Life Together Again

June 15, 2021 by Kyle Nolan

While the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend isn’t a liturgical holiday, in terms of logistics, it can feel just as significant to those responsible—pastors, parents, children’s and youth ministers, etc.—for negotiating the competing demands of sacred and profane time. Under normal circumstances, Memorial Day signals the end of the school year, rising temperatures, cookouts, travel, and summer sports schedules. For churches, it foreshadows a season of lighter attendance, infrequent programming, youth trips, and a roster full of guest preachers.

Last year, of course, was anything but normal. Few of us traveled, and even fewer had seen the inside of a full sanctuary on Sunday mornings in months. Many of us hardly left our homes.

This Memorial Day weekend, I filled in to lead worship on Sunday morning for my local congregation, where I’d served before joining the Presbyterian Foundation. Circumstances vary by location—in some places, churches have been gathering for months—but with vaccinations increasing restrictions ending in Michigan, this Memorial Day felt like a kind of reversal of all the ones that came before it. Instead of going away for the summer, people were about to come back. The Sunday before, members of my congregation gathered in a local park to celebrate Pentecost. The Sunday after, we would return to in-person worship for the first time in 14 months. But before we could do that, we needed to get through one more live-streamed service with no one in attendance but the worship leaders and the A/V team.

In the seventeen months since joining the Foundation, I’d only led worship once—on the afternoon of my ordination. Since then, I’d become the father to a little girl named Evangeline, who had never been inside a Presbyterian church. So, that morning, she came along with me to church for the very first time.  My responsibilities were brief, so as the services went on, I found myself watching from my seat near the front as she sat in her mother’s lap in the middle of the empty sanctuary, staring at the spinning fans on the ceiling and marveling at the stained-glass windows. Four months old to the day, she was learning to observe the world in its continuity, perceiving whole “events” rather than just discrete units of movement and sound. The microphones must have picked up her voice because a church member later mentioned how delighted she was to hear a child in the sanctuary again.

As I watched, I was reminded of Brandi Carlile’s song “The Mother,” as she sings to her daughter (also, coincidentally, named Evangeline), “All the wonders I have seen I will see a second time / from inside of the ages through your eyes.” Her eyes invited me to see a space previously hidden in its structure and movement. Yet, as much as I reveled in seeing the sanctuary anew through her eyes, I was also struck by how little it looked or sounded like it had on Sunday mornings in the past and how little, God-willing, it would look or sound like Sunday mornings to come. There were so many faces, old and young, happy and sad, that she couldn’t yet see;  so many voices, on and off-key, she wouldn’t yet hear; so many people who have prayed for her who she doesn’t yet know. I long for her to sit and wonder at a sanctuary so full.

Several times in the past year, I’ve recalled a passage from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s *Life Together*. On the eve of World War II, having spent two years running an illegal preacher’s seminary before the Gestapo shut it down, Bonhoeffer reflected on the graced character of Christian community:

The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian living in the diaspora recognizes in the nearness of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God. In their loneliness, both the visitor and the one visited recognize in each other the Christ who is present in the body. They receive and meet each other as one meets the Lord, in reverence, humility, and joy … But if there is so much happiness and joy even in a single encounter of one Christian with another, what inexhaustible riches must invariably open up for those who by God’s will are privileged to live in daily community life with other Christians! Of course … it is easily forgotten that the community of Christians is a gift of grace from the kingdom of God, a gift that can be taken from us any day—that the time still separating us from the most profound loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let those who until now have had the privilege of living a Christian life together with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of their hearts. Let them thank God on their knees and realize: it is grace, nothing but grace, that we are still permitted to live in the community of Christians today. (Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible: 5 (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works) (pp. 29-30). Fortress Press.)

The pandemic has made us rethink our churches and retool our operations. New technologies made it possible for us to connect at a distance in ways many of us had never considered. When have we understood more concretely that the church is not a building, but a people gathered around Jesus?

Still, only God knows what the pandemic will ultimately mean for our congregations, whether our sanctuaries will be as full as they once were, whether those who return quickly will stay, or those who are more cautious will eventually come back. This uncertainty could generate anxiety and scarcity, but it doesn’t have to. As we begin to gather again, we have an opportunity to see again, more clearly,  all the gifts God has given, to perceive the grace in sitting and serving alongside one another, and to tell the story of the God who has promised us abundant life.