I’ve been thinking lately about what it feels like to be spiritually connected to other people. One of the things I am hearing from you is that you are struggling to feel connected or stay connected to the church since we have not been physically together since March. Thinking and praying about that challenge helped me to remember something I read long ago in a favorite little book of mine called In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen: “[W]hen Jesus speaks about shepherding, he does not want us to think about a brave, lonely shepherd who takes care of a large flock of obedient sheep. In many ways, he makes it clear that ministry is a communal and mutual experience.”
We cannot fully live a life of faith in Christ in solitude. We need a community. We need mutual experiences that help us grow and connect us to God through each other. In short, we need each other. The biggest challenge every church I know is facing right now is how to create and encourage community and mutuality right now.
In Luke 10 Jesus sends disciples out ahead of him in pairs. “Whenever we minister together, it is easier for people to recognize that we do not come in our own name but in the name of the Lord Jesus who sent us.” (Nouwen, ch. 2) There is a conviction in these words that the same Lord who binds us together will also be the one who is revealed to us and through us in our community and beyond. Remembering Jesus’ own words about how no one has greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, Nouwen also says, “But how can anyone lay down his life for those with whom . . . he is not in a deep personal relationship? Laying down your life means making your own faith and doubt, hope and despair, joy and sadness, courage and fear available to others as ways of getting in touch with the Lord of Life.”
Put these two ideas into action in your life in a new way. Find a prayer partner in the church or in the broader community. Pray together, reflect on life together, check on each other, and offer each other reminders of care and commitment born out of being in the Body of Christ together. In this way, you can be sent in pairs by Christ into the world.
Finally, Nouwen suggests that living the Incarnation—not just in our own physical bodies but also in the corporate Body of Christ—helps us “discover the presence and work of the Holy Spirit.” (Nouwen, ch. 2) And it is that presence and work that helps us to stay connected to one another.
In the midst of our struggle to stay connected without being able to be face-to-face as we would like to be, I encourage you to remember what brought you to this community of faith in the first place, and what has kept you engaged with the congregation of Embry Hills UMC. I suspect it was a relationship formed with someone in worship, in a small group, on a mission team, in Sunday school, or in some other communal or mutual experience. Relationships need nurture and care, but when they are built on the grace and love of Jesus Christ, they are not lost when we are not able to be together. Reach out to those folks who are your spiritual community. Thank them for helping you connect with God more deeply. No matter how long you have been connected to this congregation, remember the feeling of being connected that first helped you find a spiritual home at Embry Hills, and celebrate it. From there, we can find the strength to carry forward into new opportunities to build community and mutual grace and care for this community. I look forward with deep anticipation to the day we can gather again for worship and sing and shake hands and look each other in the face, not just the eyes. Until them, I’m standing on the promises of Christ, the love I have for you, our common experience of transformation, and our mutual commitment to helping God accomplish the transformation of the world in every way we can.
I look forward to seeing new faces when we are able to gather again for worship. There will be new connections to celebrate, new relationships to build, new ways to serve and grow together. In the meantime, stay connected. Reach out to someone you know and have been missing. Find a prayer partner. Give thanks for long-standing, deep friendships born out of faith. And look for new connections born out of our strange circumstances. You never know what new connection you can find that could change your life!