“Be sure to leave any prayer requests in the comments, and if you made an important decision this morning, send us a direct message so we can be in touch with you,” is what a pastor said to me on the Internet last weekend. At the time, I was wearing pajama pants and a shirt I can’t remember taking off when I reflect back over the last 48 hours or so. For the record, I didn’t leave a prayer request in the comments, and, as a matter of fact, I didn’t do anything. I wasn’t even watching. I was reading in the next room.
It was at this moment when I realized how clearly the Coronavirus has brought so many things into focus that are often (in my case) typically occluded by home renovation shows and sports journalism: things like how, in my community, education has been effectively ended for the majority of our public school students because a large number of them lack regular access to the Internet and needed technology to engage online curriculum, so they haven’t been doing anything, for over a month. Or, how individual Americans are encouraged, nay, regularly shamed by Dave Ramsey on the radio, for living outside of their means and not keeping 6 months of living expenses in a rainy day envelope. And yet it seems most of our country’s largest corporations ran out of operating capital during the first week of the pandemic and immediately asked for bailouts from the government. Or, how “work-life balance” is a phrase — much like “self-care” that doesn’t actually mean anything in a nation characterized by the universal expectation that women will use accrued vacation time to give birth and then return to work in two weeks. Or, how receiving government assistance 3 months ago was a moral failing for families who can’t pay the rent while working 60 hours a week (at what we are now all calling “essential businesses”), but that same assistance is now “logical,” “necessary,” and a “moral imperative” for the freshly furloughed middle class.
Leaving Chole Cooney to compellingly moan about work, life and parenting in her widely shared piece for Medium:
“This current situation is almost prophetically designed to showcase the farce of our societal approach to separating work and family lives. We are expected to work from home full time. And care for our children full time. And we cannot have anyone outside our immediate household help. It can’t work and we all are suffering at the illusion that it does.”
But then again, we knew all of this already, we’ve just been able to more effectively ignore the ways that crippling income inequality and a long running governmental abandonment of people who don’t happen to be corporations sinks all boats. Because we used to have “so much going on right now.” Like a white-noise machine that has suddenly shut off in a power outage, the sudden halting of a life typically spent distractedly scrolling from one online retailer to another, or one email to another, or one semi-professional child sporting event to another, or one hot-yoga-cycling-cross-fit-class to another, awakens us to the ways our house always makes this much noise when we start paying attention.
Which is what made Easter so especially difficult to engage with online, primarily because (at least for me), Church as spectator sport only works if I keep having “so much going on right now.” If I am busy, stressed, anxious about the future and my son’s ability to compete with other preschoolers in the great octagon that is American child-rearing, then I don’t really notice that Church usually serves the role of quietly releasing the pressure that builds within me every time I refuse to allow the life and teachings of Jesus to challenge a dominant culture that leaves so many of us crippled by debt, poverty, sickness, under-employment, and the anxious pursuit of happiness at all costs parading as the good life.
When I am implicitly told that regular Christian faith and practice is constituted by supporting the “ministry” of the Church with regular donations, participation in an annual service project, and sporadic attendance in a small group where I spend even more time with Christians not talking about what keeps me up at night (not to mention possessing an overwrought concern about the style or order of what constitutes the raw data of a Sunday morning), I only buy it as actual religious practice if the sound machine of my existence is turned all the way up.
However, when my (and every) local church turns itself into a panoply of religious programming, I am regularly encouraged to tune into as a spiritual practice, it has been my experience that the camera not only adds 10 pounds, but also this sinking feeling that when you stream sacred things on Facebook it seems to turn wine back into water and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ into one of those creepy inflatables manically flapping at you from in front of a used car dealership. But then again, maybe this is just what Easter celebrations characterized by spiral ham, hidden eggs, smocked dresses, baskets filled with choking hazards, and floral crosses always look like for everyone watching us at home in their pajama pants. I’m saying we Christians seem out of touch, frivolous and woefully superfluous in a world unmoored by death.
By my count, Easter, at least in the beginning before all the human-sized Bunny costumes, appeared only because God was first willing to die, to stop speaking for once, in order to usher in a reflexive sort-of Sabbath from the practice of an anesthetizing pseudo-religion that leaves us in both good times and bad, distractedly attempting to survive the world rather than actively seeking its transformation.
Maybe our Easter needs to die so that it too may be reborn into something we would have, before now, confused for the gardener, a ghost or a fellow traveler on the road to Jerusalem.
Which leaves me wondering what it might be like for churches—desperate for new content, answers about the future, and our regular financial support—to stop holding on so tightly to the ways they believe God and religion is supposed to function in our world? Instead of anxiously attempting to make the very same productions and performances and activities impossibly integral to the lives of their congregants by live-streaming the resurrection, what if churches instead used this time to empower people to develop rich connections to both the divine and the world he died for on their own without having them first run their Christianity and tax-deductible donations through the sanctuary?
I think this moment we’re in, if we’ll let it, is inviting all of us — maybe most especially the Church — to ask far more interesting questions about how we’re all parenting and working and eating and sleeping and schooling and feeling and exercising and staying connected and supporting vulnerable populations in a world gone mad? But to ask those kinds of question—the ones our moment demands we must ask—the Church has to finally let go of other questions, even sacred ones, that have kept it cemented in the lives of people for centuries now.
I’m saying if God had to die in order to birth a new world into being, I don’t think any of us are getting out of this thing alive, most especially if our buildings have steeples with crosses on them.