Last week, when I was on vacation, I had time to reflect on some writing from one of my favorite theologians – Diana Butler Bass. In her blog – ‘The Cottage’ she wrote these words that really struck me:
“It is quite striking how people use the word “lost” and “loss” to describe the last fourteen months: we’ve lost friends and relatives to death, we’ve lost a year of our lives, we’ve lost income, we’ve lost a sense of security, we’ve lost our ability to move freely through the world. We’ve lost a lot.
Many clergy speak of grief and lament – perhaps the post-COVID church will be one marked by that sad journey. But I think that “grief and lament” lacks specificity. It is hard to grieve millions of people, and it is hard to grieve the hundreds of millions of lost years of our lives. We need to grieve what is gone, yes. But that is not the only task ahead.
‘Lost’ doesn’t just refer to what is gone. It also means that which is mislaid, out of place, dislocated. Sometimes lost just means that we’re lost. And that is the other task for the post-pandemic world: to help others find what has been lost, to point the way beyond the thicket. We need to find ourselves again; we need to be relocated in the world.
We’ve been dislocated in four major ways:
1) Temporal dislocation
We’ve lost our sense of time as it existed before the pandemic. How often have you thought: What day is this? What time is it? Did I miss an event? What month is it? That’s temporal dislocation.
2) Historical dislocation
We’ve lost our sense of where we are in the larger story of both our own lives and our communal stories. History has been disrupted. Where are we? Where are we going? The growth of conspiracy theories, the intensity of social media, political and religious “deconstructions” – these are signs of a culture seeking a meaningful story to frame their lives because older stories have failed. That’s historical dislocation.
3) Physical dislocation
We’ve lost our sense of embodiment with others and geographical location. For millions, technology has moved “physicality” into cyber-space and most of us have no idea what to do with this virtual sense of location. Without our familiar sense of being bodily in specific spaces, things like gardening, baking, sewing, and painting have emerged as ways of feeling the ground and the work of our hands. We’ve striven to maintain some sort of embodiment even amid isolation. But the disconnection between our bodies, places, and other bodies has been profound. That’s physical dislocation.
4) Relational dislocation
We’ve lost our daily habits of interactions with other humans, the expression of emotions together in community. Have you worried you won’t know how to respond when you can be with your friends without distance, with no masks? How will it feel to be in large groups again? How will work or school feel back in person, with others at the next desk or waiting on customers face-to-face, or in the first in-person meeting? What happens when the plexiglass comes down, the mask is off? That’s relational dislocation.
With these dislocations in mind, the task comes into focus. Surely, religious communities need to be about the work of relocation – finding what has been lost, repairing what has been broken, and re-grounding people into their own lives and communities.
The word religion is believed to have come from the Latin, religare, meaning to “bind” or “reconnect.” Religare is about mending what has been broken, recovering what has been mislaid, and reconnecting that which is frayed.
What is the future of religion post-pandemic? Well, it depends. It depends if we continue to insist on the other definition of religion – as obligation to a particular order of things (like doctrine, polity, or moral action – a “bounden duty”). If nothing else, the pandemic has revealed that particular orders of things can be upset, overturned by the most unanticipated of things. If religion is about maintaining a certain order of liturgy, dogma, or practice, well, then, we can consider religion one more pandemic loss.
If we think of religion only in terms of doctrine, polity or moral action, then perhaps religion will be one more pandemic loss. But, if we think of religion in terms of religare, however, the task of the post-pandemic church – the work of finding, repairing, and relocating – is clear. We must reconnect ourselves and others with time, history, physicality, and relationships. In this sense, the future of religion has never been brighter – our lost world needs finding. Pandemic dislocation calls for guides and weavers of wisdom. We don’t need to return to the old ways, we need to be relocated. We need to find a new place, a new home in a disrupted world.
And at the very heart of finding our lost selves is relocating our hearts in and with God. There is a journey beyond the pandemic, and we will find the way a step at a time. We haven’t been to this particular future before. And we will need one another to get there. “
As you read this, I invite you to ponder on these questions:
1) With the rapid increase of the religiously “unaffiliated” and those leaving congregations, what do you think the future of your community of faith will look like for your children or grandchildren?
2) What do you think about the four dislocations? Which one(s)have you felt most strongly?
3) What in your life needs to be relocated post-pandemic? How can you help relocate others? What might your faith community or spiritual gathering or friend group do to help relocate others? How can you be a guide or weaver in a post-pandemic world?
Finally, I leave you with words from poet William Stafford to reflect on:
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
— William Stafford
Keep holding the thread my friends.
Peace, Rev. Gail