Some substances are prized for their ability to stretch, twist, give, returning to their original shape when the forces that distort them have gone. They are pliant, responsive, when under pressure. Then afterwards they ‘relax’. Elastic bands, for instance, work because they are ‘trying’ to get back to their un-stretched shape and size. They can grip square boxes, round jars, bundles of paper, always ready for a new challenge.
Are we like that? Surprisingly able to respond in a crisis, cope with lockdown, change our behaviour, learn new tricks? But when the pressure is off, desperate to get back to our ingrained habits? Like Piglet, rolling in the mud to get back to his own ‘comfortable colour’ after being cajoled into taking a bath?
Or are we plastic? Not as we usually use the word, but in its original meaning of being capable of taking on a new shape without springing back to the previous one. Like plasticine, or red-hot iron. Or a potter’s clay, which can be shaped and reshaped, becoming in turn a bowl, a vase, a sculpture. A shapeshifter.
And I find myself wondering which is more useful for building a better future? Should I cultivate my elasticity or my plasticity in these challenging times? Which old ways will need to be returned to as soon as possible and which should we be ready to let go of forever? What new possibilities are opening up as we experiment?
Many of us are trying to discern how to get back to in-person Meetings for Worship. But that means meeting, for the foreseeable future, in socially distant, mask-wearing, hand-sanitising ways. And we are exploring how to incorporate the advantages of our recently-learnt online skills into what happens at the Meeting House, to link up with those who cannot get there.
We wonder whether, in our experimenting for ‘blended worship’, we are designing a temporary fix or an improved way of doing things long term. Assuming the threat of Covid will eventually recede, we may want to go back to how things were six long months ago. But we might by then have discovered things in our interim arrangements that we will want to keep.
A member of our Meeting who is, in her own words, ‘101 and a bit’ was exploring recently whether she might try joining our Zoom Meeting for Worship. As she told me, she’s being ‘quite adventurous for her age’. Elizabeth lives in a care home and hadn’t been able to worship with the rest of us for quite some time, but suddenly it looked feasible, as the home now has tablets available and staff who are willing and able to help residents to use them to contact friends and relatives. In theory, she could have joined us online before Covid, but none of us would have thought of it, and if we had, we would have dismissed the idea as too difficult and too disruptive.
In practice, the care home staff couldn’t quite deliver, but a determined member of the Meeting went in on a Sunday morning and linked up with Elizabeth and another Friend living there, so that the three of them were connected via Zoom with the rest of us. It felt very special.
Doing things differently encourages us to be open to more change. But will there come a point beyond which our rubber bands refuse to stretch? Will all the new shapes we are having to inhabit get us into training for the radical shapeshifting needed to counter climate change? Or will we, by the time we’re all vaccinated, be worn out and have no ‘give’ left, so that we end up clinging to old harmful habits in the teeth of that other frightening reality?
One thing I feel sure of is that taking deeply worshipful decisions together as a community can increase our willingness to live adventurously, and to stretch beyond what we previously thought possible. Or to change the image, we can step out into the darkness so long as we (metaphorically) hold hands.