Tucked in my deteriorating mind there is a list of grand human events during which I felt a connection and unity with complete strangers. I suspect we all have a similar list, and many of us share some of these events in common.
The Challenger space shuttle explosion.
The beginning of the first Gulf War.
September 11, 2001.
Then there are the lists that are more regional, events that affected a smaller group of people, but were, nevertheless, unifying. For me, these were
The Washington D.C. Sniper scare
Preparation for an Anthrax attack (that never happened)
The “Snowmaggedeon” storm on the east coast in 2010
The east coast earthquake later that year.
Even though these frozen moments in time are often a result of devastating loss, they bring with them a brief but remarkable sense of unity with our fellowman. On September 12, 2001, people across the U.S., and the world, were meeting in prayer, some of them, I’m sure, for the first time. We went to church, we lit candles, we called distant relatives, and we hugged strangers. I wanted to buy a little American flag that day, just to have one, and found that they were sold out in every store I tried.
I’ve seen the same phenomenon on a smaller scale within small groups and families as well. A beloved parent or grandparent dies, and we receive phone calls and sympathy cards from distant relatives and old friends we haven’t seen in years. Someone becomes sick, or has a baby, or mourns, and groups of friends or fellow church members bring meals and gather to pray. Facing a new financial hardship, a family comes together to pray for the first time, and agrees to set aside some of their favorite things until the trouble has passed.
In our grief, our tragedy, and our fear, we find unity and love.
Here, now, in this strange and surreal time, many of us are confined. We can leave our homes, but we can’t go to work, our children can’t go to school, and events that we looked forward to are cancelled. We can’t exchange many of the few common civilities we show to friends and colleagues. The moments that once seemed appropriate for hand-shaking are suddenly awkward helloes, even more uncomfortable in the absence of a common practice that accompanied our greetings. Many people are required to stay home from their work, and telework that was once viewed as a privilege for some has now become a requirement for all. Others are laid off, or unable to continue working because their business has closed, or they must care for a loved one who was previously cared for by others, who are also laid off, or caring for children whose schools and childcare centers have closed. It is another event that marks itself into memories, when there is unity in tragedy.
But this time, our unity is marked by our separation.
The only time in my life before last week that I ever encountered the word “quarantine” was in old cartoons and books that took place in earlier times. Tom is chasing Jerry, so Jerry chases Tom out of the house, slams the door, and hangs a sign that says “measles” on the doorknob. I was a kid born into an age of vaccinations, so I had to ask others what “measles” was.
Now there are many people who are quarantined, either by doctors’ orders because they have symptoms of COVID-19, or because their immune systems are weak and they are at risk. Others are self-quarantined by fear, or by circumstance. I haven’t left my house since Friday night, and I’m still in the pajamas I put on that night. (Don’t judge!)
Although we aren’t under quarantine orders, we are separating, staying away from others or keeping a greater distance in public. And our common areas, where we gather out of necessity or common interest, are mostly closed. But I’m here, on Monday morning, still wearing my Friday night pajamas, and I’m connecting by posting this blog essay, because I am in wonder of this paradox of unifying sickness.
By agreeing to stay apart for the sake of others, we are coming together.
Toilet paper hoarding wars aside, there are some beautiful things happening here. Because so many families in my community rely on free and reduced-cost school breakfasts and lunches to feed their children each day, there are locations and hours set up for families to collect meals to take home each day. Our church body is generally too large to gather on a Sunday morning without breaking the rules of separation in our community, but smaller groups are meeting together to watch a live telecast of the service and fellowship with each other, giving us the opportunity to see and speak with others who we may not have met up with on a typical Sunday morning. Teachers are sending emails and online contacts to their students and their families to check on them and wish them well, but also to provide a list of websites for practicing the skills they would otherwise be learning at school, or to provide assigned topics on class discussion boards online.
I write often about the paradoxes in this world that make it (paradoxically) difficult and wonderful. I encourage others to approach someone new or different with the idea that God may have brought that person into their life for a reason, and to ask questions and to seek both new knowledge and common ground before rushing to judgment. I want to see people seek unity because I want people to seek Jesus, and initiating a conversation about a loving God who died a horrific death for our sakes doesn’t really work when we don’t present others with the same grace He gave us. Confronting our sin and enabling or helping others confront theirs is necessary, but such conversations should happen within a loving friendship, not the first time we meet someone.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul tells us, “Be in agreement with one another. Do not be proud; instead, associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own estimation” (Romans 12:16, CSB). Amidst this strange season of separation, I encourage you to come together – just not in person. Chat online, make a phone call, send a text or email, send a card. Join a Facebook group for people in your town, and offer food or prayer or a listening ear (or toilet paper). Technology has evolved to allow us to be together safely, even during a forced separation, and God has called us to connection. As His children, forgiven and adopted through Christ’s blood, we are required to serve others, even when we can’t shake hands, and no restriction or quarantine has the strength to prevent Him from reaching the lost. Do His work today. Even if you’re still in your Friday night pajamas.
Photos by: Kelly Sikkema, Dan Gold, and Macau Photo Agency via Unsplash, Tom and Jerry image originally from Hanna-Barbera.