Let’s worship in a new way that doesn’t put anyone at risk

As the story goes, the Orthodox Jewish couple had lighted candles before sundown on the Sabbath and settled down to dinner when one of the candles fell and started a fire in the couple’s New York apartment.

Even as the flames spread, the couple refused to call the fire department until they received permission from their rabbi to use the phone since making or receiving phone calls on the Sabbath is against religious law.

I’m not sure what happened next – Johanna Smith, who told me the story, was a wide-eyed New Jersey teen at the time. What she did recall was that the outcome was devastating to both the couple’s apartment building and her fledgling devotion to rigid Jewish orthodoxy.

But the point of the story was clear.

“I’m all for prayer, God, finding meaning in spiritual life,” said Smith, a retired Hebrew teacher now living in Rio Rancho and a 2019 Angels Among Us recipient. “But we were given discernment, too. And when we give that up in the guise of some sort of greater devotion, to me, it’s spitting in the face of the very deity we claim to be devoted to.”

Which is to say, God asks us to worship him but he also gives us a host of ways to do that, some more stringent than others, none that need put our lives or others at risk.

Social distancing restrictions because of COVID-19 have bedeviled many of those ways, especially with the observance of Passover and Easter this week and Ramadan in two weeks.

Although Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has exempted houses of worship from such restrictions, mass gatherings of the spiritual kind have been strongly discouraged to curb the spread of the virus.

In response, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe has closed its churches. Calvary Church has canceled its massive Easter sunrise services at the University of New Mexico football stadium, instead offering a drive-in service. Folks who annually make the pilgrimages to El Santuario de Chimayó or Tomé Hill on Good Friday have stayed home. Seders in Jewish homes across the state were smaller, solo or shared via Zoom.

This Sunday, churches are live-streaming Easter services online. For Catholics, Lent is over but the season of self-sacrifice goes on.

“This week, home is the holy place,” Lujan Grisham said.

Let us pray that worshippers agree. But a WalletHub survey released this week found that 56% of Americans who went to church Easter Sunday last year say they would go to church for Easter this year if their church is open.

In states such as Kansas, Georgia, Texas and Florida, some pastors planned to open their churches in defiance of coronavirus limitations.

“If we hand our God-given rights over to the government to control, then they don’t have to give them back,” my Baptist friend Lori opined. “God gave us this land of the free and he can take it away from us.”

She attends Mesa Baptist Church in Rio Rancho and said the church practices social distancing and disinfecting techniques. It’s banned handshaking, hugging, Sunday school, Bible study and now airs evening services online.

One in-person service the church did not cancel was its annual Lord’s Supper on Tuesday, but added special precautions such as ushering families individually to their socially distanced seats. Ceremonial bread and wine was served in disposable cups. Face masks and gloves were encouraged.

Still, the number of cars in the parking lot prompted a phone call to Rio Rancho police, which dispatched an officer to the church.

“I was waiting for the officer to come into the auditorium to stop the service, order the people to leave and to put me under arrest,” Mesa Pastor Jeff Carr told his congregation in a letter. “I was thinking, this is what goes on in police states and now it’s happening here.”

Nothing happened.

There is comfort, some religiously inclined friends have told me, in coming together in prayer and worship. There’s comfort in cleaving to sacred rituals. Lord knows we can use some comfort now.

But with the threat of COVID-19 everywhere, perhaps there is comfort in knowing that God, whatever that means to you, is everywhere, too.

I see God in the beauty of the forest outside my back door, in the signs of spring in each green shoot and hummingbird. I see God in the courage of every essential worker from the nurses to the grocery cashiers still toiling away on the frontlines. I see God in the kindness of strangers reaching out to others with gifts of bread or hand-sewn face masks or chats on the phone to dispel the loneliness. I see God in the smile of my granddaughter, six months since the day a car crash nearly took her away from us.

Smith, my Jewish friend, reminds me of her religion’s sage principle of pikuach nefesh – the preservation of life.

“It’s the highest principle and supersedes all other laws and commandments,” she said.

That’s not so different from other spiritual and secular beliefs that life is precious.

This Easter, let’s preserve life by staying home, by worshipping in a new way. By loving your neighbor, your god, yourself – safely, blessedly.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.

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