A couple of days ago we brought several weeks’ worth of magazines in from the garage, where we quarantine our incoming mail. So I’ve been binge-reading the Christian Century, and an article from the Oct. 7 issue reached out and grabbed me. (It’s also available online.) Headlined “When Jesus Isn’t Personal,” it’s by Debie Thomas, director of children’s and family ministries at an Episcopal church in Palo Alto, Calif., where in-person services have been suspended since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
By far it’s one of the best things I’ve seen yet on what it’s like to maintain a “limping but dogged faith that lives in the shadow of a searing absence during these hard, lonely days of masks, temperature checks, and Zoom.”
Thomas says in this year of Coronavirus, she made up “blessing bags” for the kids in her parish — instead of the usual back-to-school “Blessing of the Backpacks” — and delivered them, “linger[ing] for a few socially distanced moments at each front door, checking in with parents, waving hello to children, and trying to make an authentic connection through the pleated layers of my face mask.” It brought home how much she’s missed the “deep, communal, and spiritual” connection that comes with personal relationships conducted in person.
“The interactions were brief and sometimes clumsy,” she says. “But they were something. Something, I realize now, I’d been starving for since the pandemic began.”
Reading this, I felt a connection with her.
Seven months into the pandemic now, I’ve been keeping the faith with online services, bible study and book discussion chats on Zoom. But not in person. They’ve have certainly had their clumsy moments, and it took me a while to get comfortable enough with the technology to even speak up. But they’ve been something. And that something has been a lifeline.
Thomas goes on to say the pandemic reminds her how much her faith is nurtured by personal relationships. She acknowledges, too, she can’t really claim a personal relationship with Jesus, even after hearing about it — and singing about it — all her life:
I have spent many years now feeling spiritually deficient because I don’t have a personal relationship with God. I’ve certainly hungered for the kind of intimacy I sang about so earnestly as a child and young adult. But to claim that I experience a one-on-one intimacy with God that is truly personal would be a lie. God doesn’t walk with me and talk with me and tell me I am God’s own. I don’t feel God’s arms holding me close. Jesus is not my best friend.
Instead, Thomas says she senses the presence of God in other people. Especially the people of her parish. And delivering the back-to-school packets was a reminder :
When I connected in person with fellow parishioners this week, I experienced a tiny spark of what I’ve missed since the pandemic separated us. My spiritual bedrock is not a personal relationship with God; it’s the mystery of the incarnation, fleshed out in embodied community. It’s in the faces, voices, hands, and feet of the body of Christ that I experience Christ. It’s in the laughter of other people that I hear God’s joy. It’s in the tears of other people that I see God’s broken heart. It’s in messy human connection that God’s redeeming love streams into my life.
Oh man, I thought, now she’s preaching to the choir! Or what used to be the choir before we went on hiatus seven months ago.
Like Thomas, I grew up hearing religion — always Christianity down South in the 1950s — spokien of as a “personal relationship with God.” I didn’t hear it so much in my church, which like Thomas’ was Episcopal, as I absorbed it out in the ambient atmosphere. Are you saved? Have you found Jesus? You picked it up by osmosis from billboards and songs like “In the Garden” you heard in other churches, and on 500-watt daytime-only radio stations. But, like Thomas, I wasn’t feeling it. And definitely I’m not feeling it now. I think she’s on to something basic and powerful when she adds:
I’m not saying that these expressions don’t hold value. But as I struggle through week after week of coronavirus-induced isolation, connecting with fellow Christians only on screen or by phone, I wonder if contemporary Christianity’s emphasis on personal religious experience has more to do with American individualism than it does with the Bible or with Christian tradition.
Like Thomas (if I’m reading her correctly), I’m trying to find new ways of connecting as the pandemic continues month after month:
I’m not denying the experiences of Christians who enjoy deep, one-on-one intimacy with their Creator. I’m just being honest enough to admit that I don’t—and to consider whether it’s time to let this long-held expectation go. Maybe it’s time to accept the hunger itself—the aching loneliness I feel as I fast from embodied community during the pandemic—as a kind of holy intimacy, a promise of a union still to come. After all, what is faith but the living out of a hope that is not yet realized?
Certainly I’m sustained, for the moment, by the sense of community I get from Zoom meetings with my pastor and other folks in the Lutheran parish I now belong to. And I’m sustained by the hope — as yet unrealized — that this isn’t forever.
And I remember my first year in graduate school, when I was invited to a seder by Jewish friends from New York City who came south for UT-Knoxville’s nationally ranked doctoral program in clinical psychology.
We were single guys mostly eating in the student center cafeteria and little cafes next to the grad library, and I’m sure they cut corners as they threw together a Passover meal with what they had on hand in an off-campus bachelor apartment. Remember, this was down South when deli food was still considered exotic and you had to go out of your way to find it. What do you do for bitter herbs when the deli down on Gay Street isn’t open?
But the seder ceremony was lovely, even with a bunch of grad students gathered around a ticky-tacky little kitchen table in an off-campus apartment, and I felt like I was part of a community larger than myself. Oh yes, I was assured, it wouldn’t be a seder if we didn’t invite a goy, so my presence helped them do the seder right. I’m pretty sure they invited Elijah, too, and I felt like I was in good company.
One of the guys had a Haggadah booklet, and we went through the ceremony in good order, And at the end, we said, “Next year in Jerusalem.”
And that stuck with me for a long, long time. It’s still with me now.
