I’m an irregular contributor. In most things, but I’m referring here to this column. I had planned, when the editor first approached me, to write something every month – I’ve got lots of ideas! But one of my character flaws is that I only want to do things when the mood strikes. The upside is that I’m very passionate about whatever I’m doing; the downside is that I don’t do very much. It has gotten worse since the pandemic. I understand that everyone is experiencing this malaise. 

I have a strong tolerance for being alone and a pretty active interior life. I have always dreamed of having time to myself, with nothing but books and painting and writing. Now I mostly have it, and it’s pretty empty. I stay busy; there’s a rhythm to my life that I never had before. I just have very little to say about it.

Every month, I sit down to dutifully write this column and every month, I get a little way through the chaotic, incoherent mess and I ask: What’s the point? Where does this come from and to whom is it addressed? I can’t remember anymore.

My church is very small and we are like a family. Every church says that, but in our case it is actually true. We spend a lot of time together, often eating and drinking, sometimes singing or playing games. And, well, church stuff, I guess. So there is an emotional loss in not being able to be with them. I miss laughing and crying together. But I also miss their ideas and experiences. 

It has been hard to move forward as a church. We were doing some good work on anti-racism and spiritual development. We were making plans. But those ideas were generated around the table, face-to-face, without an agenda, just people sharing their lives and generating a common life that was bigger than the pieces.

For example, each year we canonize our own saints. We usually have a lot of nominees, and the campaigning has become quite vigorous. I was considering switching to a round robin format. This year, we had to beat the bushes to generate nominees. That’s because our nominees in the past have come from conversations over dinner. Someone will start talking about a song they love, or a biography they just read, or some odd story about a Catholic saint. And we all say, “Hey, they should be a saint. Remind me of that when nominations come around.” It’s very personal and also very communal.

Video can’t provide that sense of community; we’ve tried. There is fecundity in sitting and talking together in person, a generous spirit in the room. The only person I sit and talk to now is my wife, which is lovely, but she’s heard my stories. We’ve heard each other’s stories. Without those other connections, there just aren’t many inputs and few new experiences.

Christian theology, at its root, is relational. The Trinity is less about three persons and more about the relations between them. The cross calls out to us to identify with the marginalized and mistreated, to walk alongside those who suffer. Communion binds us together as one body with many members.

Theoretically, we can sink into those abstract relations of God, but there’s a reason we say that God came to us in a person, as an incarnation. Bodies matter. Materiality matters. It’s important to live face-to-face and hand-to-hand with other bearers of the image of God. And not just a few. Life is generated in the muck and mess of actual people. I miss the muck.

Scott Shirley is the pastor of Church in the Cliff. The Worship section is underwritten by Advocate Publishing and the neighborhood businesses and churches listed here. For information about helping support the Worship section, call 214.560.4202.