Empty pews & the fellowship of the Spirit

I feel like a child in a fairytale. It feels as though, just by wishing hard enough, I have made the thing happen. ‘Which thing?’ you ask, fearing that I’m going to say I’ve met a handsome prince, and that you’ll have to send someone to show me that really it IS only a frog. No, not that thing. The thing I needed, the thing I secretly longed for has happened.

The world has stopped. And I have been able to stop with it.

For the few (I’ve lost track of how many) weeks of lockdown, I have been harbouring a secret. It has made me feel out of step with everybody else, but at the same time absolutely wonderful. And, if this really is just an enchantment from which we will all soon wake up, it’s safe to tell my secret, however it may shock.

In fact, I know it WILL shock, because right from the beginning of this, the Christian church has been chided for its readiness to embrace online worship. ‘You should be weeping for what you have lost’, we were told, the very first week, ‘you should grieve the loss of fellowship and count electronic services a poor substitute’.

It has been said before, of course. In the book of Numbers:

‘And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat!

We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”’

Am I being harsh? No, I don’t think I am. We are shown repeatedly in Scripture the danger and folly of looking back to halcyon days that were less than the perfection in our minds. God took the Israelites out of Egypt for a good reason: it was not their home, of course, and it was a corrupting influence, teaching the cults of paganism and idolatry. Their longing for the varied diet of the oppressor as opposed to the wholesome manna provided by God needs no interpretation.

It is this which makes us all repeat the mantra, ‘when we get back to normal’. We are human and we want what is easy and familiar. That’s hardly surprising.

Surely, though, the church cannot want to go back to what it was before. I cringe at the repeated requests that we not get too comfortable with live-streaming our worship. Why? What is ‘too comfortable’? It’s the provision God has made and there is no better application for man’s creative ingenuity than tribute to the Creator himself, who made it possible. Of course, I’m being deliberately obtuse; I know very well the point that’s being made.

What about fellowship?

Well, I’m here to tell you that occupying the same physical space does not add up to that. Fellowship is spiritual, not geographical. It is literally ‘of the Spirit’: we are united in him, wherever we are, and have the concern and care of one another, regardless of proximity or distance. How else can we have brotherhood with the global church or a heart for mission?

Is there not a very real danger that, when life is too easy and the pews too – figuratively speaking, obviously- comfortable, we mistake merely being in the same place twice-weekly for the deeper spiritual bonds of Christian fellowship?

Perhaps, then, God has removed that privilege for a season, so that we would understand its illusory effects.

As for the exhortation to weep, I don’t have much time for that either. Grief can paralyse in ways that do nothing to aid spiritual growth. Witness psalm 137:

‘By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there we hung up our lyres.

For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” ‘

They sat down. They hung up their lyres. Grief and looking back rooted them to the spot and dried up their praise.

WE are in a strange land and never more so than now. This, though, is all in God’s providence and we must – surely – be called on to be like Paul and to worship him in all circumstances.

Which brings me to my secret. I know it is fated to be misunderstood, but still I think it’s worth airing.

I am glad the churches are closed.

On a personal level, it’s a relief. Life for me was so out of hand busy that, frankly, Sunday had ceased to be a day of rest. It was frequently one more day on which I had to drag myself out of the house and follow a timetable. More often than not in recent months I went to save face and to avoid answering awkward questions.

I was exhausted and verging on burnout.

Please don’t misunderstand me: this was never about coldness towards the Lord, his word, or his people. It was the cumulative effect of too much everything.

Now, I have the joy of worshiping without the tiredness. I can pare it all back to essentials and focus on the word and the praise.

This is not about one person’s convenience, of course, though I do wonder how many others feel as I do right now. It is about what the Lord is saying to his own people. We still have the privilege of corporate worship; he has not taken that from us.

I take two things from the current situation. First, he has demonstrated that fellowship is not a closed shop. We have been forced to go public and it is a real joy to know that the unchurched are finding comfort in acts of online worship. It is, as far as I am concerned, the ‘go’ of the Great Commission being partly fulfilled.

Second, he is chipping away at our complacency. To be together means much more than haphazardly sitting under one roof. It is love, care, gladness to be a people, concern for one another, sharing one another’s joys and woes.

