Last week someone tweeted: “How to faithfully celebrate Easter this year: Only women on the Zoom call. Call is scheduled before dawn. We speak only of impossible things that would topple the empire.”
The tweet was referencing the biblical accounts of women, followers of Jesus, returning to Jesus’ tomb alone on Easter Sunday only to discover his body gone. According to the story, it was the women who went out early in the morning to do the work of embalming Jesus’ body. That first Easter was fear-filled; Jesus’ followers were in dire peril and hiding in their homes because of Jesus’ challenge to unjust systems.
For most of us today, however, the holiday is a joyous one. On Easter Sunday in America, Christians across the country put on fancy clothes and come together for lots of music, Easter lilies crowding the sanctuary, and the kids tumbling over each other competing for colored eggs in the church yard.
Who would have thought that this year our Easter observance would look more like the first Easter than anything we’ve experienced in our lifetimes?
But with our whole world engaged in fighting a pandemic, it’s abundantly clear that there will be no crowded church pews on Easter Sunday 2020. Who would have thought that this year our Easter observance would look more like the first Easter than anything we’ve experienced in our lifetimes?
This reality has handed clergy and other religious leaders the monumental task of helping their people connect with God using the digital space.
It is perhaps one of the biggest understatements of the year that religious communities have not been leaders in using technology to build spiritual community. Still, some of us had begun dipping our toes into the digital space before COVID-19 banished us to our homes. At first, it was televised services and radio broadcasts; some of us who were really innovative learned how to livestream our services on the web. The more edgy among us even learned how to create and produce podcasts.
Still, this level of digital engagement is not mainstream in most faith communities. Even those of us who were trying to provide spiritual nurture in the digital space had the impression that these efforts, while convenient for folks unable to be in worship in person, were at best supplements to the in-person experience.
This general outlook shifted suddenly only a few weeks ago. Almost overnight everyone was scrambling to figure out how to wash our hands correctly, buy groceries safely and live in small spaces either far too isolated or way too close to family. And as a new normal begins to settle into something of a routine, the stress and fear, loneliness and boredom have many of us longing even more for spiritual connection.
Like so many other corners of society, religious communities were caught unprepared for a challenge we could never have imagined. But in response, many churches and faith communities are trying their hands at something new: innovating and creating worship and spiritual nurture using digital tools. Of course, this has resulted in a wave of hastily constructed, technically clumsy Facebook livestream worship services and many, many spiritual leaders lamenting our lack of online savvy.
But as they say, necessity is the mother of invention, and this moment offers an incredible opportunity to rethink everything we thought we knew about how we build relationships with God and with each other. Who knows what else will emerge now that we find ourselves at the digital drawing board, all together, articulating the ancient and ongoing need for connection with God and to each other and imagining all the new ways in which we can find spiritual nurture and join together — virtually — to do the divine work of healing the world?
Every single attempt at digital engagement for spiritual nurture, bungled or not, is a beautiful expression of a spiritual truth: that God can show up in the most unexpected ways, and that real spiritual community and formation will certainly follow.
Who could have imagined a celebration of Palm Sunday would happen by stitching together videos of separate households staging their own individual palm waving parades with construction-paper leaves slapping the walls of hallways and furniture?
And when a small group gathered in my living room a few weeks ago on the first Monday in Lent, we never imagined that six weeks later we’d be together on a Zoom call that allowed us to hear one another's voices and perspectives, healed by a deepening experience of God and each other.
Even in the middle of fear-filled times when we feel like we’re in dire peril, hiding in our homes, we will continue to nurture the spiritual work of this moment and every moment: speak of impossible, world-changing ideas that confront power with truth, enter into beautiful community, and allow faith to change our lives for the better.