• Tom Cleary

At the Cost of Community


It is easy to become discouraged at the news in the last few weeks, as our world has completely changed. It is not just the awful scenes coming from hospitals in Italy and right in our own country in New York, among other places. This is a truly real and a gut-wrenching thing to watch unfold. This does not mean that we have acted rationally in response to this epidemic, just that the pain that people on the front lines of this battle are experiencing is very real indeed. I have argued, here and here, that we have lost perspective and that we have learned many wrong lessons from the government’s predictably inept response. It is, however, absolutely reasonable that people of good will can disagree about the proper tradeoffs between fighting the disease and maintaining some semblance of our economic and social life. What I have mostly railed against is the notion that there are no tradeoffs to be made. That said, this is not a piece about any of that; but rather a reflection upon what the tradeoff has been to us as humans in community.

One of the things that I had not immediately realized, was the cost of broken faith communities. The church to which I belong, suspended services, even before it was mandated by the government. It was determined that it would be best that services be suspended until at least the end of April. I cannot disagree with the decision, hard as it may be to have this happen during the Lenten runup to the Easter celebration. I thought then and I still think now that it was the responsible thing to do to safeguard the congregation, many of whom fall into high risk categories. In spite of my agreement with the decision my initial emotional response was frankly one of irritation.

What I had not anticipated was that this irritation would turn into sadness. It has finally and fully been brought to the forefront of my mind that virtual reality is just that, virtual. It just is not the same thing at all. This is honestly a stunning admission for one who often veers close to misanthropy. There is and it must be recognized that there is a profound, deep need for people to have real, flesh to flesh human interactions and relationships. It is a foundational part of who we are as inhabitants of this world. Stripped of these real interactions, having them reduced to a secondary thing, robs us of part of our humanity.

There are many things we can get done online and via a virtual setting. If this episode brings a rethinking of what can be done in a virtual setting that makes us more productive, then that will be a good that can come of this. However, I deeply suspect that the movement of work into the home or other virtual settings will fail; not because people will be less productive but because they will feel the real pain of not having actual real live human interactions. There is something innately appealing to coming together for a joint purpose, even if it is with workmates whom you don’t see socially.

This need for real human interactions, is even more necessary when we think of our close personal family and friend relationships. As simple a thing as a lunch with a friend or an afterhours cocktail or backyard cookout are painfully missed in their absence the way they are taken for granted in normal times. This pain is all too real for those of us with older relatives that are on lock down (again appropriately, I would agree). It is amazing to admit that, yes, I miss having to holler at my mother because her hearing aids suck. Of course, the reverse is true for millions of seniors now isolated from their families. All of these are a very real cost to our response to this crisis and the long-term damage should not be taken lightly.

This cost is particularly acute when we consider the broken faith communities. I say broken, not in the sense that there is not a herculean effort being made to do what we can from a distance; but broken because we are at a distance. Yes, I realize that we are called to the Cross as individuals. I understand that God names and claims each of us by name and that our relationship with God is and must be a uniquely personal one. I also agree that in the end we will be standing as individuals before the judgement seat of Christ (having prayed fervently all our lives, I hope, for God’s unending mercy). Yes, our faith informs us that God loves and offers us His grace as individual children of His.

And yet…and yet, we live out our faith in community. Our faith can only be fully formed and truly meaningful in a community. This is not some way to sneak socialism in the back door, as the lefties would have you believe; it is a recognition that we come together of our own volition in answer to the call that God had made on each of our individual lives. We proclaim together who we are and whom we serve. We stand as one to help and guide each other because as with the broader society, we are stronger together than we could ever be alone. We bring a diversity of talents and perspectives that allow us to fulfill the various tasks and ministries that need to be completed in His name. Just as we would be indescribably poor if we tried to make everything in our homes ourselves; we would be just as spiritually poor if we tried to live out our faith alone.

Think of the two great commandments that Jesus identifies: love God and love your neighbor. How are we to do that in isolation. Short answer is that we cannot. Could Robinson Crusoe have been a Christian, alone on his desert island? Maybe, but what good would it have been to be a Christian in isolation. The measure of our faith and trust in God is how we come together in community to love and care for one another. This is our response to God’s call; this is what we do because He has saved us as individuals. To, for any substantial period of time, live broken apart from our faith community is to live something less than the fully human life God intends for His people.

It would be rude, at this point to not mention the awful emotional cost to those in ministry. They answered a call from God to spend their lives proclaiming His word and administering His sacraments. They have spent their lives as shepherds illuminating all of our faith walks. As ordained or lay workers in the church this must be particularly painful for them not to be able to engage in actual human interaction on behalf of the God they serve. I can only imagine the cost to them, most of all, to be separated from their community.

While it may indeed be necessary for faith and other communities to social distance themselves from one another, please understand the very real cost this entails. It is not the price that those afflicted with the virus face or the physical cost of those first responders, but it is a cost all the same. Keep ahold of your faith that we can get through this and that we will once again be in real live contact with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Hopefully, you will like me have a greater appreciation for the deep need to be in human contact with one another. I am sure at some point I will again veer toward misanthropy, but I know that never again will I take for granted the gift of the faith community into which God has placed me.

Praise Be to God

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