A few weeks ago, I looked out the window and saw sleet coming down from the sky. What month are we in? I asked myself. What day is it? For a moment I genuinely didn’t know. Was it March? Was it May? Was it still 2020 or were we in 2021?
After 14 months of “Groundhog Days,” I was as genuinely disoriented in time and space as I’d ever been. All the normal rhythms of life and community have been disrupted. Replaced now by an oddly repetitive routine of climbing up to my third-floor home office, opening my computer, signing onto Zoom, and living my entire life and ministry virtually.
Last month, Diana Butler Bass, the renowned Episcopal speaker and writer we hosted last November, published an article called “Religion after the Pandemic.” In it, she reflects on the enormity and ambiguity of the losses we’ve collectively experienced since March 2020. The loss of millions of lives to COVID, and also the more ambiguous grief of losing some of our final years of life in community, or our senior year of high school, or the wedding we’d planned, or any number of other losses.
We’ve lost so much, not least of which is the opportunity to gather in-person to worship. But “lost doesn’t just refer to what’s gone,” Ms. Bass went on.
“It also means that which is mislaid, out of place, dislocated. Sometimes lost just means that we’re lost. That’s [one of the…] tasks for [this next chapter of the pandemic]: to help others find what has been lost, to point the way beyond the thicket. We need to find ourselves again; we need to be relocated in the world.”
The article went on to list four primary ways we’ve been dislocated over this past year. There’s the temporal dislocation I started out with…We’ve lost our sense of time entirely.
There’s also a more complicated historical dislocation… As she put it:
“We’ve lost our sense of where we are in the larger story of both our own lives and our communal stories. History has been disrupted. Where are we? Where are we going? The growth of conspiracy theories, the intensity of social media, political and religious ‘deconstructions’ – these are signs of a culture seeking a meaningful story to frame their lives because older stories have failed. That’s historical dislocation.”Dr. Diana Butler Bass
The third dislocation is a physical one, and this is something we’ve felt acutely as a worshiping body. “We’ve lost our sense of embodiment with others and our geographical location.” Our worlds have moved into this new and dominant cyber-space, Where Zoom meetings have become the norm and reshaped how we interact. It’s partly why things like gardening and baking have become so popular in COVID. We’re seeking a way to find ourselves in our physical spaces again.
And finally, there’s relational dislocation. We “lost our daily habits of interactions with other humans, the expression of emotions together in community.” Now as we return, we find ourselves questioning how it will feel to be back in a large group again. What will it feel like to meet face-to-face with someone? Will you wear your mask? This speaks to our relational dislocation.
Ms. Bass ends her article on “Religion after the Pandemic” by leading us into a reflection on how we might be found again. And this is where religion comes in. She proposes that religion could be the answer to our layered experiences of loss. The key is to look at the Latin root of the word religion, religare, which means to “bind” or “reconnect.” Considering religion in this way, rather than in the more traditional understanding of a set of rules, order, and dogma, could help us find our way home again.
These questions of religion and our future are so fitting to this day and this moment. On this Feast of Pentecost, we celebrate the birth of the Church as we know it. When the Holy Spirit came and filled all the people gathered, and they spoke in tongues. And we hear the words of the prophet Ezekiel telling the story of God breathing new life into something that was thought to be dead.
And significantly, we regather for the first time in nearly a year. This is the beginning of a new chapter of our communal life. This is the beginning of a new chapter of our personal lives. The beginning of the pandemic is coming to an end, and we turn the corner to see a future we’ve yet to meet.
We’ve come through quite a journey, and we’ve lost much on the way. As we face what’s next, many are wondering what will lay ahead for the future of religion and churches. What will survive? How will COVID have changed us in irreversible ways?
I hear Ms. Bass’s call to lean into the root definition of religion, where we see our task as “mending what’s broken, recovering what’s been mislaid, and reconnecting that which is frayed.” I wonder if this isn’t also the call of the Holy Spirit in this time? Calling us, each in our unique languages and beliefs, to return “home,” in the most fundamental sense of the word, calling us to be found again after we’ve been so very lost. Our work as Christians is clear in this new world: We’re here to help find, repair, and relocate ourselves and each other.
As Ms. Bass ended her article:
“We must reconnect ourselves and others with time, history, physicality, and relationships. In this sense, the future of religion has never been brighter – [because] our lost world needs finding. Pandemic dislocation calls for guides and weavers of wisdom. We don’t need to return to the old ways, we need to be relocated. We need to find a new place, a new home in a disrupted world. [And our work begins by first relocating our hearts in and with God.]”
So happy birthday Church, and welcome home. The future looks bright. Let’s follow the blazing fires of the Holy Spirit into it. Amen.