We all know how much COVED-19 has changed our lives in less than 2 weeks. No more gathering at church for worship, prayer, the reading and preaching of the Word, communion and dinner. No more afterglow conversation. No more visits between friends. Now it is just Lar and me or you and yours at home. Fortunately, Lar and I have always spent a lot of time in communication with each other and I am used to being alone a lot. Larry, however, likes to be in big groups and that is now impossible – or at least, imprudent.
As I was watching the leaders create new ways for us to connect, I was reminded of ways I have been “together alone” with many people over the years and I thought I would share my experiences.
Back when the world wide web was not quite a thing yet, some of you may recall that we had AOL. You could use your phone to hook up to the AOL server and find multiple “message boards” where you could discuss just about any topic you could imagine or even start a board of your own. At that time, I had experienced health struggles for quite a while and had finally been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.
Well, I’d never met anyone with an autoimmune disease except for a couple of patients I’d cared for during my hospital clinicals while in nursing school. What’s more, at that time, I’d spent the past 20 years in Charismatic/ Pentecost churches. We had always attended churches that, while believing in the present day gifts of the Spirit, were not a part of the extremism you often saw in some parts of that particular tribe. Even so, some of the Health and Prosperity Movement had crept into the hearts of a few members, even if it wasn’t in the leadership. So, besides this diagnosis, I had words like, “If you just believe enough, you will be healed” being spoken to me from the fringes. I certainly wanted to be healed and I believed God still does heal, but had previously observed that the folks who pushed healing the hardest, had outcomes no better than the folks who prayed and asked for healing, but accepted that God might have a reason for allowing, My prayer has always been that God would be glorified through me and I knew that if chronic illness could serve a purpose in either me or God’s kingdom, I was willing to let Him have his way. I had a super supportive husband in Larry but there was no one else to talk to about the feelings I was having and the losses I was experiencing. Before the internet changed everything (it really did!), chronic illnesses, visible or invisible, were not well understood by the public – and dare I say it, by many doctors who weren’t specialists. I was a nurse and though I understood the pathology and knew about the drugs, I had no knowledge about how to deal with it in my heart and mind than the next person.
So, one day, I got onto AOL and started looking for a message board for people with chronic illnesses. I found only one at that time. It had been created by someone who had never posted in at and had never returned. It was completely void of posts.
So, I decided to post something. I said, “Is anyone out there?” I told them what disease doctors said I had. I told them what medications I was on. I told them that I really wanted to talk to someone who’d experienced my feelings, my uncertainty and my sense of loss. I told them I was a committed Christian and that while I’d gladly talk to anyone, I wanted especially to talk to Christians who might understand the confusion in my heart and the God aspect of it all. Then I left the computer, expecting to not hear from anyone very soon, if ever.
But the next day, when I went back to the message board, there was one response from a woman in Houston, the wife of a Church of God (Anderson) pastor, who said she had lupus and she related to everything I said. I quickly responded. Then, the next day, another woman posted. She was a Baptist from Mississippi and also had lupus and ended up being one of the greatest prayer warriors I have ever known. Then a couple of days later, we were joined by a woman from Florida. She was ordained minister in the Assemblies of God and worked as a hospital chaplain, but her struggle with Sjogren’s Disease and severe fibromyalgia was making it harder and harder for her to function in a normal way. Eventually, people joined us from many states, from Canada, the UK and even Norway. It ended up being a fully Christian group and we concentrated, not only on finding answers to our questions and praying for one another, but getting closer to Jesus. We had online prayer meetings which were some of the best prayer times I’ve ever had – even though they took place in a chat room where we had to type and read every word. I wrote a Bible study from the things God was showing me which I called, “H.I.S. – His image through Suffering, and we went through it together in our chat room.. Now, I was a fairly fast and accurate typist back then, but many of these women were picking around with one finger. But we just waited while they slowly pecked so they could make a comment, ask a question, or voice their prayer in the chat room as well as on the board. We were also in 5 time zones – one of them, European. Most found the virtual world a little weird at first, but they adjusted. A couple of people got up in the middle of the night to join us or rearranged their schedules In order to participate. Meanwhile, we also continued to communicate on the message board as well. The desire to connect with each other was strong especially since many of these women had no one else.
I posted my first comment in August of 1996 and 24 years later, we’ve lost some people to the ravages of disease. Others eventually found support in their communities and either left or drop in on us only occasionally. But the core remains. We are now a private FB group. Those who could because they had resources and times when they were feeling up to it, have sometimes traveled to see each other. Mary Ann, the pastor’s wife who first responded to my post, along with her husband, have become dear friends of Larry and I and we’ve gotten together more than once. I’ve traveled from Missouri to Maine and then to California, to visit “H.I.S.” friends. I received visits from Minnesota, OK and Texas. We are a community, forged on a computer screen, before visual chats or cell phones were even possible.
Which to me says, if you value your community enough, you can learn to function well within whatever limits you have. Yes, we sometimes very much wanted to see each other’s eyes and smiles, to feel each other’s hugs or lay hands on each other while praying, and to actually hear their prayers and comments spoken. We used to talk about one of us getting a bus,and traveling around picking up everyone and going to the mountains for a vacation. We knew it would never happen, but that wasn’t the point. If given the money and health, I’d have visited them all in person and still would, bus on not, but that just was never possible. But still, we are a community, closer than most, and it kind of feels kind of like we ARE all on a blue bus (the color favored by the majority) traveling through life together.
Now, we are in a health crisis and many Villagers can’t be together in person. But we have even better options now than we did 20+ years ago when H.I.S. began with two posts between two strangers on an otherwise blank message board. We now have streamed services and opportunities to talk with each other and actually see the smiles, tears, and people at worship. We can hear the joy or discouragement in their voices. Yes, it is a bit awkward at first for many of us. But our leaders are a patient lot. If we really want to and if we really consider it worth a bit of effort and initial awkwardness, true teaching, worship, prayer and fellowship can happen in our current situation. I know this because I’ve been experiencing it for more than 20 years.
We can truly be “Together and Alone”.
NOTE: The term “Together Alone” (as far as I know) originated within the context of the Northumbria Community in northeast England. There, Celtic missionaries from Ireland, Scotland and Wales, came to spread the gospel among the tribes and kingdoms of northern England during the 5th and 6th centuries. And there today, stands the mother house of a neo-monastic community that has spread its reach all over the world. You may know them through their Celtic Prayer Book, but they are also a true community, dating back to the 1970s and includes people from many denominations. When it became evident that people around the world were interested in somehow joining them, they extended invitations to all. You can be a friend of the community, a novice or a full member. Either way, because the community is so widespread, they started using the term “together alone.” I became a friend many years ago and had once hoped I could go to the UK to become a novice and then a full member, but due mainly to health issues and the prospect of England’s cool and rainy environment (which aggravates my pain), it never happened – so God gave me the Village instead! (-: But I still love my brothers and sisters who are a part of the Northumbria Community and still feel that I am together alone with them in my heart.
Now, the corona virus has provided Villagers the unique opportunity to be “Together Alone” in Tucson. I don’t look at that as a bad thing, but an opportunity to become closer by using a unique method during a unique time that can result in a profound closeness.