Ubi caritas est vera, Deus ibi est. Wherever love is true, God is there. Wherever Christian love, charity, service is true, God is there. I heard this chant sung on a recent Friday morning when I clicked on my daily devotion. The sound slowed my pace and centered my attention. Thinking of God’s presence concurrent with true love and kindness frees me to think creatively about the current and future church. As I write this, faith leaders across the country wrestle with when and how to resume in-person gatherings. I read an article in a major newspaper that quoted a pastor of a large church. He said, “We are asking the most vulnerable to stay home.” I immediately thought how counter to the gospel that sentiment sounded. And yet, the intent of the instruction was to keep people healthy. Even so, there seems something wrong about coming together when only part of the body can safely be present. But when has there ever been an occasion when the entire family of God could be in the same place at the same time?
As we struggle to discern how to be and do church under the threat of a highly contagious and potentially deadly virus, perhaps this ancient hymn, sung during the Maundy Thursday liturgy, could shape our practice. Wherever love is true, God is there. God is there when we worship on Facebook Live. God is in one of those squares – or perhaps in between them or surrounding them – when we teach a Bible study on Zoom. We trust God’s living Word will not return empty no matter how it is proclaimed. God is there in line for toilet paper and diapers in the parking lot of the community center. God is there passing out boxed lunches at the church kitchen door.
As one who often expressed skepticism as to whether community could be constituted across cyberspace, I confess my doubt stemmed from privilege. I am able-bodied. I have reliable transportation. My work schedule allows me to attend church events at the times they are offered. When my children were young, I had access to childcare. My hearing and sight are acute enough that I do not get frustrated with printed bulletins or poorly amplified preachers. My barriers to face-to-face community were almost nonexistent. How easy for me to say that a virtual support group cannot possibly replace meeting in person. How easy for me to judge online worship as less than that experienced sitting in a pew.
This season of COVID-19 put me partially in a position many know all too well. My freedom to go where I please is limited. I cannot meet friends at the coffee shop to study the Bible. If I want to hear a sermon or pray with others, I must do so from my home in whatever ways are accessible. As much as I may want to sit around a table in the fellowship hall and talk, I am unable to do so. For my siblings in Christ with chronic health issues or children unable to sit through an hour-long service or who work on Sundays, such limitations are nothing new. Thankfully, ubi caritas est vera, Deus ibi est. My judgment and limited imagination do not restrain God’s ability to be present to those who may well long to be face to face with others in the church building, but cannot be.
If we learned nothing else from this season of forced physical separation, we learned that the church can change and change quickly. Within days of social distancing orders, congregations found ways to connect, care, worship and serve. They found ways to love truly and discovered quickly that God was indeed present when they did. In the months ahead we will be called upon to continue to adapt and adapt again. We will need to lament what this pandemic has taken away from us. However, we cannot ignore the wrestled blessings this strange season has given us. Through it all, we can cling to the promise that ubi caritas est vera, Deus ibi est. Wherever love, charity, kindness, service is true, God is there. Ours is to pray for the wisdom to know what true love is and embody it wherever we are.
Grace and peace,