What's Tony Thinking

Amid the Distancing, Some New Intimacy


Where I got my start in ministry, as a student pastor at small churches on the western slope of the Catskills in New York State, a big part of it was “pastoral calling.” Visiting people in their homes, and since it was farming country, in their barns. I may have been part of the last generation to do much “pastoral calling” or be part of churches where it was expected that “the minister comes to call.”

I have been thinking about those experiences because, of late, we spend some time most evenings in the home of various news reporters. As I’ve mentioned, we are regular viewers of the PBS “News Hour.” So, for some weeks now, we’ve been in the homes of Amy Walter and Tamara Keith for “Politics Monday,” seeing the various memorabilia on their walls and shelves. We’ve checked out the bookshelves of William Brangham and Yamiche Alcindor, while listening to their nightly stories. David Brooks and Mark Shields as well, in their respective nests for their Friday review of the week. Last night even Judy Woodruff was broadcasting from her home, no more PBS studio or backdrop.

So there’s an interesting intimacy amid all this distancing. Here we are in people’s homes every evening. These people, national news people have homes! Stuff. Most of them seem to have quite a few books. But you notice other things too, the colors, the fullness or the relative emptiness of a space. It’s strange, but kind of nice.

I kept on with pastoral calling throughout my years as a minister. I always thought that seeing people in their surroundings, on their turf — not mine — had a lot to recommend it. It was different than people making an appointment and coming to your office. That somehow seemed to professionalize the relationship, making it less personal and more formal. It upped the ante. You had to have a “purpose” or an “issue” when you made an appointment with the pastor. While dropping by for a cup of coffee at the kitchen table or standing in the barn at milking time felt like a way to see the world through the eyes of your parishioner. No special agenda was necessary. Just seeing how you are. Soul-care as part of daily life.

And the nightly news are not the only such visits now. On Sundays, going to church via Zoom, we also enter people’s homes as they (and we) show up on the screen. We see the kids bouncing around. Occasionally, a dog or cat walks through or shows up for a rub or scratch. We see a painting in the background and wonder about it. Who painted it? What does it means to that person? We see A. sitting in his favorite chair or a family squished together on their living room couch.

Another bit of intimacy I’ve discovered, or rediscovered, in this time is letter-writing. I had complained to a friend that his emails were too terse and impersonal. He said he didn’t really like email as a mode of communication, but preferred letters. Along came a letter. I wrote back. For years I wrote letters home every week. But it’s been a long time since those days. In the last couple weeks, I’ve been writing weekly letters to my sons. Why not? I have the time. I hope they enjoy the somewhat antique experience of getting an actual letter. It is different than a text or email. We tend to talk to our daughter on the phone more much often than our sons, so I haven’t aimed letters her way as yet.

But listening to her preach via Zoom has another kind of intimacy to it. We have a close up on her face. No hiding up at the front of a church or behind a pulpit. This Sunday and next I’ll have my own first go at preaching on line, visiting two different congregations on Zoom. I’ll probably flub it up one way or another. The people will probably be forgiving. It will be imperfect. It will be okay, maybe better.

Here’s a couple more gifts, intimacies, of this time. I have a friend who brews beer. He puts a couple bottles of his fine product out on his front porch for me. I pick them up. A couple days later I return the empties, and leave a copy of one of my books. Another kind of intimacy, this exchange of gifts. And the family of our son who lives closest, drops off food when they do a special dinner. “Food is love,” says Linda.

I grieve for those families who are at a distance from their loved ones who are sick, who are dying. Awful. Distance becomes cruel. A lack of intimacy, of proximity, when you most need it.

So as we are conscious daily of “social distancing” there are some interesting new forms and experiences of intimacy. Are you finding that? What new forms of intimacy are you finding these days, this season?






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