The COVID Squeeze
(This letter is an expanded version of the cover letter for the September 24, 2020 Pittsburgh Presbytery Meeting Packet.)
This week’s presbytery meeting will be unlike any of its previous meetings. We have grown to love the wide open space we traditionally enjoy at our September meeting home, Crestfield Camp and Conference Center. Spaciousness is a delight that the psalmist celebrates as a sign of God’s salvation: “We went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.” (Psalm 66:12)
Such celebration of “a spacious place” feels especially tangible when we meet at Crestfield. But unlike the psalmist, we cannot yet put our journey “through fire and water” into the past tense. Just ask our siblings on the Gulf Coast and the West Coast. Moreover, with COVID still raging among us, killing more than 200,000 Americans as of this week, and infections rising sharply again over the past week, we are still very much in the middle of the pandemic storm.
Each year when presbytery gathers at Crestfield we hold an open mic session, where I invite attendees to tell something of how God was at work in their congregation with outreach activity over the summer. At those gatherings we make generous space for those testimonies. We also give space for remembering by name each of our elders and pastors whose earthly journey among us ended over the past year. We find space to share table fellowship. Some among us seek outdoor space as their chosen place to sit during the meeting, so we put out loudspeakers and erect tent shelters to accommodate them. Crestfield and spaciousness go hand in glove.
Alas, our space for working, playing, and praying has been greatly constricted by the COVID-19 pandemic over the past six months. We are restricted in where and how we gather. We are struggling with what I’ll call “life-space stenosis.” Our worlds have narrowed. Travel is curtailed. We spend most of our time tethered to home. For many of us, much of our work world has collapsed to the frame of our computer monitor. That’s how it is for this week’s presbytery meeting. And that is how it will be for at least the next three presbytery meetings, unless we experience an unexpected breakthrough in treating and preventing the spread of COVID.
In Romans 8:35-39 Paul celebrates that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. Neither natural calamities nor human opposition. Neither spiritual powers nor social pressures. One of the things on Paul’s list of things-that-cannot-separate-us-from-God’s-love is “distress.” The Greek word is stenochoria – literally, stenosis of our living space. It is exactly the squeeze we have experienced due to the COVID pandemic. Evan that can’t separate us from God’s love!
And if COVID cannot derail God’s love for us, it ought not derail our love for one another. Some of us may think it is critical for sanctuaries to reopen as soon as possible, while others may think it equally critical that we stay home to bring the COVID spread to a halt. Whether or not we agree, can we yet love each other? The church dare not divide into polarized factions that war against each other, if it is to be true to the Lord whose name it bears. Rather than being conformed to this world with its politicization of the pandemic, we need to be transformed by having a new and different mind that knows and demonstrates God’s will. (Romans 12:2)
I have rejoiced to observe the myriad ways our congregations have testified about God at work amid the COVID lockdown and lockout. We are distressed at being curtailed in our ability to gather, yet we are finding new ways to care for one another and to reach out to those in need. The church has not ceased being the church, even when its ability to gather is restricted.
And presbytery is still presbytery. Despite our “Zoom fatigue,” we are still able to gather electronically, and to carry out our work missionally. Stenochoria is no picnic; but it cannot kill what God is doing among us and through us. Thanks be to God!
Yours in Christ’s mission,