Photograph by Jon Tyson via Unsplash
What is this time doing to you?
Rev. Dr. Greg Mamula
May 12, 2020
In December 2019 I was playing basketball with my 9-year-old son and his friends. As I had done a million times before in my life, I jumped on my way to an easy layup. SNAP. PAIN. Choice words. Collapse. An ER visit, MRI, and surgical consult later, I learned that my right knee sustained two meniscus tears and a torn ACL. Turns out being 38 is not the same as being 9 when it comes to athletic activity.
I had surgery on January 9, 2020. Everything in my life required assistance, especially those first few weeks. I went through moments of grateful rest and moments of exasperated frustration and intense pain. The most difficult part was being homebound. I wanted to go to work, but I could not drive so I put in a few hours each day from home. I wanted to wear jeans, but my brace would not fit, so I wore shorts in the heart of Nebraska winter. I wanted to walk on my own, but my physical therapist kept me on crutches. I wanted to go to the store, but I could barely crutch my way from the parking lot to the store, much less shop. I wanted to go to church and preach, but friends and family encouraged me to rest and recover. I was beginning to allow these annoyances to define my experience.
At the peak of my frustration, I met with my spiritual director via Zoom and vented for a while. He listened and nodded his head sagely. Then after a brief pause, I shifted in the other direction to become overly optimistic. Surely, I could use this time for something meaningful. I could write a book, do a deep study on a topic, listen to all the podcasts, master a new skill, or set a record for most viewing hours of MLB Network.
He listened and then suggested, “Maybe it is not about what you do to this time, but what this time is doing to you.”
All I wanted was to get back to normal. I wanted him to affirm that desire to do ministry. To be active. To do something, anything meaningful besides just being at home. Instead, we talked about the gift of limitations. He reminded me of what his mentor Dallas Willard once said: “Hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our day. You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.”He followed it up with “Why are you in such a hurry to do something? What would it look like to be for a while?” I was considering adding my spiritual director to the growing list of things that annoyed me.
He was right of course. My normal life patterns had come to a screeching halt and I was still in a hurry. A hurry to heal. A hurry to work. A hurry to get back. Back to what? Back to office hours, back to shopping, back to Sunday rhythms, back to running around pretending I am in shape? I did not have an answer really, I just wanted normal again.
I religiously did my physical therapy and returned to work on February 24, 2020. I was back. I did my best to be fully present, but like Jacob, I had a physical and spiritual limp. I did my work as best I could, but I could tell I was not the same. Before I could fully reflect on that reality, the coronavirus consumed the world. After only 15 working days, I was back at home for the foreseeable future.
Since early March, all non-essential business has ceased for the United States. Social distancing, take-out Tuesday, and masks have become normal. Over half the county has either lost work hours or had jobs eliminated. More comedically, we are all starting to look like 1970s-era rock band members for want of haircuts or like Keanu Reeves in Speed from bad haircuts.
Our churches, pastors, leaders, and congregants are doing their best. I have been repeatedly encouraged by their creative adaptability and persistence. They are providing online services and ministries, suddenly becoming video producers. They are gathering for Zoom meetings and Bible studies. They make calls and visit one another at safe distances in driveways. They applied for the Payment Protection Plan loans. They have found ways to safely serve the most vulnerable. They have sanitized everything in arm’s reach with disinfecting wipes.
But we miss church. We really do. I miss it so very much.
Yet I fear we have spent all our energy trying to figure out what to do to this time, and have not observed enough what this time is doing to us. We have spent countless hours and dollars finding creative ways of doing church, that I wonder if we have not taken enough time observing what this time is doing to us.
Despite being forced to cut back on our experiences, expenses, and exposure, we collectively remain in a hurry. We were in a hurry before the virus forced us out of common spaces. We have been in a hurry seeking to adapt to sudden change. Currently, we seem to be in a hurry to get back. Back to what? Back to the office, back to school, back to profits, back to consumerism, back to sanctuaries, back to normal? Are we in such a hurry to get back that we are missing the chance to move forward into something new?
Dallas Willard’s words ring in my head. We may have been forced to change and even slow down in many ways. But we have not really, truly, ruthlessly eliminated hurry from our lives. As such our souls are still in need of tending before we move forward into whatever comes next.
I think this is the place our churches, pastors, and leaders can rest in for at least a few more weeks before we consider re-opening our facilities too soon. In addition to the crucial questions about health and safety, it might be even more important to ask the spiritual questions as well. Can we ruthlessly eliminate enough hurry in our personal and corporate lives to ask ourselves and our congregations, “Why are you in such a hurry? What is this time doing to you?” What if between live streaming sessions we ask, “What does it mean to be the church rather than do church?” How can we as pastors and leaders listen to the stress-laden calls of our people for ‘Reopen Church Sunday’ in order to ask why this is so important to them and deeply reflect on their responses with them?
I miss the local church building experience very much. I have only been in a church building three times since January. I miss preaching. I miss singing the wrong words to songs. I miss hearing Scripture read aloud by readers who mispronounce words. I miss community. I miss chasing my kids around getting them ready in the morning. I miss Sunday School donuts. I miss our family pew. I even miss those flavorless communion wafers.
But I must ask myself—even though I have been home for all but a few working days since January 9, have I ruthlessly eliminated hurry from my life so that I can allow God to attend to my soul? Even though I have social distanced, worn a mask, and isolated with my family, have we nurtured a culture of recognizing Christ all around us? How have I contributed to the hurried pace of churches I partner in ministry with? What is this time doing to me? How am I wrestling with God during this time? What sort of spiritual limp will I carry into what is next?
What is this time doing to you?
Once we return (and yes. we will return), we will need to reflect on the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual limps that we will collectively carry into what is next.
Even if our local governments permit gathering in churches again, until we have an answer to the spiritual questions, I am not sure we are ready for Reopen Church Sunday.
Rev. Dr. Greg Mamula is associate executive minister and region missionary, American Baptist Churches of Nebraska.