It’s been said that time passes slower when you don’t know how long a task lasts. Uncertainty makes the future feels farther away, and the present more infinite. One of the most excruciating parts of the pandemic is the infinity of it. The Psalmist’s words, How long, O LORD?, took on a new meaning when two-week stay-at-home orders turned into months-to-years-to-undetermined-and-basically-forever of never seeing friends.
For progressives, the infinity of pandemic is overlaid on the infinity of the Trump administration. One way to make a task last longer is to create uncertainty, yes, but another way is to fill up the space with so much disgust and sensational cruelty that the time before and the time after cease to exist. Progressive Christians—and even some of those who at first had hope for a Trump presidency—have been in such a heightened state of reactionary stress for years that the present often numbs out all space for a past or a future. We know intellectually there is the presidency is time-bound, but Trump has a unique skill for making himself seem infinite (and undermining all the traditional rules of democracy).
We are infinitely stuck. Our churches, and our world, seem to exist on an emotional spectrum that runs from exasperation to fatigue to paralysis. The past is an alternate reality. The future is an unimaginable one.
The Christian faith is about finding a way to move through life centered on hope. The task of churches, now, is to cultivate hope, which means to imagine alternatives. Churches must attune us to the possible, the not yet, the alternative vision. For an hour every Sunday—perhaps a little more—we can gather our community, most of us virtually, into imagination. That’s all hope is, after all, the ability to imagine something good in the future.
This is not about self-medicating with eternal salvation. It’s about building the frame that allows people to fill in the center. Something that breaks the paralysis of infinity into manageable seasons where we can take action. Perhaps your church foresees a need for rent relief, or additional hours at the food bank, repairs in the building or in one of your social service or summer camp or mission partners. Orient toward the vision, what your favorite organizations look like in the time after coronavirus. Perhaps an empty building can collect school supplies or homemade quilts or canned goods, a tangible sign week-to-week of how our hope grows and cascades. Perhaps photos of the room are taken and shared weekly; perhaps every thousand cans the room is emptied and the goods delivered to the food bank and a new vision begins. This kind of tangible good matters. It distinguishes the days, the passing of time, shifts Coronatimes from an infinite fog to a rainbow, long and bending toward justice. It increases our sense of goodness day-to-day.
Of course, all this presumes a majority of staff and congregants are not in survival mode. And many, especially the caregivers, are barely treading water.
Ironically, it is the pandemic that has shifted me from survival mode to capacious dreamer—turns out, being bivocational is much easier when you stop trying to have a social life. When I was in the thick of survival mode, several months ago, everything felt doable, in theory. I did not feel that I was carrying more than I could lift. A congregant finally pointed out to me that survival mode doesn’t always feel like survival mode. For those who are overwhelmed, normalize fatigue and listening to your body and releasing the nonessentials. Normalize adjusting expectations. Name spaces that are capacious and where support exists, whether or not it is tapped. Affirm exhaustion.
And at the same time, inventory assets. Celebrate the strengths of parents, caregivers, teachers who are in survival mode, parenting, caregiving, teaching in ways unknown for generations. Notice their resilience, acknowledge them in small ways, imagine alongside of them and invite them into the brief moments they can steal of hopeful dreaming. To the degree that you can, invite the care-receivers into the work of imagination. Listen to children’s views of the future. Ask seniors what legacies they leave, and their hopes for those who arise to carry on the legacy.
In my church, realizing the challenges of Children’s Time in virtual space, we transitioned from adults telling the children stories to children telling the adults stories. Right now, each Sunday a different child is sharing their hopes for the future, from dreaming of eighth birthdays to fully trained puppies to someday becoming a teacher. I often think the adults seem to benefit from this dreaming space more than the children.
No matter how you look, it’s not an easy time. But it’s not an infinite time, either. And the more we can vision the future, the more we can oritent toward the horizon, the more gracefully and rapidly this time will seem to pass.