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From the beginning of this pandemic, I have struggled with what we could retain as “normal” in our lives. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, church has been one of the most difficult transitions.

“The church is not a building; the church is not a steeple...” I was one who argued the fact that church is not a sanctuary or a beautiful building. The church is the people. We can continue serving God with praise and worship, helping with the needs of our community and each other, without being inside the church building. And we have. Borrowing a phrase, my mantra became, “the church is not closed; the church has been deployed.”

Then, I attended a prayer service a few weeks ago. It was the first time I had stepped into our beautiful sanctuary since the first week in March. After making sure my mask was in place and sanitizing my hands, I entered quietly and found a marked, “safe” spot in an empty pew. It was not my “normal” pew or even “our” side of the sanctuary and I thought that was probably good. My husband chose not to join me that evening just as an extra precaution.

After a few moments of praying, I had a hard time catching my breath. I thought I must have succumbed to the virus. But it was everything my senses were taking in and the many memories that came flooding back all at once and I literally lost control. Suddenly, it was many years ago and we were visiting and deciding to join the church; attending a service for our son; watching our daughter’s confirmation; watching our younger daughter’s baptism; watching with pride as our children lined up in their little choir robes to sing their hearts out at the front of the church; listening to our daughters’ messages on Children’s Sunday; joining with the Women’s Ensemble to sing beautiful Christmas music; watching our daughter walk down the aisle and say her vows at the altar; listening to soul-stirring sermons; kneeling shoulder-to-shoulder with our many dear friends to receive communion. I looked up at all of the empty pews - each one missing Bibles and hymnals, pencils, prayer cards and offering envelopes. And missing SO many beloved people.

I wanted to reach out and grab my husband’s hand, or anyone’s hand, and squeeze tightly to make it through the next few moments. I thought of the hundreds of times during the Ritual of Friendship that we would all reach out and take hands and give hugs and speak encouraging words to each other. But now there was silence and some beautiful music - my mother’s favorite hymn, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” which has been played and sung at most of our family members’ memorial services. This was not good for my aforementioned breathless state of being. So I grabbed and clutched my own hands together and the tears flowed and my shoulders shook. But the mask and the empty pews behind me kept this between me and God. As the service was ending, I looked around and tried to “re-memorize” everything I had experienced. I tried to memorize the backs of the heads and the eyes of masked faces of those who were attending the service - those who have been such an important and precious part of my family’s faith journey. It felt like saying goodbye, even though I knew that it wouldn’t be the end.

I couldn’t get to my car fast enough - this reaction and response had totally surprised me. It was a building. A beautiful one, but still...then it dawned on me that it’s not just one or the other. It’s not the people or the church sanctuary. It’s all of this together. It is coming together in a worshipful space with those you love who are sharing the same experience. The people who lift each other up and hold each other accountable.

Without having that pre-COVID sacred time together in that sanctuary, we may not have had the strength, ability and desire needed to reach out and be there for each other these past 8 months. I wouldn’t have been able to reflect upon and appreciate the fact that this is the purpose for which we were created after all.

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