Gather the people, consecrate the assembly; bring together the elders, gather the children… (Joel 2:16)
Every Sunday, I shower, do my hair and make-up, and dress for church—even though “church” is on the computer in the comfort of my own home. I see the pastors I know so well preaching in an empty sanctuary. I sing the lyrics to the praise tunes with my arms raised high. I bow my head during the prayers and take notes during the sermon. On communion Sunday, my husband and I set up the bread and the wine on our own unconsecrated dishes and reverently say to each other, “This is the body of Christ, broken for you!” And when the service is over, we log in to our online Sunday school classes to fellowship and learn with our friends.
So much is the same. Yet so much is different.
Jesus said, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20). Even though we are not able to gather in person yet, I believe that we are gathered in spirit when we show up to participate in worship at the same time. When I sing, my church family sings with me. When we pray, we lift our prayers to heaven with one voice. When something in the sermon touches my soul, I wonder who else in the congregation is feeling the way I’m feeling at that particular moment.
But all this makes sense only if we are watching and attending service together.
I noticed shortly after the pandemic hit and forced my church to shut its doors that church attendance escalated. So did giving. Numbers were up on all fronts. Though separated physically, we were united spiritually. It felt as if we were fulfilling Paul’s plea to the Philippians when he wrote, “then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind” (2:2).
Unfortunately, the unity of March has slipped into the separation of August. Despite the pandemic, families are still taking vacations. Some are going out of town. Some are going out of state. And some are just taking a vacation from church—like they do every summer. Old habits are hard to break.
After leading the people out of Egypt, God had them wander in the dessert for 40 years. That was an incredibly long time to be wandering—the life span of an entire generation! But God had a purpose. He not only had to get the people out of Egypt, he had to get Egypt out of the people, and that would take time.
For a brief time when this pandemic first hit, people seemed kinder and more thoughtful. They checked in on their neighbors and went out of their way to acknowledge first responders. But as weeks turned into months, we’ve slipped back into old routines, placing individual rights and freedoms above the health and needs of others. Though thousands of years have passed since the Moses led the Egyptians out of Egypt, we have not changed much. We are still a “stiff-necked people.” (See Exodus 32-34, Deuteronomy 9, and Acts 7.)
Where I live in northern Virginia, the pandemic is taken pretty seriously. Every store around here has a large sign outside stating that masks are mandatory. Still, every time I go to the grocery store I encounter at least one defiant shopper who refuses to play along; and since no one really enforces the mandatory directive, they can get away with potential murder. And I mean, potential murder. Just last week, I found myself selecting apples from the same bin as a middle-aged man with no mask. I took a step back when I realized how close I was to the air he breathed. He responded by giving me an evil look, as if to say, “Beware of the boogey man!”
Who is the boogey man? In my June blog (A Different View), I wrote that my 89-year-old father had been diagnosed with COVID in his assisted living home. Despite his age and health issues, he never had a symptom! After 5 weeks of positive testing, he finally tested negative. The virus had moved on, but for over a month, he was the boogey man. He was a carrier.
When I think of how Christ suffered and died for MY soul, I am humbled by how much he loves insignificant, undeserving me. When I recall how He instructed us to love our neighbors as ourselves, I am convicted to honor and respect the needs of others above my own. And when I imagine Jesus walking among us today, I see Him wearing a mask so as not to unintentionally hurt anyone or call attention to his superiority. That’s just how I see it.
My heart breaks for the essential workers who put themselves in harm’s way everyday to bag our groceries and pick up our trash while others walk around claiming it is their right to gather publicly and ignore state mandates. Sure, the statistics show that not everyone is going to suffer from this virus, and chances are the younger you are the more likely you are to never experience symptoms. But then there is my father. Had I been allowed to see him, would I have ended up on a ventilator? Thankfully, I’ll never know because the facility in which he lives took safety precautions.
I am 99% sure I don’t have the virus, but there’s a decent chance I’m wrong. When I’m out in public I wear a mask—not only to protect myself, but also to protect every one of God’s people I encounter, because I just don’t know.
What does all this have to do with online church?
As Christians, we are the ones who need to be modeling what kindness and respect look like during a pandemic, and we can’t model Christ-like behavior very well if we aren’t living it. This means going to church on Sunday, giving worship our full attention, and caring for God’s people through our ongoing tithes and offerings—even when we don’t feel like it.
I get it. I do.
Many years ago, I made a last minute decision to attend church with my sister. I quickly threw on a pair of jeans and ran to the car. She was waiting in high heels and a dress. “Why are you so dressed up?” I asked.
Her answer has never left me. “I’m going to see the King.”
Yes, it’s easier to skip church when it is online. After all, it’s not like the pastor will notice! It’s also easier to watch the rerun later in the day, or perhaps later in the week, when we can skip over components of the service that don’t appeal to us. But then “church” runs the risk of becoming “entertainment.” Instead of watching and worshipping with the body of Christ, we become spectators. And finally, it’s easier to attend church in pajamas, perhaps while eating breakfast, but this does not place us in the right frame of mind for worship.
After all that God has done for us, the least we can do is pay attention to what matters most to His heart and strive to be the light this dark world so desperately needs. I believe God has provided us all with an opportunity here to improve on our stiff-necked status without having to endure 40 years in the wilderness. I don’t know about you, but I’m going to get dressed up for church on Sunday.
THE SONG THAT COMES TO MIND IS Jesus, Only You.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oohwz5KF9AY by London Gatch
Lyrics: "So let my praises be my declaration. I worship You, and You alone are King."