I am sure I am not alone in lamenting the fact that we are going on a year now since the pandemic changed the way we saw our gathering together in the Lord's House on the Lord's Day. The soft underbelly of this long time frame is that stark realization that some, perhaps many, of those who have not been back yet will not ever be back. The world has done a good job telling us that Church is non-essential to our lives (as if we needed much help in this direction). The fear mongers have taught us to be afraid of the folks around us (as if we were not already in danger of too much isolation). The media has taught us well that the screen suffices and we do not need in person anything (just like my insurance tells me to visit the web doctors before heading to a clinic). The road ahead is learning again to be glad to go to the House of the Lord and to rejoice in the presence of God and His people in reality that is touchable and real (as opposed to digital).
I have said it many times. Growing up, we did not fight it. We knew that unless we had died, we would be in Church on Sunday morning. But we also understood this was the nature of our family's life. Church was not a burden to be endured but a part of our very identity. The Lord's House was a familiar and comfortable home while at the same time harboring space that reminded us this was holy ground. Our presence was not casual and neither was what happened in the presence of the Most High. It was solemn without being stern, holy without being off putting, and special in a familiar sort of way. My parents had learned well from the Psalmist and they taught us well. I was glad when they said unto me, 'Let us go into the House of the Lord.
It was also a place for family. My grandfather was there and tons of cousins and other relatives (I was not sure exactly how we were related but we were). In the cemetery down form the back of the church building, there were planted even more relatives. This was a congregation of family and family together (including those with whom we were related through Christ's blood and not our own). Part of my gladness to be in the House of the Lord was the recognition that this was a place where my ancestors worshiped, prayed, confessed, and communed.
All of that will have to be retaught and relearned. That God's House is a place that beckons us and a place we call home is no longer something to be assumed. That God's House is a place of family and for family goes against the instinct we have learned (both individualism and the narrowest definition of family). That God's House is a place of joy will have to overwhelm the sense of fear and foreboding that has characterized so much of our recent memories. But that is exactly where we need to begin if we hope to end up with less of the new normal and more of the old normal.
Oddly in one sense but thoroughly understandable in another, the people who will have to relearn this are those on the younger end of our membership. All through this pandemic we have been told repeatedly that age and health problems required those on the older end of our membership to isolate. But age and affliction also serve as a reminder of the fragility of life and the need for what is given in the Word and Sacraments of God's House. Perhaps it is also true that these as a group tend to be less convinced of the ability of technology to replace personal contact. In any case, younger families may be the harder to convince that the Lord's House is a refuge, a place to run to and not from, and that in person worship around the Word and Table of the Lord cannot be replaced by anything digital and it will be even more critical to teach them to teach their children to be glad to come into the House of the Lord. As much as anything, this will need be retaught, relearned, and rejoiced in if the Church post-pandemic is to look even close to the Church pre-pandemic.