In Zen Buddhism there is a tradition where a Zen Master will pose a koan to his students to help them gain enlightenment. A koan is a question or a story designed to throw the student’s mind off balance, which will help him understand more about the world and about Buddhism, and in the end, bring him closer to Enlightenment. One of the most famous koans is, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” But there are many, many others. One Zen master asked his students if their eyebrows were still there. Another is a story about three monks watching a flag wave in the breeze. The first monk says, “The flag is moving.” The second said, “No, the wind is moving.” The third said, “No. Your mind is moving.”
They may sound nonsensical, but the student is expected to come up with an answer.
I am beginning to think that God is posing a koan to the Christians today. “What is the Church when it cannot be the church?” A large part of my experience is having people come together to worship. “I’m going to church,” we say, which means both that we are going to the building we call the church, but also that we are going to meet with the people who are part of The Church.
Much of our practice as Christians have to do with groups of people meeting together in our buildings. How can the Church be the Church when we can’t go to church? It’s like a Christian koan.
I have been trying to wrap my head around this for the last two months, ever since we entered into the world of social distancing. I have to admit that I have a very hard time thinking of the Church being socially distant. That is an oxymoron. A church is a series of relationships, people relating to one another with honesty, integrity and compassion, helping each other on our way deeper into the heart of God. How can we do that from a distance? I feel like a struggling Zen student, trying to understand a koan. Except this koan is not a theoretical exercise done in the quiet simplicity of a Buddhist monastery. It is our reality right now. It is every Sunday morning when I walk into an almost empty building to preach to a camera, and every Wednesday without our Food Bank. It’s all those times I am in the office, and the building is completely empty.
How can this be church?
And then I remember that Jesus didn’t go to church. Sure he showed up in a synagogue on occasion, and when he did he usually caused the kind of commotion that made him persona non grata. Once, after one of his sermons, they tried to kill him. (That sermon, by the way, was only one sentence.) His best sermon (the Sermon on the Mount) was given outside. He preached from boats on the shore of Galilee, and on the Temple steps.
I’m going to stop using the word “church” for a while. My traditional understanding of church seems so irrelevant for these days, and that word just confuses me. Instead I’m going to try to understand who we are as the Christian community or as the family of God.
And, like a good student of Buddhism wrestles with a koan, I am going to wrestle with this conundrum, this way of being the people of God in exile. I have to. There s no other choice.
I’ll close with a story from Buddhism.
Suiwo, the disciple of Hakuin, was a good teacher. During one summer seclusion period, a pupil came to him from a southern island of Japan.
Suiwo gave him the problem: “Hear the sound of one hand.”
The pupil remained three years but could not pass this test. One night he came in tears to Suiwo. “I must return south in shame and embarrassment,” he said, “for I cannot solve my problem.”
“Wait one week more and meditate constantly,” advised Suiwo. Still no enlightenment came to the pupil. “Try for another week,” said Suiwo. The pupil obeyed, but in vain.
“Still another week.” Yet this was of no avail. In despair the student begged to be
released, but Suiwo requested another meditation of five days. They were without result. Then he said: “Meditate for three days longer, then if you fail to attain enlightenment, you had better kill yourself.”
On the second day the pupil was enlightened.
Nothing like a deadline!
How has the time of COVID affected your idea of Church?