The Loneliness of the Socially-distanced Worshipper

We are now in that post-lockdown wilderness I dreaded, where no one seems very sure of what is safe, or what is lawful, to do. As so often happens with we humans, it has caused discussion of our plight to degenerate to levels rarely witnessed outside of the playground: ‘but they’re doing it, why can’t we?’ or ‘it’s not fair’, and, of course, ‘because I want to’.

Pubs, shops, hairdressing salons, and even restaurants are beginning to open up – just not places of worship. Children are scheduled to return to the classroom here in mid-August, but there will be no Stornoway communion at the month’s end. You may visit the zoo to stare at rare breeds, but the Leòdhasach èildear cannot be seen in his natural habitat (the suidheachan mòr) until late phase four, whenever that will be.

And, you know, I’m fine with that.

I will undoubtedly be called ‘selfish’ for saying so, but this is a personal blog, so it’s only to be expected that what you get is MY opinion. Here’s  my thinking.

The government did not wait until the virus had been eradicated, nor till effective treatment or vaccine was found; they opened up shops and businesses because this country, this world, is driven by money. It isn’t a Tory thing, or an SNP thing: it’s a people thing. Sadly, it’s all we know. Money is our security blanket. Without it, we are at the mercy of charity, and the mercy of our fellow men. Ask the 29,000 Scottish homeless how that’s working out for them, and you can begin to understand why we were all afraid for ‘the economy’.

So afraid were we that, suddenly, it was safe for businesses to reopen. And then it became okay for folk to stand one metre apart instead of two. Ask yourself why it is now we’re being told we must wear masks while shopping – could it possibly be that the government knows it has done something unsafe in permitting us to mix in such numbers?

So, yes, it’s the economy, stupid. That’s why pubs are open, but not places of worship. It’s why kids are going back to school in August, but I’ll probably be teaching my classes from home. The students I teach don’t need their mammies to stay at home with them, like the school kids would.

Churches are not businesses. Furthermore, they can do their thing perfectly well at a distance. We have been able to be out both ends on a Sunday whilst staying in, we have had our midweek prayer meetings and – I believe, ged nach e mo ghnòthach e – the Session meetings have also carried on. There has been Sunday school and youth groups. I don’t know about others, but my elder has conducted virtual visits, ensuring that his charges receive the usual high standard of pastoral care.

Besides all that, or, indeed, above all that, we have been open in ways that we have never been before. People are coming under the word who previously felt unable to attend church. That has to be a challenge for us, and the uncomfortable part surely is to ask ourselves why. What does online church have that physical church lacks? Or is it the other way around? Maybe it’s us, the visible church, that puts people off. And perhaps God is keeping us in this holding-pattern for that reason. Amidst all the cries of ‘I miss church’ and ‘I just want to get back’, could it be that God is reminding us that it isn’t all about the comfort of the saved. Is it just possible that he wants us in the wilderness, drawing others to him, instead of back in our time-honoured malaise of Sunday best and ‘fellowship’?

Besides, what would the benefits be to opening up? People like to cite the importance of gathering together. We are doing that. Online church is a gathering together in the spirit. It is possible to see and hear one another, using certain platforms. No, we cannot hug, kiss, or shake hands, but we won’t be allowed to do that anyway. And, I have a massive, personal objection to returning now. This, I guarantee you, will be a reservation shared by many.

Social distancing dictates that family groups and couples may sit together. Individuals – single, divorced, widowed – will have to sit alone in church. It can be a lonely enough experience going to church by yourself, but to have your singleness, your aloneness underlined in this way strikes me not only as uncomfortable, but unnecessarily cruel. I won’t be subjecting myself to it because it will not add a single thing to my relationship with the Lord. He is with me, here in my home, every minute of every day.

He has been in many homes these last three months. I cannot see online church as inferior because, in many ways, it has accomplished part of the great commission in which we were failing. The Gospel has been taken to the people where they are. God’s servants have stepped up to the plate and learned new ways of transmitting his message of hope.

