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Fighting for real connection during the coronavirus

Will virtual “togetherness” replace real togetherness?

Despite the world changing drastically as the coronavirus has spread, my response has been mild. As a stay-at-home mom, I was accustomed to a lot of social isolation. I didn’t get annoyed when I wasn’t able to buy toilet paper, or when I had to alter my breakfast routine because the store was out of eggs, or when my nephew’s T-ball league was canceled. I took it all in stride until the first Sunday that I watched church online. 

That was when the reality of what was happening struck me. 

A lump rose up in my throat as I thought, This is not how it’s supposed to be. Nearly 300 people were on my church’s livestream. Using a chat feature, congregants greeted each other, made jokes about this new way of worshipping, and asked for prayer. Churchgoers commented that they were singing, raising their hands, and kneeling—participating in familiar ways despite the new form.

This way of doing church was definitely better than not gathering at all, but it was vastly inferior to the typical gathering with fellow Christians to worship, pray, and fellowship. 

During the pandemic, we depend more and more on our screens. People use smartphones to connect with friends and family, and rely more on laptops and WiFi to work from home. More people are ordering groceries online to limit potential exposure to the coronavirus. 

These changes are necessary in this crisis. But I fear they could induce a permanent dependence on technology that actually degrades our off-screen way of life.

Phones and computers are powerful tools for connection in the midst of this crisis, but they don’t allow us to connect in embodied ways central to who we are. In the story of creation, God first speaks into being the galaxies and all the earth contains. All came into existence by the power of His word. 

But when He created mankind, He did something different. He didn’t speak it into being—He crafted a body from the dust. And with a breath, He turned it into a living being (Gen 2:7). When God wanted a helpmate for His beloved creation, He put His boy to sleep. Performing the world’s first surgery, He removed His rib and from it made a second body, woman (Gen 2:18, 21-22). 

God’s closeness to bodily man does not stop there. He eventually places Himself in a body, lives, breathes, and dies as one with mankind. As Jesus, the Trinity remains embodied for eternity. And Christians too will be embodied forever in our resurrected bodies.

Physical interaction with others matters. A 20-second hug triggers chemical changes in the brain. A smile does the same. Children who grow up with hugs and eye contact become healthier adults. This all reflects the design of the Creator. A meeting by FaceTime might appear to be functionally equivalent to an in-person meeting. But it is lacking in that essential respect: It doesn’t allow for eye contact. 

Why bring this up when so many of us can’t be together physically? Remembering the importance of embodiment is vital for our response now—and in thinking about how we go back to life as usual when this is over. 

Virtual “togetherness” will tempt us to replace all embodied contact. And this is where we risk losing part of our humanity in this crisis. 

Even now it is possible to find ways to connect with others in the flesh—though it will take creativity, intentionality, and continual modification as health guidelines change. Yesterday, I caught myself yelling down from my second-story balcony to a neighbor below. It felt awkward, almost rude. But it was a way to exchange an in-person greeting, to look someone in the eye, to exchange a smile as we commiserated about our mutual isolation. 

In her book Alone Together, sociologist and technology researcher Sherry Turkle describes a thought progression that’s common among her research subjects: They regard the tech they use as better than nothing, then gradually regard it as better than anything. 

Many people today probably think working from home is better than not working at all. FaceTiming Grandma is better than not seeing her at all. But when the social distancing restrictions ease, when the disease fades, will we regard our current technological solutions as better than what we could go back to?

On a recent Sunday, I slept in later than usual. Instead of rushing to get out the door, I read, made coffee and breakfast, played with my child, and talked to my husband. Then, half-dressed, I opened my church’s website and “did church.” At the end of the service, I went about my day. My daughter was able to go down for her nap on time, I saved money on lunch by eating from home instead of our usual post-church lunch with friends. By not driving and socializing, I added hours back to my normally full Sunday. 

So we may wonder: Why go back to the way it was?

When shops reopen, offices call their workers back, and we can once again gather in groups of more than 10, will we go back to the inconvenience of being together? Or will we be happy with the new norm of distance and separation?

We get to choose how we respond to this pandemic. My hope is that we choose to find creative ways to connect in the flesh today—in the very limited circumstances where that’s still possible—and that when the pandemic passes, we remain people who live embodied lives, laughing, playing, and being present for those around us. 

Amy Van Oudenaren is a native Texan, a former missionary in South Sudan, and an advocate for limiting the use of screen technologies in child-rearing. She’s currently raising a 1-year-old daughter and writing a novel for young adults. 

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Whirled Views

Our dependency upon creation

With COVID-19, we can no longer imagine we are separate from the earth

“I can’t work.” Concentration, creativity, and prolonged focus elude me. Hearing the early morning birds announce the start of a bright Spring day, I feel fairly dark on the inside. I am overwhelmed by troubling news, not just in my city and my country, but across the entire globe. The physical, psychological, and economic toll from COVID-19 is staggering. Between naïve optimists on the one hand and fear-mongering pessimists on the other, none of us actually knows when things will truly get better.    

