It’s finally coming to a close, at least as I write this. A lengthy, tumultuous event unparalleled in our lifetimes, marked by sickness, death, fear of both those outcomes, isolation, business failures, job losses, in-person church services gone, replaced by online gatherings.
The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t just turn the external features of life as we’ve known them upside down. As we were forced indoors, we were changed psychologically as well. Indeed, the pandemic has been described as the largest experiment in forced introversion in human history.
Many of us can’t wait to get back to a normal, pre-COVID life of relaxed gatherings with friends, in-person church services, choirs, concerts and so many other activities denied to us for the past year and a half. That’s totally understandable. The post-COVID-19 world looks so appealing. Some hope that it’ll usher in a happier, healthier world.
But will it? First, we need to acknowledge that the pandemic was not all bad. This time of introspection when, as a Christian friend commented, “we all became involuntary monks,” offered us a rare opportunity for deeper reflection and prayer. Jesus made solitude a time for prayer and a deeper connection with God – a priority in His life. Many biblical passages reflect this, such as this one from Mark: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where He prayed” (Mark 1:35, NIV). Jesus could’ve prayed anywhere – and often did pray in public, among crowds, where others could hear and perhaps participate – but being alone with God gave him focus and strength.
To be clear, solitude is far different from loneliness – and loneliness has been one of the worst impacts of the pandemic. Even before COVID-19 struck, loneliness was already being seen as a huge problem in our society. A 2020 report from Statistics Canada found that the health impacts of isolation and loneliness ranked with traditional risk factors such as obesity and smoking.
For many, including myself, one of the biggest things we’ve missed during the pandemic is regular worship with other Christ-followers. Our faith is a communal one. When in-person services resume, we’ll need to be careful in terms of the simple interactions we took for granted before: shaking hands, hugging, singing, and how we receive Communion. Again, these are the physical aspects involved with reconnecting. The psychological ones are likely to be powerful. The Rev. Canon Brad Smith, rector of St. John’s in Peterborough, predicts that as we re-gather, there could well be “a huge wave of grief, grief for the long time we’ve been apart. And for the things that are changed – for the people we’ve known who have died or moved away.”
Perhaps one immediate post-COVID activity could be to openly acknowledge the grief that has built up over the past year and a half. We can look to the example of Jesus, who was not afraid to acknowledge the grief he experienced after being persecuted and betrayed by friends. He wept. His heartfelt plea from the cross asked, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Moving through our grief is not just therapeutic. It can also help us recommit to a different kind of post-COVID society. A Canada fractured by horrific discoveries of unmarked children’s graves and unjust conditions for Indigenous peoples is in need of the Gospel message of abundant life now more than ever. An Earth heating up to the point of death for many disadvantaged people calls on us to recommit ourselves with renewed vigour to the pledge in our liturgy to “strive to safeguard the integrity of God’s creation, and respect, sustain and renew the life of the Earth.” We need to think in fresh ways about what the Good News means in our world today – a world where many are reluctant to enter our buildings – and act in response.
We can’t go back to where we were. But we can go forward, drawing on the example of so many before us who stepped out boldly in faith: a group of poor fishermen who followed a simple command from Jesus, “follow me.” We can look to Abraham, Moses and others who didn’t know exactly what God had in store for them but were willing to risk finding out. Change can be scary, but it can also be exciting and rejuvenating.