Let’s not lose sight of that in the clamour to get back to ‘normal’. Normal is overrated.

And the prisoners heard

Sunday afternoon sunshine lured me outside to sit on my recently-painted decking to read, write and contemplate. There were birds singing in the trees and lambs bleating in the croft beyond, but not a sound other than that to pierce the stillness. I had recently risen from morning worship with my congregation, and was in exactly the right frame of mind for a bit of contemplation.

I was also filled with an enormous sense of wellbeing. These are days filled with uncertainty, trepidation and, for many, grief. None of us knows when it may be our turn to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Yet, we know that God is with us, and that ,while a shadow may well encroach, it can never devour.

So, while the world’s media is talking in terms of a global crisis, of catastrophe and lockdown, God is enabling me – and many more besides, I think – to experience this as the day of small things which we are warned not to despise.  As I sat in the warmth of this early spring day, I thought about the week just gone by, and the ways in which I have met with Christ in the long hours of solitude.

There is his word, of course, and prayer. These are constants. Normally, though, they are the launchpad for what Lady Bracknell disparagingly referred to as ‘a life crowded with incident’.

I am rediscovering my inner introvert, however. This week, I have  delivered a number of lectures and tutorials, spoken on the radio about my favourite Scottish novels, attended a meeting of the Stornoway Trust, and participated in a whisky tasting – all without budging from my dining table. In between, I walk, cook, clean, read and write. In the evenings, I chat to friends and family, listen to music, and catch up on television programmes, films and podcasts that I’ve missed.

Friday was glorious. I finished classes, and took the dog for a long ramble on the machair. Confusedly dressed in wellies, linen trousers and a cashmere hoody (I like to acknowledge all seasons in one outfit), I got spectacularly rained on. Showered and pyjama-clad, I lit the wood burner and laid out my various samples of Jura whisky and wild water from the Stornoway Trust Estate in time for the Instagram tasting event.

It was not, I am quite certain, the 46.7% ABV 21-year-old malt that gave me the feeling of complete serenity, but the sense that this was a day of privileges, dispensed by the hand of a gracious God. He has enabled me to continue doing my job, and fulfill other obligations while remaining safe and not feeling isolated in the least.

Discussing this with a Christian friend on Sunday evening, she said that she was concerned by the number of people – believing people – who are not doing so well. She hears from folk who say that lockdown is beginning to pall on them, who say they miss the human interaction of church. These are by no means all people who live alone either.

All of which set me wondering what’s wrong with me that, six weekends in, I am still only able to see the positives.

I have come to a number of conclusions. Ultimately, I don’t go to church for the social aspect. In fact, quietly and without anyone else noticing, I ceased attending organised fellowships of any kind more than a year ago. Church has been a place of worship for me, and that continues to be possible by God’s grace through the technology which it is our privilege to access and enjoy. Yes, there are people whose society I miss, and I will be glad to see them when we are once more able to share a pew. Until then, however, I am getting the essential parts of the church experience at home.

Like many others, I am gratified by the way in which being a church quite literally without walls has enabled new people to join us for worship. An open door may theoretically be welcoming, but there is still a threshold to cross which can seem like a journey of a thousand miles to the stranger. Online worship presents no such barrier.

A lot of Christians are invoking the image of Israel’s captivity to describe where we are at. I don’t disparage other people’s feelings or experiences, however, when I say that this is not my view of things at all.

Christ has freed his people, and we do him no justice if we consider ourselves captive still. We ought to be like Paul and Silas who sang and prayed in their cell at midnight. The walls could not contain them because their hearts were fixed upon worshipping God. He was there with them, he is here in my house too; and he is with all his people wherever they are. Ask the suffering and persecuted church if you can’t believe a Wee Free woman.

My favourite part of that account, though, is the following four words: ‘and the prisoners heard’.

Those who are still enslaved, not by government lockdown, but the bonds of sin – what is our witness to them? Perhaps he has brought us out of our comfortable churches into the information super-highway so that they will hear us, not weeping and complaining, but lifting up our voices in praise of the Christ who will never leave nor forsake us.