Even if we can’t hug, we still can love and care for folks

Last Sunday morning, my longtime girlfriend and I walked into the 11 o’clock service at the West campus of Cedar Creek Church, which congregates in the gym at the Aiken County Family YMCA.

Though I usually attend the 9 o’clock first service at Cedar Creek On The Ridge, my church’s friendly little campus here in Batesburg-Leesville, I jumped at the chance to drive 30 miles one-way to share a rare Sunday morning in worship with the woman I love.

Sadly, she works for a retail giant, and far too often, her employer requires her to get up early and be at the store before 9 o’clock on Sundays. So, a shared worship experience is a very special, very rare treat for us – at least until I can “put a ring on it,” start building the rest of our lives together forever, and we find her a Monday through Friday job here in Batesburg-Leesville.

I pray every week for God to bless my hope of a godly employer for her as I find myself worshiping alone while she works.

Even flying solo (with a certain sadness on my heart), I tend to roll into church like a basketball player charging onto the court during pregame introductions. I chat up everybody in sight, shake their hands or offer big ol’ loving bear-hugs as I find my way to my usual spot on the fourth row.

What can I say? I’m a social creature. I love people.

This past Sunday, however, my beloved and I walked silently into the Aiken Family Y, keeping a respectful six feet (at least) between us and other congregants as we found our “usual Aiken spot” near the back row. We greeted – from a safe distance, of course – the woman handing out sermon outline cards at the front door, but I dared not make any physical contact.

When the assistant pastor made the announcement that the church was, for the first time in a decade, modifying its usual encouragement to “give somebody a handshake or a hug” during the meet-and-greet, we instead waved at folks on the adjacent rows and smiled. I did venture a single elbow-tap with an extra-friendly congregant at the end of one row who confessed that she is usually a prodigious hugger too.

I have little doubt that in the absence of the “existential threat of a global killer pandemic,” she and I would have bear-hugged and probably given each other high-fives after each worship song.

Speaking via livestream from our church’s main campus, our senior pastor mentioned briefly the ongoing coronavirus scare, encouraged everybody to hand their fears to the Lord, then plunged into a beautiful and timely message about growing a heart like Jesus. The message: to love as Jesus loves, to serve as Jesus serves, and to be willing to get angry – righteous anger – for the things that angered Jesus: injustice, hunger, abuse, and the countless ways that people fail to show love and compassion for others.

When the service was over, my girlfriend and I walked out of the church with barely a word – and certainly no hugs or handshakes – for people I’m usually chatting up for a half-hour or so after a good sermon. The way the coronavirus had affected the overall worship experience left me just about as sad as if I had worshiped alone (again) while my beloved labored through yet another Sunday morning shift for an unfeeling retail sporting goods giant.

We’re all in the midst of something I can’t ever recall experiencing in my 51 years on this earth. Back during the autumn of 2001, of course, our nation was thrown into the grip of fear and uncertainty following the September 11th terrorist attacks. At least in that moment, there was a spirit of national unity and a determination to stand together against the shared threat of terrorism.

In the current climate of fear and isolation swirling around coronavirus, there seems to be a more individualized anxiety and a not-unexpected air of self-preservation afoot. Frankly, it’s lonely out here in the very personal battle against this particular unseen – and microscopic – enemy.

And in the midst of it all, some people are losing their ever-loving minds, buying up and hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer. It’s just plain crazy out there right now.

Driving back to Batesburg-Leesville while my beloved peeled off to work the afternoon shift – maybe someday she’ll work for a company that doesn’t open on Sundays – I found myself wiping away a tear. I offered up another prayer that somewhat echoed our senior pastor’s earlier prayer.

“Lord, I know you promise you are with us always,” I prayed as I drove through the countryside. “In this time of uncertainty, this world and your people need you as much now as ever before. Please heal your world. Please heal your people, and please use this crisis to your will and to your glory. In our weakness, your strength is amplified. We need you, and we need to trust that you are using this moment to grow our faith in you. May your perfect will be done.”

In reality, that’s really all we can do in this time of crisis. Yes, we must take care of our health, wash our hands and cover our mouths when we cough or sneeze. That’s just common good sense.

Moreover, we must lean deeper into the Lord in our fear and doubt and trust Him that this too soon shall pass. In the end, our future ultimately is in God’s hand. That’s a pretty safe place to be right now.