Over the past week, I've heard this term thrown around - "social distancing" - in reference to the physical separation that public health officials are encouraging us to keep in this age of Covid-19 (the new strain of coronavirus). The basic idea is that maintaining more physical distance between ourselves and others helps to slow the spread of illnesses.
This concept of distancing can be challenging for people in religious communities, including the church I'm currently serving. Whether we are gathering for worship on Sundays (or Wednesdays) or gathering for fellowship events or Bible study, we often greet with handshakes and hugs - the very opposite of social distancing. And, for many Christians anyway, these handshakes and hugs are given in the name of love. So now religious leaders (and others) are grappling with what to do in this age of social distancing - in this age where contact as simple as a handshake can pass along a virus that (similar to other illnesses, like the flu) can wreak havoc on some bodies. As leaders, we ourselves may be frustrated by the various forms of social distancing, and we also hear from our people that they don't see where the harm is in a simple handshake or hug.
We are creatures of habit, you and I. We all have our "things" - our go-to routines that we follow daily, weekly, monthly, etc. I'll give you an example of one of mine: on weekday mornings, I get up in the morning, I do yoga, I eat breakfast, and then I get ready for my day. When I can follow this routine, my life feels more settled - it actually seems easier. But whenever I am moved out of this simple sequence for whatever reason - look out! I can feel out of sorts because my comfortable routine has been disturbed, and this feeling can affect my mood and my ability to focus later on in the day.
So it is when we have someone else telling us to change our patterns of greeting others. "I'm only trying to be loving," we might think. "One little hug won't do any harm..." "It's just a handshake..." We might feel hurt when someone doesn't want to be hugged or touched, and that hurt settles into our hearts.
But consider this: what if - at certain times, especially - the loving action is to maintain distance?
Think about it - you may be healthy (or think you are healthy!). But not everyone around you is. Not everyone around you has a strong immune system. Quite simply put: some bodies can better fight off illness than other bodies. And in loving communities, we are called to think about The Other, even ahead of ourselves. Throughout the gospels, Jesus lifts up the ancient commandments to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
And that means that sometimes, the most loving action we can take is to allow for distance - to give some space - so that others can have a better chance of remaining healthy.
It also means that, at times, we will be inconvenienced in how we change our activities to move into new patterns of all kinds. It means we might feel a little weird as we bow to our friends instead of hugging. It means the pastor might give you a fist bump at the church door instead of a handshake. It means paying more attention to hand washing as we handle elements for Holy Communion. It means all kinds of adjustments to the actions we routinely take for granted.
And the more I think about all this, the more I wonder if some of this, at least, should become a new normal for us in the Church. Maybe this age of social distancing can also be an age of learning how we can better love our neighbors - with intentionality.
* Note: I am a pastor - not a doctor, scientist, or public health official. For more information about Covid-19 and other contagious illnesses, one resource is the CDC's website.