It’s been 10 months since we had church.
We’re in our third so-called Lockdown (it’s our second formal national lockdown) and for much of the time in between we’ve been in local lockdowns or had significant restrictions on our daily lives.
At no point since March has life returned to anything I would recognise as ‘normal’. Churches can meet now with restrictions but my church rents a school hall and we aren’t yet able to get somewhere to meet.
I know it’s not strictly speaking true to say it’s been 10 months without church: we make and watch Sunday videos, and regularly use Zoom or pop onto each other’s doorsteps to talk and pray. Wherever you stand on whether online church is ‘church’, there have been opportunities for us to be the family of God.
That’s not what it feels like though.
It was briefly refreshing to do something different for a few weeks, filled as I was with naïve expectation of this only lasting a month or two. Then came the grief, the loss, the anger and the pain. Now, I’m waiting and longing for the days when we’re gathering again.
There’s a grace in that, a touch of light and a lesson to learn.
It’s always a fraught question to ask what God is doing, and what he wants to teach us through a situation. It’s an arrogant stance to say “this and only this” and it’s a truism to say that God is always doing more than we think and wanting to teach us more than we noticed. I find that reflecting on what he might be up to brings me hope. Beyond the rampant speculation about possible revivals or the doom mongering about the end of church as we know it, God is bringing his children more into the likeness of Christ.
We’re learning repentance, being cooped up with yourself is a painful mirror. We’re being shown our desperate need for control, our fear of death, our selfishness. We’re being given an opportunity to cultivate habits and disciplines, and an opportunity to relearn the gift of a Father who loves us whether we manage anything or not.
We’re learning to long.
Learning to Long
We are much too easily satisfied with the world as we find it. We know intellectually that we’re the people made for another world, we can quote C.S. Lewis with the best of them, we know that like Abraham we’re people on a pilgrimage to another city like the writer to the Hebrews describes. We know that, but do we dwell on it? Does it change our emotional responses? It should.
The church is the heavenly city we’re waiting for, and if you’ve got eyes and ears you will also be viscerally aware that at the same time it really isn’t. We’re violently caught in the in-between of the “now” and the “please let the not yet be soon”. We haven’t arrived, but I find that I let my lack of arriving distract me from there being somewhere to go.
There is a day coming when the baggage of my sin and self-centred obsessions gets dumped at the gates of a city suffused in light. Heaven hasn’t yet met earth but, we read and we trust and we yearn, it will.
I find that missing church is sinking these wondrous notes somewhere deep into my soul. I’ve been reflecting on how much of the time to come I’ve already tasted. When we sing the truth to each other we hear snatches of the saints gathered around the throne. When we gather each week we see glimmers of when everyone who walks the earth will act like Christ including, most mercifully, us. When we come to the table and eat bread and drink the cup we taste the sweetness of the feast at the end of history. When we encounter the Spirit in tender comfort and startling power we experience the smallest part of what it is to live in the face of God at all times. We’ve known sin abandoned, selfishness given up and idols crushed. We’ve known what the world to come will taste like, and yet we aren’t there.
As I long for the gathered people of God I remember that they are given to me to help me long for another day. It’s like we’re fasting from church. We fast from food to teach our hearts to hunger like our bodies.
This fast hasn’t been our choice, but it is still a gift. Lockdown is a gift. The emotions we experience when we’re torn apart from our family are gifts. They help us line up with living in the in-between. The longing we feel to be together again points beyond our current experience to a more glorious day than the one when we get to reunite, but to the day when we can enter fully into the kingdom of our God, the day when heaven touches earth and everything sad comes untrue.
When we eat the Lord’s Supper, watch others be baptised, sing together, pray together, and hear the word preached; these are all tastes of what is to come. They should be treasured for what they are, and teach our hearts to long for the days of the salvation of our God.