Coronavirus has forced us to change a great number of things, one of which is the way that we worship together as a church. So many of the things we so easily took for granted are no longer in place for us - for now, we don’t meet in a building, or worship in the same place. We can’t see each other’s faces, or catch up over coffee in a busy throng of expectation before we come together to sing and praise. We lose out on depths of relational and non-verbal communication within our church family; we lack hands-on prayer ministry during times of response… the list goes on.
It’s a wonderful gift to have access to video technology, which has allowed us to stay in touch as church communities on a far greater level than any generation to have lived through quarantine before us - but it is still only a dim reflection of real human contact. And, somehow, it’s bittersweet to be reminded of that which we lack. How many of us have felt both joy and sadness at seeing assembled faces on a Zoom call - joy at being reminded of how great togetherness is, and sadness at how much we miss it? Oh, to be together in worship again - to be able to fully hear and see and touch (and smell!) other people!!
Oh, to be together in worship again - to be able to fully hear and see and touch (and smell!) other people!!
This season, I’ve found myself looking (like many) to the Israelites’ exile in Babylon, a time in the history of God’s people when they could no longer gather together to worship in the ways they were used to at the temple in Jerusalem. This period of exile brought with it two incredibly powerful expressions of worship.
First, it was the time of the writing of the book of Lamentations, a tremendous outpouring of praise, worship, sorrow, grief, confusion and repeating refrains of God’s love and faithfulness through difficulty. Bex Lawton has already spoken beautifully and tenderly about unlocking a language of lament with God, sharing with him the deep questions and sitting with Him through times that don’t make sense.
Secondly, the Babylonian exile was a time of renewed theology of the Sabbath. Bible scholars reflect that Hebrew narrative scriptures written before the exile (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, for example) seem to place much lower emphasis on the Sabbath, but ones written afterwards consider the practice to be far more important, and encourage the Israelites to observe the practice much more strictly.
For the exiled Israelites, this was a significant action of worship that doesn’t rely on people meeting together in a specific place; and, importantly, it strengthened their identity and resilience as people of God. In a context where they couldn’t be at the Temple in Jerusalem for their most important celebrations at various times of the year, they found a way to turn this weakness into a powerful strength. They found a renewed identity as the people of God, in their homes and cities, which no-one could take away.
This time of exile is characterised by the same sorts of feelings of bittersweetness that we experience today when we are reminded of our lack of gathered in-person worship - the Israelites long to be back in Jerusalem, united as one people and celebrating their feast-days together again at the temple, and are careful to keep reminding themselves of it, and how great God is, even when it’s painful to remember. This is why we try to keep our worship having a flavour of our usual style, carrying on singing songs of praise, celebration and declaring truths about God, collaborating between musicians and the worship team we love so much, and raising our voices in worship. When we tune in to the live-stream to worship on Sunday, we remind ourselves afresh of what a joy it is to be God’s people, together, and look forward to being together again. Not only this, but we also look forward to the ultimate joy of being joined together one day with all the nations in Heaven!
However, all of us also have an opportunity to not simply live in the “not-yet” of waiting to be back in our building, hoping that it is enough for us to watch along with songs on a screen. The exiles found a new wellspring of spiritual life through engaging with the Sabbath - I believe that this season for us holds new living water in the way that we worship in our homes, on our own and/or with our families or housemates.
The word “worship” is from the Hebrew meaning “to draw close to” (literally, in order to kiss). Today, in a period where days blur together as one, perhaps you might consider how you might worship, or “draw close to” God, through taking a Sabbath - whether it’s about laying down work-from-home as it bleeds into evenings and weekends, or perhaps putting aside social media, TV, or other distractions to make space to engage with Him afresh.
Today, in a period where days blur together as one, perhaps you might consider how you might worship, or “draw close to” God, through taking a Sabbath - whether it’s about laying down work-from-home, or perhaps putting aside social media, TV, or other distractions to make space to engage with Him afresh.
As well as this, unlike the persecuted church in many nations today, or the exiled Israelites, this period of lockdown is not one where we are forced to remain quiet. We are fortunate that there are no rules against us singing loudly (other than perhaps compassion for our neighbours)! It takes courage and a certain amount of “getting over ourselves”, but there are things we can do in our homes to lead ourselves and our households in worship. We can sing along passionately with our favourite worship music throughout the week, or be intentional in connecting with friends in our communities online to read the Psalms together, pray prayers of thankfulness and speak truth about God to one another, getting one another excited about all He’s done. When it comes to Sunday morning, why not try to “arrive early for church” (or as early as your kids allow!); make coffee, get dressed, and set up your room for worship and meeting with God. If you can plug in some speakers, turn up the volume loud enough to not feel self-conscious singing along with the worship team online. Fetch some pots and pans and play along, making a joyful noise just like the Psalmist tells us to! Trapped inside a screen, there is only so much that a worship leader can do - but now, more than ever, we are all called to become worship leaders in our homes, whatever our age or experience.
I’m convinced that this time can be a releasing one for us as a church - the more we overcome any sense of fear or embarrassment at the idea of leading one another in worship, the more incredible it will be when we are finally gathered together again. I am expecting that God is going to stir up something new in our homes as we learn to worship in isolation, and that He is going to transform our future gatherings through His Spirit. Just as the fruits of the exile were new gifts of worship, a new holy identity as people of God, and new anticipation of worshipping together, I pray for us to receive new gifts of breakthrough in worshipping on our own and in our households, new identities as worshippers and children of God, and freedom from insecurity and embarrassment to worship with newfound exuberance alongside others when we return!