I was working on a master’s in history then, and I knew the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed during the Jewish rebellion against the Romans in 70 CE. So Jews in exile, in the diaspora, have been reciting “next year in Jerusalem” at Passover for the better part of 2,000 years.
That seder was, for me, exactly what it’s supposed to be — a teaching moment. Next year in Jerusalem. What can I learn from it? As a goy with Jewish friends in a student apartment? What can I learn from it now, 50 years later in a time of pandemic?
Will we be in exile next year? Will we have a vaccine by Passover? By Easter? By mid-October 2021? Will it offer immunity from COVID-19, or whatever mutated form of the bug is circulating by then? Will it be safe for us to go back to church, to our communities? What will I do if it isn’t? How do I — we — keep the faith?
What is faith but the living out of a hope, as Debie Thomas says, that is not yet realized? Next year … A hope in exile? … in Jerusalem. What can I learn now from that little seder so many years ago back in Knoxville? Next year in Jerusalem.
So I consulted a website, My Jewish Learning maintained by 70 Faces Media, a nonprofit, nondenominational Jewish media organization in New York City.
I learned the phrase “next year in Jerusalem” was incorporated in the Haggadah, the Passover story, during the Middle Ages, but “it resonates thematically with ancient biblical themes of past and future redemption.” In a sense, the seder is a reenactment of the Exodus, the deliverance of Israel from Egypt. Explains Michele Alperin, who wrote the item on “Next Year in Jerusalem” for My Jewish Learning:
As the Haggadah says, “For it was not our forefathers alone whom the Holy One redeemed; He redeemed us, too, with them,” and, “In every generation, every individual must feel as if he or she personally had come out of Egypt.” Then, as we end the seder, we utter this phrase that reaches forward to the coming of the Messiah and to complete spiritual redemption, represented by Jerusalem.
Alperin cautions that the “sense of divine presence” associated with Jerusalem “can create a powerful sense of the holy,” but it “can also go awry into the reaches of fanaticism.” She contrasts the ideal symbolized by Jerusalem with the “everydayness” of the actual city, both now in Israel and the Occupied Territories, and in the day of the rabbis whose debates are recorded in the Talmud. According to one midrash, or commentary, Abraham called the city Yireh (“he will see [God]”) but a local king called it Shalem (“complete”). “Not wanting to offend either of these righteous men,” Alperin explains, “God combined the two names into Yerushalayim.”
That also resonates with me. When Debi and I visited Jerusalem, there was a palpable sense of the holy there, but also a palpable sense that the city had been contested ground for thousands of years.
All of it. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, Lutheran NGOs like Augusta Victoria Hospital, the little group of Jewish activists seeking reconciliation with Palestinian Arabs. Even down to little, everyday things like what to do with the stray cats in Jerusalem, including an apparently well-fed feral cat colony on the Temple Mount. Next year in Jerusalem. There’s so much there, I can’t wrap my head around it all.
All of this was — and is — powerful stuff. But Alperin’s idea of spiritual redemption especially resonates with me. As does the whole idea of exile. Even the plagues of Egypt, not to get too literal-minded in a time of pandemic.
But especially exile, and especially this year.
In a sense, my Jewish friends and I were in a kind of exile those years ago in Knoxville, when you couldn’t find decent horseradish after the deli down on Gay Street closed for the night. And it goes without saying — Jews of the Diaspora have been in exile for two millennia.
Next year in Jerusalem. Maybe what it means to me is something like this — in a sense, aren’t we all in exile during this time of isolation enforced by pandemic? When will it end? What will I do in the meantime? Take advantage of bible study and book discussion groups on Zoom till it’s safe to go back to church, yes, of course. But what else?
Perhaps Alperin suggests an answer to my question.
“Perhaps, then,” she says in My Jewish Learning, “it is our responsibility to make the world, and the earthly Jerusalem, into a place where God can reside, and if not now, then perhaps ‘next year’.” She adds:
In every Torah service, we repeat the words of Isaiah 2:3, which proclaim Jerusalem as the source of God’s Torah and ethical teachings: “For instruction shall come forth from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” The very next verse in Isaiah offers a classic description of the messianic future: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks: Nations shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war.”
All of this has taken me a long way from a column in Christian Century about making gift bags filled with school supplies, stickers and prayer cards for children isolated by the COVID-19 pandemic. To a long-ago seder in a Jewish grad student’s apartment down South, and from there to Jerusalem, to an ancient commentary on Abraham and the Book of Isaiah.
But maybe it hasn’t been so far, after all.
Maybe we’re all in exile. Maybe we’re always in exile, even as we gather in community. And maybe it’s up to us to seek the presence of God. Yes, in a new Jerusalem, but also in the everydayness of whatever we can do to help make our world, such as it is, into a place where God can reside.
[Oct. 30, 2020]
Michele Alperin. “Next Year in Jerusalem: Understanding the Familiar Phrase in Light of Modern Realities,” My Jewish Learning https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/next-year-in-jerusalem/.
The Passover Haggadah: A Guide to the Seder. New York: Jewish Federations of North America http://jewishfederation.org/images/uploads/holiday_images/39497.pdf.
Debie Thomas, “I don’t have a personal relationship with Jesus,” Christian Century, Oct. 2, 2020 https://www.christiancentury.org/article/faith-matters/i-don-t-have-personal-relationship-jesus. A version of this article appears in the [Oct. 7] print edition under the title “When Jesus isn’t personal.”