If I survive to see the end of this pandemic, I will be glad to go to church. I pray that I will be doing it – that we will all be doing it – with a new heart and a new vigour. This is not a make-do and mend situation; God is giving us a blessing by keeping us apart, so that we might better learn what it really means to be together.

Roll the Stone Away

Last night, someone introducing himself as ‘your friendly, local elder’ telephoned. I was briefly distraught, thinking something had happened to the usual grumpy (but ultimately loveable) fellow. And then, I realised, no, it IS him, he was just trying to confuse me. He was doing a pastoral visit by phone, checking that I was surviving the lockdown, and not going off my head at the full moon.

Slightly shame-facedly, I admitted to him the thing that I have hardly dared admit to myself: this situation has brought me armfuls of blessing. Now, don’t misunderstand me, I don’t for one minute forget the gravity of what we face, or the tragedy it has visited upon our world. Yet, while I am mindful of all that, I have to confess to feeling the lightest and easiest in my mind that I have for years. There is nowhere to go, no one asking this or that of me. I am in my own home for most of every day. I am growing to love that again.

Because of technology, I can speak to my family and friends – and our conversations are more meaningful because they are our only means of contact. Last Wednesday, it was a revelation to Zoom into the prayer meeting. I felt genuine joy at seeing the familiar faces on-screen, faces I used to take for granted, faces I barely noticed when we shared the same space. And on Sundays, I can sit exactly where I usually go to read and pray at home, but also hear God’s word preached by our own minister.

We are scattered, but still able to be together in all the ways that matter.

It has afforded me that too rare commodity: time. I have not rushed my devotions, nor had to skip them in order to dash off somewhere else. My life and my mind are both uncluttered and I see something very clearly now that I was afraid to even look at before.

God truly has healed me.

See, five years ago just now, I was on leave from work, coming to terms with my new and unwanted status as a widow. From there, I hurtled into this commitment and that, afraid to have any unoccupied minutes. I have been utterly unfair to myself, because all that bustle prevented me from truly experiencing God’s care.

Now, it’s true that most of what fills my time I do because of him. That’s how I have been able to tell myself it’s not inconsequential busyness. Nor is it. But it has left me little scope to just breathe, to look around my new landscape and thank God for bringing me up out of the valley. I have been darting from one place, one thought, one commitment to the next, never once taking in the view from where he has brought me to.

It might seem strange that it took a lockdown for me to realise that there is nothing to fear from solitude, nor from having time to contemplate. Then again, not really so odd – because it was actually another lockdown that set me free to begin with.

On that first Good Friday, when they rolled the stone to the mouth of Jesus’ tomb, his followers must have been in despair. His persecutors surely thought there was no more harm he could do them. He was dead, and his body locked in for good measure. They placed a guard on him just to be sure. The risk, they thought, was that the disciples would steal his body and fake the prophesied resurrection.

What is it about lockdowns and conspiracy theories?

Three days passed during which his own people would have felt all kinds of despair and grief, the death of hope leaving a bitter tang. Meanwhile, those who hated Christ revealed something of the nature of their enmity. It was born of fear: fear of his power, fear of his true status – why else surround a dead man with soldiers?

And at last, on the third day of nothing much happening, the angel came and the stone was rolled away.

We know very well what was found there. The grave clothes for which he had no further need, were placed where he had lain. And our Saviour was no longer there.

He had risen.

Sometimes, it’s only when everything seems to be over that real hope springs forth. I know it for myself and I count it as blessing.

No one who stood, guarding over that tomb could have suspected the work being accomplished within. It was the end, it was the ultimate lockdown.

When God brings all to a standstill, he is doing more than reminding us who is in control. He is giving us the gift of time – perhaps more than those three days, perhaps much less – in which to stop, and regard him in all his glory.

After the stone was rolled away, a story was put about by religious leaders that Christ’s body had been stolen during the night by his followers.

But they lied. They lied because they were afraid. Yet, they chose fear and denial over acceptance of one great and simple truth:

He IS risen.

If we are spared to see this stone rolled away, I pray that fear will not have won. I pray that we will all use the lockdown to bow our hearts in submission.

Who would believe an ugly lie in place of the beautiful, wonderful truth – that he rose again, and in him, we are free indeed.