Sometimes a loss or tragedy shines a fresh light on what’s important. To quote a Joni Mitchell song: don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone. (Big Yellow Taxi)
This was the case for me when Notre Dame caught fire several years ago. Until then I hadn’t known just how much the iconic cathedral meant to me.
The pandemic has been like that fire. Until it struck, until it forced us to stay put, most of us did not know the depth and breadth of our feelings for our church buildings, our sanctuaries, and our worshipful presence in them.
Even without a building of our own, we too know the loss and longing, the disorientation and dislocation, the feeling of being adrift and even spiritually homeless because, like so many, we have been unable to gather as we used to.
We miss the worship we knew. We miss the space that held us and our prayers. We miss being together, singing together, sharing silence together, and feeling the Spirit move through the room. We miss it all.
And so it may be that hearing the psalmist lift his voice in praise this morning elicits a twinge of envy, a tug of anguish, a tightness in our chests.
“How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My souls longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord.”
The psalmist’s unbridled elation anticipating worship in the temple rubs up against our present deprivation, the protracted separation from the many places that have served as our temples, our places of reverence and renewal.
I miss being at the Ute. Several times during the pandemic I have run over to pick up mail or drop something off. And like the psalmist making his way to Jerusalem, like the psalmist anticipating that first glimpse of the glorious temple, just approaching the Museum and catching sight of the grand teepee poles standing adjacent to the building, rising like a steeple into the sky, just this has lifted my spirits and sent them soaring.
Approaching the Museum, my memory of having gathered there overflows and suddenly the past becomes the present. I’m once again in your company and God’s. I’m awash with a sense of the holy, the beautiful, the true, the enduring.
That is, until I realize that I’m just stopping by, not staying, that this is just a quick visit during a long exile.
We know what we are missing, you and I. Just as church-goers across the country know. Your graciousness is to be applauded—not every church has weathered this challenging time with as much love and forbearance as Community Spirit has.
Almost every week since the pandemic began, clergy have privately shared that their parishioners were demanding to be allowed back in their sanctuaries, threatening to withhold their pledges, even promising to find new churches if they were not allowed to worship together as they did before the pandemic.
I can hear those church-goers now, zeroing in on and weaponizing today’s psalm in an effort to exact their will.
“Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise.” If only they knew that the verse that follows opens the door to a more spacious reality. “Happy are those whose strength is in you.”
God’s strength is not temple-dependent. It is available wherever we find ourselves. If that happens to be in our temples, our worship spaces, then hooray and hallelujah.
But God’s strength is not restricted to these holy spaces. No, the strength that makes us as happy as the psalmist, the strength that gives rise to arms flung back and voices raised, this strength is found wherever we are. Wherever and whenever we make room for God.
You and I, and church folks all across the country, we know what we’re missing. What about those who haven’t feasted as we have Sunday after Sunday? People hurt by the church. People afraid to bring all of who they are with them into worship. People starved for the real, the relevant, the relational.
When I was serving in one of Utah’s most highly LDS counties, I asked my UCC congregation how we could be good stewards of our experience as outsiders. How being in the extreme minority, how being powerless to affect significant change, how this reality might be a gift rather than a frustration or a grief.
I wondered aloud how our experience—so rare for privileged people like us—might help us understand what it would be like to be, say, Native Americans in a border town or black folk living under the shadow of a Confederate statue and a lynching tree. And from this understandings and insights become allies for people near and far struggling for justice and wholeness.
I didn’t get much traction with this. My congregation either didn’t understand me or, and this is the more likely explanation, they felt I was asking too much.
Unable to gather as we once did as a spiritual community, living through a kind of pandemic-fueled exile, I frequently find myself thinking along the lines of my question in Utah.
How might we be good stewards of this unwelcome experience? How we might use our present experience to the good? How can our current dislocation put us in touch with the spiritual homelessness others feel?
If we were to center on others, if we were to be pained by their experience and not merely out own, if we were moved by our discoveries, what new resolve might this spark in us? What new passions might this ignite?
Even if the doors to the Ute are still closed to worship, how might we make it plainly, boldly, utterly clear that our arms are open? Open wide to those who have never known the goodness and grace we have found as a faith community?
Whether or not we have a place to gather, the church is not a location. It is an orientation, an inclination, a willing participation in the living, breathing body of Christ.
Who is not yet here with us? Who needs us to welcome and then be changed by them? Like Tom Bodett in the Motel 6 commercials, who are we—Community Spirit Church—called to leave a light on for? Instead of being a burden to endure, how can our pandemic exile inspire us to reach out beyond ourselves?
Let us carry these questions into our inner temples, into the communing we do with God. And, as the psalmist sings, may the Lord of hosts hear our prayers and give ear.