I wonder if your body is as confused as mine has been, of late, about what to do with itself around other human beings.
Some of you are probably avoiding the confusion by maintaining a pretty rigid “no-touch” zone, even now. And some of you are thinking, “What? Those worries are so 2020!”
For the rest of us, confusion reigns.
Take, for instance, the question of handshakes. Do you or don’t you take that other person’s offered hand, or extend your own? After our year of diligently (religiously!) washing hands, many times a day, while pondering the many routes by which they can become germ-ified, the unnecessary touching of hands feels senseless. It’s no wonder Dr. Anthony Fauci predicted the demise of this ritual.
But our bodies are used to this greeting at a level deeper than our scientific learnings. Our anxiety about germs and viruses is countered by habit, and by our bodies’ understandable longing for physical interaction. It’s no surprise that hands get extended, waiting for that reciprocal gesture, and grip, and joined lift and drop.
I told myself, in the wake of vaccination, and the more relaxed CDC guidelines that came in May, that I would not shake hands; I would offer my elbow instead. It seemed more manageable. This has seemed manageable many times. The other person quickly adjusts, and we give each other a rueful smile.
But this plan doesn’t work every time—and not because of that other person, but because of me! More often than I would have predicted, my right hand will get ahead of my intention. I’ll find myself actually taking that other person’s hand, as if we were back in the old days when this was perfectly natural!
Not only that, but sometimes I’ve found my own hand reaching out to that other person, all unbeknownst to my thinking brain, so that I’m the one initiating the handshake—or even a hug!—and facing the possibility that I will be the one rebuffed with their elbow, or a step back, or whatever might ensue.
Having lived through all this awkwardness, I appreciated the conversation on this subject in a recent Dare to Lead podcast, in which Brené Brown interviewed Priya Parker, a master meeting facilitator and author who has spent a lot of time thinking about how we gather. Reflecting on the end of the pandemic restrictions, Parker said:
We are all going to experience micro-moments of perceived rejection over the next many months. And when I say micro-moment, I mean, say the invitation is perfect, everything is [going well], and then you walk into the room and someone reaches out their hand and someone leans their body back, that’s what I mean by a micro-moment of perceived rejection, or somebody walks over and somebody else moves away, we don’t fully know how to do this, and it’s going to be really clunky….
She describes exactly what I’ve been experiencing, and surely also creating for other people: “micro-moments of perceived rejection.” What a true and insightful phrase. It so describes the problem of handshakes, hugs, shared food, and more. Parker says leaders can help defuse some of the awkwardness of all this by naming it and thus “de-personalize some of that perceived rejection, to [normalize] the stumbling and fumbling around….”
Such good advice, and it actually goes further than these bodily interactions. This post-pandemic season seems rife with opportunities for what feels, at some level, like rejection.
For instance, take the new negotiations happening right now around about whether we’ll hold some meeting or gathering in person, or just continue on Zoom. This comes up in many groups and contexts, followed by the necessary conversation about whether and how to accommodate those who will not or cannot join in person. We can get “perceived rejection” on either side—whether you’re the one hearing that “they” won’t come, and you’re the one who feels a little less connected to those who eagerly do.
Some groups expanded over past months to include people who are no longer local. These new configurations perhaps inevitably spawn rejection and loss, when what we built together out of necessity may now feel expendable.
I also want to name the “rejection” some of us are feeling in our churches, as we notice the people missing from our now-opened-up buildings. It wasn’t so obvious in the first weeks, because not everyone was vaccinated yet. But in more recent weeks, and with a relaxation in masking and other guidance, we’re beginning to be more aware of the people who aren’t back in our worship services yet, or at all. Have you noticed? I have, and I’ve begun to notice other people noticing.
Some of the “missing” are simply traveling, or haven’t yet stepped out of their pandemic cocoon. Some have young children who cannot yet be vaccinated, so they’re holding back. Some are quite satisfied with the simplicity and accessibility of livestream worship. All of these are a matter of time and preference; they’re not present, but they haven’t left us.
Some, though, will not be back. Some started attending other churches that reopened sooner, or that they discovered on livestream. Some were only somewhat engaged before the pandemic, didn’t find online workable, and have discovered that Sundays hold many delights other than worship; they’re out of the habit and not really inclined to return. Some have had their faith shaken by the events of the past year, or by personal losses or hurts.
The loss of those people, and others, is particularly hard because this reality is hitting us in a pretty big wave. The pandemic both obscured and accelerated things that were already in process. Now that we’re on the far side of that storm, we are seeing fallout that developed over more than a year, but wasn’t visible until we could look around our familiar spaces and begin to notice what has changed..
And, yes, if you are experiencing “perceived rejection” in all this, you are not alone. Of course it’s painful when people decide to leave our churches. We’ve shared a lot of life together. We thought we were in it for the long haul—and in many cases we were.
We can have the best of intentions, and follow-up conversations, and some may re-connect. But things change. Just like these recent changes in the unquestioned normalcy of shaking hands, and hugs, and all. Micro-moments and also big waves of perceived rejection are a real thing, and it may be useful to name that. Putting words to this experience is important. We probably aren’t through all this yet.
When a clergy colleague remarked about this phenomenon recently, as it was showing up in their church, I found it helpful that their next words were about some things that were going well. A recent baptism. Sign-ups for Vacation Bible School. Some new leaders. A good conversation. It’s worth remembering that real or perceived rejection is not the whole story. The work continues. God is still at work, and will be, in and through us all. We start again from where we are, storm-tossed and more than a little bruised. But we do start again. And God is good.
And we remember that no matter what, we are loved. Even though God has always had every reason to give up on us, for all the ways we turned away and our love has failed, God’s love remains steadfast. And in the light of that love, it’s easier to remember the faces and words of so many others whose love has nurtured and led us, even to this day.
So, here we are, with nothing to do but climb again onto that fundamental truth together—elbow to elbow perhaps!—and keep being the church.