Columns of Clouds and Pillars of Fire

After seven months of being closed, my home church, St. Matthews Lutheran Kitchener, opened to the public for a Sunday service this Canadian Thanksgiving weekend.  It was, indeed, a fitting weekend to enter this house of worship again.  I had, in fact, been in church last Sunday, for a second trial run.  But there was a distinctively different feel this weekend, knowing that there has been a turn in direction.  Of course, another full-blown lock-down is not beyond the pale.  But still….

It was, of course, both an exhilarating and a stumbling experience.  The music was top-notch, with a quartet, the organ, and the hand-bell choir filling the stunning sanctuary with rich and memorable music.  The Gospel was proclaimed.  Prayers were offered.  Peace was shared at a distance. But when well-loved thanksgiving hymns were sung, we sat in silence.  When the refrain for the prayers was bidden, we stood in silence.  We sat or stood in silence for everything, aside from singing “Now Thank We All our God” in the parking lot with our masks on after the service. 

It felt good to be back in church, and strange: it was both familiar and utterly unusual.  The experience reminds me of a little observation I share with my students from time to time.  Religions generally, and Christianity in particular, exist to conserve what is valuable, and to liberate new possibilities.  Sometimes one purpose, and sometime the other, is the focus of a religious community.  Quite often some in a church will think the focus is to be on preserving what matters, and others will think the focus should be on finding out what matters.

Conservation and liberation: often these sit at cross-purposes.  But when the purpose of the cross is brought to bear on this relationship, new possibilities arrive. I think we might be at such a point in the collective lives of our churches and in the collective life of Christianity.  This novel Corona virus has been a cross: much death has resulted from this, and much life has arisen from some of its ashes.  Many people have walked out of the church never to return, with new patterns of spending their time now made habitual.  But others return to our faith communities – or discover our faith communities – with a new and deeper appreciation for faith.

We are at a turning point in our faith life.  What will we conserve, and what will we liberate?  Or perhaps, more accurately, what will the Spirit conserve, and what will she liberate in this life that we live together?  Now is a time for careful observation, for deep listening and for intentional suspension of our familiar expectations.  Now is the time to dream, together, and to receive these dreams – not as blueprints – but as columns of clouds and pillars of fire.