Yesterday after church, I moseyed down to Panacea Coffee House to see if they were open.

Thankfully, I was greeted at the door by smiling eyes, the smell of coffee and bagels. As I waited for my bagel to be toasted, I chatted with one of the employees.

I mentioned how pleased I was they were re-opening. He responded, “Yeah…we’ve got to do it…it’s scary, though.”

For me, this acknowledgement of uncertainty and concern was a word from the Holy Spirit. He articulated a worry I’d been feeling but didn’t yet have words for: “Will people come back?” And not just to church, though that’s where I spend most of my energy, but to theaters, to restaurants, to retreat centers, to volunteer as tutors or visitors to the elderly, to sports games?

Will people come back?

Earlier in the pandemic, there was a palpable sense of being held back from togetherness, from community. And over the last year we’ve seen examples of new ways of being community. Friendships mediated through technology are beautiful!

Perhaps others of us, though, have grown accustomed to the insulation and isolation that was deemed necessary initially but that now, I fear, may hinder our flourishing.

In moments of desolation, I imagine a gloomy future with people tethered to screens, coming out of their homes for the Amazon Prime deliveries of Ensure and Hi-Protein shakes. We can get along these day with so little touch, so little face-to-face interaction.

While I find I can’t stamp down this fear by sheer will alone, I do find consolation in conversation with others who are wrestling with the same challenges.

I belong to a denomination that emphasizes the incarnation (God becoming human) and the sacraments (where regular material stuff like water, bread, wine, oil become sacred and reliable vessels of God’s grace).

While I am grateful that we can now live-stream our worship services to reach those who are homebound or scattered across the U.S., this means worship is supplemental to the promise physical touch in passing the peace and sharing together the holy meal of communion.

Touch and eating can’t happen digitally, and they are essential to our faith. In Jesus’ resurrection appearances, he asks the disciples to touch him so that they know he is real, to eat with him because that is how Jesus builds up community.

On a run this morning around Lake Junaluska, I took an unusual path behind the Lambuth Inn and discovered a statue of Christ I’d never seen before. He was holding out bread and a chalice of wine.

Like the conversation with the Panacea employee, the Sprit offered a Word of consolation through this art. Jesus was saying — to me with my fear and worry and problems that can’t be fixed but only endured — “I offer you the bread of life. Come and eat. And trust that humanity will never lose its hunger for me.”

I pray that is so.

(Joslyn Ogden Schaefer is the rector at Grace in the Mountains Episcopal Church in Waynesville.)

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