So I am wading through emails, every subject line reading the same: COVID-19 RESPONSE (important). I am becoming more and more certain I must be inside a kind of administrative fever-dream, and the moment I find something in my inbox detailing life beyond the L O C K DOWN I will be dumbstruck by the uncanny feeling of inception. I will sink to my knees like a soldier whose forgotten mementos from home fall unexpectedly out his breast pocket. This, of course, ...might... be hyperbole - but when I got a request to write a blog post about living as a Christian in Oxford, I felt like I was being tasked with the immense responsibility to chronicle life “Before”. I know that I will not appear on the OICCU website smiling under wisteria and talking of trusting God with upcoming exams. This is not the world we live in now. My Trinity term is now happening somewhere above my head, a portion of digital traffic coming and leaving my home and I am having to learn what it means to do an art degree, be a friend and stay faithful to my God in dematerialised circumstances.
I cannot remember ever not going to church. I have been raised a Son of a PreacherMan and even becoming a Christian in my teens, I think in hindsight, I have never quite been grateful for it. Church has always felt ordinary. It’s always been so unexceptional to share in the promises God has made to us. And then March happened and as anxiety turned into irritation, the reality of pandemic quickly felt like a huge inconvenience. Churches began to close across the country and Christians were sent to the grainy recesses of Whatsapp and Zoom, and I was struck by what had been lost. (maybe Joni Mitchell was right- you really don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?) That far from the location of worship, the local church is something entirely Other, immensely radical and as the ‘body of Christ’ (Ephesians 4.29) the congregations partake in the material expression of a faith that is relational, open and contingent. Right now Sundays feel very much like the shadow of this community, it’s all rather a stilted and solitary affair and it goes without saying 420p doesn’t quite do anybody justice. For everyone, Sunday online just doesn’t compare to the marvelous technicolour of being gathered as one body, resting and worshipping under the authority of God. As the corporeal manifestation of this ‘Body of Christ’, Christians long for the nourishment of real, material communion with one another. Our response of compromise has pulled us into strange new shapes and the local church feels so much like a body under strain. But despite these difficult circumstances our God is not a god who is dependent on circumstance. Christians may feel more lonely away from the resources of community, but we remember in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, God is not housed in the church, he is not scaffolded into the routines of our lives, but in him we find a home. I am reminded again of Augustine, who wrote ‘you have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you’. In God we are in the perfect and complete company of a listening, present and personal Saviour.
Understimulated and overfed at home, I have been dwelling on the last term obsessively with some ambition to eak out enough emotional fodder to last me the term ahead. I think I have enough to last me until week 3. And among memories of dinner parties, bike punctures, and Judith Butler-induced meltdowns, I keep returning to something I read in 1 Peter: ‘Above all, love one another deeply, for love covers a multitude of sins’. Despite all the noise of term time, the Lord in his Word has been teaching me how to love furiously, and how immense and uncompromising his vision for love is. Even though life feels far from convenient or safe at the moment, I am so grateful that I follow a God whose mandate doesn’t change. I can look back and see an instruction to love, and look forward and see the same.