The world seems to be divided into two distinct groups – huggers and non-huggers. Some people announce their preference during introductions. “I’m a hugger,” a new acquaintance informed me. “Do you mind? It’s so good to meet you.” At the other end of the spectrum are folks like my uncle (a confirmed non-hugger) who insists that a “hearty handshake” is sufficient to convey good wishes and affection.
Nowadays, neither form of expression is acceptable or encouraged.
The Coronavirus has reestablished societal rules that would warm a Puritan’s heart.
“No touching” is the recommendation of the Center for Disease Control.
“Stand at least three feet apart,” advise many doctors.
“Don’t get too friendly,” seems to be the general advice.
A large part of gathering together as the people of God is the act of caring for one another. Whether we assemble for worship or fellowship or a shared meal, there are always extended periods of hugs, handshakes, and hearty pats on the back. The warm, caring congregation I serve often expresses their concern and compassion with these personal, physical forms of affection. They are treasured by the vast majority of our congregation and particularly by those who live alone or are mourning or lonely or seeking the warmth and reassurance of human touch.
So we enter a new era – hopefully a temporary one – where we must discover new ways to greet and honor one another. We decided against eliminating our post-worship receiving line where huggers and non-huggers greet me and engage in conversation. Those encounters are priceless. Ministry is, at its heart, all about relationships and the bond we share. In those precious moments I can ask about someone’s health, check in about children or parents, or hear a brief recap of a trip. Now we need to learn to do that without physical contact.
We are experimenting with creative alternatives. Some people offer a “Namaste” with prayer hands in front of their chests while others fold their fingers into a heart shape to express their affection. Some people have tried tapping feet but many of our older folks envision themselves toppling over and opt to keep their feet firmly planted on the floor. The Vulcan hand signal, arms crossed over the chest in a symbol of an ancient cross, and simply bowing to one another are all options.
We are dipping our toes into the beauty of American Sign Language. Last Sunday a teacher of the Deaf taught us the symbol for “peace be with you.” Dabbling with a new language reminds us that God speaks in many ways. As we learn new expressions, perhaps we will become more attuned to the nuances and needs of others.
None of us asked for this era of fear and concern that the Coronavirus has thrust upon us. But God is good. There are many ways to be in community with one another. Whether online or in person, whether in close contact or maintaining “social distancing,” we can honor the most important elements of community – listening, loving, caring, and accompanying one another on the journey.