healthy through the pandemic – are resigning to maintain some sense of their sanity, health, and spiritual well-being. Yet, once they step down, the churches are faced with the unfortunate reality that there is a lack of pastors who desire to take up the reigns of ministry. While one may suppose that this is the case only for those churches that made drastic changes to accommodate pandemic circumstances, how does one account for the “come home” campaigns put on by megachurches that have made relatively few changes compared to their progressive cousins? Let me say; it’s pretty strange seeing churches with thousands of attendees – even during an airborne pandemic – basically beg its people on social media to return to its in-person services. Tell them that it’s “time to come home” when many people stay away due to health concerns, be that for themselves or their unvaccinated children.
Progressive churches are likewise concerned with getting people back in person. They create campaigns, spend their weeks strategizing, and regularly update their congregants that they are doing everything in their power to ensure that services are safe, even if that means mask-wearing, social distancing, or even no singing. I, myself, have drafted emails to parents outlining the plans for our new safe children’s programs. Yet, like a lead life-preserver in response to our attendance problem, a Baptist news article responds to our pastoral gasping with the title, “They’re not coming back.” The essay argues that we hoped that young people would return to the church when they got married, but it’s becoming abundantly clear in 2020-2021 that they will not be coming home.
We are all frantically using what little breath we have to gather the fragments of our pre-pandemic ministries, but if we aren’t careful, we will just drag them under waves with us. This pandemic is a world-changing event. Like that great flood, it is an apocalypse, and we can either cling on to that old world or allow that Spirit hovering over the waters to usher us into the new. Even as some things in our world return to a strange semblance of “normal,” it is clear – especially in ministry – that a lot has changed, that there is no going back.
Conservative, progressive, mega, mini, hipster, or traditional, we may do it in different ways, but most of us are hoping to recover something – anything from these floodwaters. My point here is not to criticize any one of these ministries – we are all doing the best we know-how. Instead, I want to inquire why we are exhausting our breath on the old when our faith beckons us to hope in the Kingdom to come. To be clear, I do not mean some ethereal kingdom of higher forms – that’s Plato, not Paul, but rather the renewing of this creation – of the coming of Heaven to Earth. The Spirit calls us higher – to hover over the water on the wings of eagles and imagine a new world while the old seeps to its grave.
My question here is concerned with our – my own – lack of imagination. In the digital age where new avenues of communication, connection, and even conspiring (spiriting-together) are proliferating before our eyes, many of us cannot imagine how to use these technologies, much less develop our own. Again, it is shocking to me that many of the megachurches that were perfectly positioned to pivot to pandemic changes (e.g., they had in place well-produced and relatively well-attended virtual streaming) simply didn’t. All we can imagine is getting back in person as soon as possible, even while other virtual communities are thriving, particularly in the gaming community, in spaces such as Discord, Twitch, and YouTube. I am not suggesting that we must move to these platforms. But as someone in ministry watching a gamer stream a game and dialogue with their community in real-time, it is interesting to see them get a donation with the message, “thank you so much. You and this community literally saved my life.”
Taking video game streaming as an example, these communities are gathering in a shared space (or experience in this case) – the video game and the stream. The streamer often functions as the guide for those congregating – teaching them how the multitude of ways they could play the game themselves. For those who just want to watch, streamers often allow the community to dictate how they play the game, thus giving the viewers a participatory role. Furthermore, these streamers and content creators often set up Discords, a virtual chat/text app that the viewer can join and thus “join the community.” Discord offers viewers access to others with a shared interest in the game/streamer and can generate very real friendships around these shared experiences. Again, I use this as an example of virtual communities that can and are flourishing in this apocalypse. I truly believe that there is something profoundly beautiful about the sharing of air together and being together physically, but why has that become the limit of our Christian imagination?
Today, the word for our sacred gatherings “Church” reaches back to the Greek word, “ecclesia” meaning the political assembly of a given city. When Paul the apostle calls his semi-public gatherings composed of the poor, the slaves, and the status- inconsistent, “the ecclesia,” it was a political gesture so far as these types of people had little if any political power in the city. What was political about these gatherings in the Greco-Roman culture? The way they ate together regardless of status, honor, or poverty level such that all were fed – not in the name of Caesar but in the name of the Crucified Christ.
The political breath of this communal act was not relegated to the proximity of those at the meal but permeated the streets, ally ways, and sheltered dwellings nearby, as onlookers watched these meals take place where slaves, women, and the freeborn ate together. To be clear, these gatherings were not closed off from the city like we would imagine a typical meal or church gathering – they were often exposed to the city, to the onlookers around.
Furthermore, these gatherings took the form of “festive meals,” which did not originate with Christians, but instead were fairly common in the Greco-Roman culture, where a given person may attend a few a week. The early church was imagining the dawning of a new world – the coming of heaven to earth. To foster this imagination and welcome others into it, they employed the technologies and tactics of their contemporary time (e.g., festive meals) in novel and revolutionary ways. Ways that were explicitly about remembering in the poor, the oppressed, and the outcast of society that were typically not welcomed into such technologies or tactics.
Yet, today rather than the church being revolutionary innovators of our contemporary technologies, our imaginations are clogged by our fetishizing of old strategies which, yes, once upon a time may have been innovative. These pandemic circumstances – like the masks upon our face – are blowing our breath back upon us. To our horror, some of us are realizing that our breath has gone stale and old. We have caught a whiff of something fowl and our imaginations are racing. Few want to enter the spaces of our spirit because it is no longer refreshing. Rather than get upset at the mask as though it is the cause of our bad breath, let us pause and gather it back into ourselves. In a collective sigh, let us empty our breath with our pride and comfort and thus open ourselves again to the fresh baptizing breath of Christ’s Spirit. Let us inhale it in along with all that it has inspired in this our world, and let us allow it to invigorate our imaginations, wash away the old, and open our eyes to those desperate for a renewing Spirit. And finally, let this Spirit overflow. Let us share it with all in whatever way seems best but always with faith, hope and love.
I leave you with one of my favorite quotes:
“‘Incipit vita nova’ – a new life begins. This is the truly revolutionary power of hope. It is revolutionary because it is innovative. With it, we break down the compulsive need for success. With it, we leave behind the fatalism of non-success. ‘Christians are eternal beginners,’ wrote Franz Rosenzweig. And that is the best thing that can ever be said about believers, lovers and the hopeful.”
– Jürgan Moltmann In the End – The Beginning
Lord, let it be!