Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed— not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence— continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.
-Paul (Philippians 2:12)
A former director of the CDC, an epidemiologist who has advised Republican and Democrat presidents, gave a truly remarkable and humble interview last week (I know, another article. I’m sure you haven’t read enough of them during the last 3 months). The focus was clarifying what we really do and really don’t know about COVID-19 and its path forward. He spoke of the various possibilities, from a slow burn of infections for a while, to a dip and then strong resurgence in the fall. He spoke of what the country will need to do in order to navigate the best way forward. There were simply no easy solutions or absolute answers, which was refreshingly honest since everyone knows everything about everything. But that’s not the point here.
I was deeply struck by one comment that he made in passing. He was asked about what people can really do to protect themselves. As he responded about obviously minimizing contact with large groups of people, he said this:
"I categorically reject the concept of social distancing. It’s physical distancing. I hope we never social distance, ever."
Well there’s a statement for disciples of Jesus to chew on.
There are things that work their way into our subconscious without knowing it. Today I’m thinking about what those are, and I wonder if the phrase "social distancing” has become one of those concepts.
Paul makes a little statement while he’s in jail writing to the young church he started in Philippi. He talks about when he was present with them, they obeyed the disciples apostle’s teaching and worked out their own relationship with Jesus together intentionally. But he seems to hint that when he’s not with them, when physical distance is separating them… that it’s going to be doubly important that they lean into their surrender to Jesus and commitment to the gospel. Because everything is harder when you’re apart.
Everything is harder when you’re apart. Faith is harder. Friendship is harder. Understanding is harder. Love is harder.
Over the months, as so many people have physically had larger amounts of separation, I think it’s hard to deny that there has been some serious social distancing as well. Not the kind that keeps us from coronavirus infection, but the kind that threatens the health of our relationships.
Relationships may feel far more optional than they used to. Have you noticed that? And along with that, it has become easier to view each other through a smaller amount of criteria.
Here’s what happens when social (not just physical) distance takes root:
-Screens dominate our interactions and dynamic, technicolor, complicated people become two dimensional.
-Friendships feel like too much work.
-We feel the temptation to become harsher and more critical rather than gentler and more sensitive.
-We are constantly left with our own thoughts, forgetting why we need other people entirely.
The salvation that Paul speaks of to the Philippian church is at the tail end of a statement about humbly learning to love one other and put others first… so yes, it definitely includes the social, relational work that is the Body of Christ. You can’t separate Jesus from his body, so anytime we talk about following Jesus, it means that cultivating loving relationships is always right there with it. And that can bring some serious fear and trembling, because Jesus-centered community takes work.
My hope is that we notice the difference between physical distancing and social distancing, and choose to walk the path of life together. Imagine if….
-In the days to come, the church becomes more vital than ever because we so desperately need each other for support, for mutual learning, and for loving relationships that keep us grounded.
-In the days to come, people make the difficult choice to have face to face conversations even when they feel lazy or tired (like I often do these days) because they know that physical distancing is important, but social distancing could kill us.
-In the days to come our efforts toward compassion, unity, and equality will all be rooted in the repeated truth that we belong to each other in Jesus (Romans 12:5), and nothing can separate us if our eyes are on him every step.
These are the ways that we "work out our salvation"… not only in each other’s presence, but now much more because of each others' absence.
By the way, this is not a thinly veiled message about having hard conversations regarding racial injustice, though it certainly includes that conversation. We just need each other. Period.
We really do. It’s how God made us. And we need holy reminders all the time that if the church is to be the Church, it will always choose to reject social distancing, because love knows no separation.
Jesus, keep me moving toward others even when it’s hard.
*Disclaimer in case you skimmed: I still support keeping 6 feet between people to prevent the spread of coronavirus.