Listen to this devotional:
Listen while you read: "O Master Let Me Walk With Thee"1 (Lyrics)
Exodus 16:3 – The Israelites said to [Moses and Aaron], "If only we had died by the Lord's hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death." (NIV)
Proverbs 29:18a – Where there is no vision, the people perish. (KJV)
One of the effects of the pandemic that we regret the most is that many church sanctuaries have been closed. It is important to lament the loss of what has been. It is important to lament the loss of people who have died as a result of COVID-19; the loss of economic security for many; the incredible toll taken on healthcare providers and persons who provide other essential services. It is important to grieve — and grief is experienced as longing, sadness, and anger.
However, it is also important to realize that the doors of a church building being closed does not mean that the church is closed. Church is always open, in the sense that wherever we are in the world, we take the church with us. We can learn from this pandemic experience that while gathering in a place of worship is important, there are many other ways of being church outside the walls of a church building — many other ways of worshipping together and of serving the community.
Several decades ago, an inner-city church realized that some of its older members were having great difficulty making their way to the church building for worship on Sundays. So, they figured out a way of connecting the sound system in the sanctuary to the telephone system, and did some other technical things to make it possible for the Sunday worship to be broadcast to people who wanted to participate in worship via their telephones. The church provided special speakers in those folks' homes so that they did not have to hold a receiver up to their ear for an hour. This was long before there were telephones with a speaker phone function. The telephone worshippers were often mentioned (sometimes by name) in the worship services.
During this pandemic, many congregations have learned how to broadcast their worship services, both audio and video, via one of the Internet platforms, and have discovered that there are ways to do so which build up the community of faith and care just as effectively as through the use of their church buildings. The congregation to which I belong has welcomed persons attending worship who have not been able to attend worship in person for several years — and has had visitors from far away as well. Two of those "visiting" families, one from 250 km distance and the other from 3000 km away, have become regular participants in our congregation's life and work. Of course, some of our local members do not have Internet access or have been unable (or unwilling) to join us online. We have provided them with the text of the service — by postal mail if they do not have email. One of those folks shared with me that, when they receive the service material, they read the readings and message, pray the prayers, and sing the songs.
Many things have been learned as a result of the pandemic experience. I hope that that learning will continue to inform congregations about how they can grow in the capacity to use tools that are readily available to be the church in whatever way that is possible. If our hearts and minds are open, we can experience a wider vision of how God wants us to be in the world as a result of what we have learned from being the church during the pandemic.
Prayer: Loving God, we struggle to make sense out of what we are going through as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Help us to shake off our tendency to want things to be the way that they used to be, and instead, to listen, to watch for, and to embrace the vision that You have for us as individuals and for the communities of faith and care in which we participate. Amen.