Even before COVID-19 hit, there was a confounding level of serious need in my community, country, and world. It was just easier to ignore. Many people were already feeling the pains of unemployment, isolation, trauma, hunger, and anxiety over access and effectiveness of healthcare. I am not trying to trivialize the seriousness of this current emergency, but what many of us feel with great intensity right now is the fairly common experience of those who are materially poor, relationally impoverished, or physically compromised. These recent events have only made their situations much worse.  

In truth, we are no more vulnerable now than we were in November, we are just more aware of it. We continually depend on our relationship to the earth and to each other, but it was easier for us to pretend otherwise six months ago. We are always tempted to ignore our need for others. We love the myth of “independence.” Circumstances like this remind us that part of being human is that God designed us to live in relation to—which includes healthy dependence on—God, neighbor, earth, and self. Tragically, sin has affected all four of these relationships, so that rather than loving God, we harden our hearts toward him. And rather than loving our neighbors, we often view them as competition, or a burden, or at least a complication to avoid.

In contrast, the gospel tells us that, precisely because Jesus Christ has united us to Himself in love, we also respond in love both to Him and to our neighbor. In evangelical circles, however, those are often the only two relationships we are comfortable thinking about. Yet sin has affected not just how we relate to God and our neighbor but also to the rest of creation and even to ourselves.

Because sin has affected the entire creation it also changes how we exist in this world, bringing disharmony that Paul describes as creation’s “groaning.” The Puritan John Owen believed humans were called to help the rest of creation praise the Creator (by making musical instruments, building spaces for gathering, and so forth.). Instead we often take the earth for granted and rarely see how our interdependence with it either fosters or disrupts healthy relationships. When our lives are humming along steadily, we happily pick up paychecks and as many eggs as we desire, we go see doctors and greet one another unhesitatingly with a handshake, and we naïvely imagine we are separate from the earth.

But as a new virus ravages the entire globe, we see afresh that our rootedness in the earth affects everything, from breathing to finding employment, from gathering in corporate worship to having neighbors over for dinner. Having a concern for all of God’s creation is not just an environmentalist matter, it is a requirement for living as a human being, and thus a Christian requirement. We must neither worship the earth nor reduce it to disposable commercial units. Instead, we live in and with it as part of God’s wonderful creation that nevertheless groans under harmful disruptions and disharmonies. How is this the case? Well, that is a hard theological question. But that it is the case seems to me to be something we neither should, nor can, deny.  

That is why it is always dangerous to over-spiritualize material poverty or famine or plague, ignoring the interconnected physical, mental, and relational toll they take. Don’t get me wrong, God is also sovereign over all earthly difficulties and disruptions, but that doesn’t mean we are allowed to ignore either their materiality or complexity. Often the unemployed feel abandoned by God, and believers struggling to breathe can be tempted to think God is angry and not compassionate toward them. How we physically feel and our ability to do good work in the world are inseparable from our spiritual condition, whether we acknowledge it or not. This is partly why faithful ministry aims to be as holistic as possible. Consequently, vaccines matter for Christians, just as employment matters and greeting one another with a holy kiss matters. We pray and work to see the disharmony between us and the earth overcome, both for our present good and for what was and is to come.

—Kelly M. Kapic is professor of theological studies at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Ga., and the author or editor of over fifteen books.

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Jens Kalaene/dpa/AP

(Jens Kalaene/dpa/AP)

Whirled Views

Dementia and delight

Readers share stories showing how a dreadful disease doesn’t extinguish the grace of God

Delight isn’t a word most people associate with dementia. 

But over the last few weeks, I’ve heard from many readers responding to a story I wrote about dementia, caregivers, and churches. And I’ve been moved by the current of delight that runs through the suffering in many of those messages.

Some caregivers delight when a loved one still remembers a handful of the people closest to him. Some delight when mom remembers the chorus of a familiar hymn or dad reflexively utters the words of the Lord’s Prayer.

Others delight in the memories they have of the ones who are now forgetting everything. A wife watching her husband’s painful decline delights to remember how well he loved her and her children during his years of health and strength. 

Some delight at brief glimpses into the inner workings of a loved one’s heart and soul. Mart Martin, a reader from Georgia, wrote to share a story about his 90-year-old father, who has been suffering from Alzheimer’s for several years.

I can’t tell the story better than Mart tells it, so with his permission, here’s the note he sent a few weeks ago:

My father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about seven years ago. We are blessed that the resources exist for him to be cared for 24/7 in a wonderful memory care facility in my hometown, Hattiesburg, Miss. My brother and sister live there and see him almost daily. I am a longtime Atlanta resident now but try to make it down every few months.

He has always kept a small daytime calendar—a little diary. He would jot down just a few things that he did that day: “Played golf” … “Went to Lion’s Club” … “Church then nap.” Though those entries stopped several years ago, he still keeps it by his recliner and looks at it often. Now my sister, Molly, makes notes in it—“Mart is coming today” or “Today is Brad’s birthday.” 

On May 1, the family gave him a surprise party for his 90th birthday. While he no longer remembers most family members’ names or their relation to him—beyond my brother, sister, and me, which remains a blessing—he had a wonderful time. My sister visited him the next day, and when she looked at his calendar, this is what she saw:

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