By Joe LaGuardia
Churches are facing unprecedented times in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. At first, we were all united in our efforts to keep people engaged and worshiping at home. We invested in online platforms, learned how to speak into cameras (an audience of one), and utilized crowd-sourcing social media to facilitate group worship.
Then, when things began to open in early May, churches (or at least clergy and church leaders) faced new questions: when and how to open.
These questions, in my experience, created more anxiety than actually closing the churches. When we were in the same boat, we found comfort in numbers. We all knew we needed to close. But questioning “when and how” brings no consensus…at all (as the meme below, posted around Facebook, demonstrates)!
Most pastors with whom I spoke wanted a modest approach: We’ll give it several weeks, see where the virus infection numbers go, and then decide.
Our answer to the first question of “when” relied on CDC data, regional numbers, and contextual elements–for instance, the size of the congregation in comparison with the size of the sanctuary.
The next question of “how” fostered various answers, from whether to take everyone’s temperature like the folks at Disney World plan to do, or to “just let adults be adults” and go as they please. In this case, leadership meant fielding suggestions and then making the best decision for the whole.
In my case, the greatest consternation came with our decision to make masks mandatory for worship. We decided on the timing (finally), and we plan to open with a caveat: Requiring masks for everyone 12 years or older.
Many praised the move, but some found it insulting and burdensome.
Masks are inconvenient for sure. They get hot, remind us of our bad breathe, and go against our instincts to (as Vice President Pence said) “look people in the eyes.” (Everyone made fun of the VP for saying that because masks do not cover eyes, but most of us who are public servants know what he meant.)
I come at this from a slightly different point of view. Over the past year, I have been wrestling with a new way of sleeping by having to use a CPAP. A CPAP is a device for sleep apnea and other related illnesses. It pushes air into the mouth or nose to open airways.
Wearing a CPAP is not fun. In fact, its downright miserable. With a CPAP, you are unable to bury your face in a comfy pillow. When you sleep on your side, there are chances to bump the CPAP causing it to blow air in your face all hours of the night. Doctors told me I’d get used to it by now, but I still throw it off in the middle of the night at times.
The CPAP makes me feel hot sometimes. It can get claustrophobic. Its annoying. It gets in the way of hugging my wife. The CPAP hose entangles me when I toss and turn.
At the same time, if I head to bed early enough (meaning, not so late that I’m grouchy) and I put it on with a little optimism, things shift. It can become a comforting friend and security blanket. Its rhythmic cycle opens airways and lets me breath without having to deal with allergies. When I wear it through the night, I feel refreshed–like a “new man”–in the morning, and I am not grouchy the next day. Yes, its annoying, but its necessary for my health.
Perhaps wearing a mask at church can bring about the same self-awareness. We wear masks because we are concerned with health — of ourselves and others. It is not political. It symbolizes that we care and “love our neighbor as ourselves,” and its really easy to do. Easier than a CPAP!
Consider our pop culture superheroes. I like Batman. He wears a mask. When we adorn our masks, we are superheroes. I know its corny, but its true. And, yes, it may muffle our hymnody and singing, but praise is not only about song and sermon–there is something to be said of “doing for our neighbor” that is a part of praise to our neighbor’s Creator.
“Above all, maintain constant love for one another…Be hospitable to one another without complaining” 1 Peter 4:8, 9.
We ask God to bring healing to our lives; sometimes the very tools we have to stay safe is God’s way of bringing healing to our lives. So when you waver about wearing a mask to church–or anywhere for that matter–just know that there are people that are much worse off than you are. You are alive, and that’s a gift. You don’t have to wrestle for a good night’s sleep, and that’s something. You can still worship without getting beheaded, so you have that going for you. Don’t complain. Its only temporary.