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.

Glory in the glen . . . or anywhere

‘These are our Castle Grounds’, I found myself thinking on Thursday night as I watched the little tent in the glen fill up with people. There was something special about seeing them arriving in knots of two and three – intentionally leaving their homes to come and gather under canvas in worship of the Lord. Psalms, songs of praise, prayers and Scripture readings. It was all about ascribing to Him the glory that is due and, nestled there in the hollow of God’s hand, we were not several denominations, but one church.

And I feel that this kind of event is all the more important in our day. Just as, last summer, a couple of hundred of us gathered in the glebe at Baile na Cille, for worship, this too felt like a statement. It is primarily an opportunity to spend time in adoration of our Lord – but it is also a witness to a world that seems blind to His glory. Being outside, though, is not just important because we are more likely to be overheard than when we are closed up in a building.

No, there is something else; there is as much of reclamation as there is acclamation in our al fresco praise. Every place where God’s name is spoken with reverence, I feel a flag is planted for His cause. Where two or three gather in His name, He is in the midst to bless. And so, on Thursday night, in Willowglen, God was undoubtedly present.

I do not pretend that certain places are more sacred than others, because that would be to confine our boundless God, and make Him small. Nonetheless, it is difficult to see how a place where His spirit has moved can ever be mundane again. Will I be able to pass through Willowglen and not remember with joy the night it became a place of worship for its own Creator and mine? Hopefully not.

This lovely corner of God’s handiwork has been abused lately. Instead of a protective instinct for all this beauty, something much uglier has been in evidence. Many have chosen to vandalise and sully the Castle Grounds in a fit of pique about policy. It is too petty for words. But it is a stark reminder of where we are.

I reflected on the harsh words of the last few weeks, even as I listened to these much more attractive ones drifting out of the tent:

Ach mise molar leam do neart;
gu moch a’ seinn do ghràis,
Airson gur tu mo thèarmann treun,
‘s mo dhaingneach fhèin ‘s gach càs.

God is the defence of my life. With every passing day I am more conscious of my need for such a refuge. And why? You have no use for protection except when you are in enemy territory. But, then, that’s what this is, even the beautiful Lews Castle Grounds: made perfect by God, but marred by man. From this enmity against the very Creator stems the mistreatment of what His hands have made, whether that is earth, trees, water . . . or humanity itself.

Nothing is sacred: not even life, and certainly not places like Willowglen.

On Thursday, though, there were all the elements assembled that we might need to recreate Psalm 137. We had a river to sit down by, and boughs of willow in which to hang our lyres. Here we were, being required to praise the Lord’s song in the midst of hostility.

I felt, however, that it was not a time for weeping – not for ourselves, anyway. Gathered under that canvas shelter, we testified to the impermanence of our sojourn in this world. We pitch our tent for a while, yes, but the house of many mansions is home. What God makes, what God provides – whether it is a garden, or a temporary place to gather – we should esteem, because it is by His grace and from His hand, the hand His children love, that we receive it.

That evening, for a few hours at least, we remembered Zion. It’s a particular kind of memory, though. Just as the prophet Isaiah spoke of the coming Christ in the past tense, we sing for joy at the recollection of Glory that awaits

Meantime, we have to rise up to our feet on that riverbank, and take down our lyres from the willow branches. I am more certain than ever that this strange land is crying out in its captivity to hear the Lord’s song; and who shall sing it for them, though they try their utmost to quench the sound with mocking?

That’s why Grace on the Green matters. The world does not believe that we are free, that we are filled with joy that no amount of their hostility can kill. We usually worship shut away from them; we politely contain our praise for God in buildings from which little sound escapes.

Those confining edifices are not the church: we are. And our oneness with Creation is never more apparent than in praising the Creator’s name in the midst of all He has made.

The least we owe Him, then,  is to sing His song for those whose eyes remain blind to amazing grace, and the immeasurable glory of God. It isn’t found in a place, but in a person. And they might find Him anywhere – but  certainly wherever His church gathers to adore Him.