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We went back to church today.

It felt familiar. It felt strange. It felt like home. It felt uncomfortable. It felt warm. It felt cold. It was a morning filled with contrasting sensations.

After seven weeks of “sheltering-in-place” virtual worship, we opened the doors of our church last Sunday morning. For an hour, the distance between members of the congregation shrank from miles to six feet. A thoughtful set of precautions reminded us of the pandemic. Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs reminded us of God’s powerful healing grace.

My mind vividly recalls these sounds and images of our first week back together:

  • For many, getting ready for church includes putting on a mask. Wearing gloves to church? The resurrection of an old tradition! Ushers and elders wore them for certain tasks. I wore them to distribute communion.
  • We did not pass the offering plates. Tithes and offerings were left at the door. Many were given electronically. Some were given by text.
  • We removed all the hymnals, bibles and visitor cards from the pews. Their absence made the church look even emptier. Until the worshipers began to gather…
  • …but the back rows were not filled! We sat on the aisles in every other pew, so many got to experience Sunday morning more “up close and personal” than ever before.
  • The little ones did not race to the chancel for a children’s sermon. I brought it back to them, to the place where they sat with their families.
  • The communion rail remained vacant. One person at a time came forward to stand at the altar and receive the sacrament.
  • My iPhone was perched on a tripod off to the side, live-streaming the service to many who were not yet ready to join us in person. Who knows how many actually worshiped with us on this day?
  • The sanctuary was filled with sound! It wasn’t just me speaking and singing and praying in an empty room. It was dozens of voices together, thanking and praising and praying. It was wonderful.
  • We had first time visitors in worship. The Spirit still gathers His people together.
  • Vigilant volunteers wiped down pews, door handles and chancel surfaces after everyone else left. (The filthy rags revealed we should have been doing this a long time ago.)

I can’t help but wonder if this is the new normal. Will we ever revert completely to how we gathered before? Will handshakes and hugs, kisses and high fives ever return to our assembly? Will we ever feel comfortable sharing books again? Or will we now always be hyper-conscious of the unseen germs all around us?

It’s only been one week. We’re learning as we go. I doubt we will soon forget how something so small can keep us apart. I just hope we never forget that someone so small – “to us a child is born” – can bring us together, too.

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