My boys are growing up. Sure, they’re still little— not even teenagers at this point!—but they are getting older. The bittersweet reality of parenting is that children grow and transform before your very eyes and while you are excited about who they are becoming, you are also left with a sadness over each closing of a chapter.
I vividly remember bouncing each of those babies to sleep from the time they were infants until they were toddlers. My arms can still feel the weight of their little bodies as they curled up against me; I can still smell their sweet breath and feel their hair on my neck. It has been over five years since my oldest was small enough for me to bounce him regularly, but that activity was so normal, so familiar to me, that I know what it feels like. What I wouldn’t give to be able to bounce each of those babies to sleep one last time.
We all have memories stored inside of us which have penetrated our being far beyond cognition. Our muscles have memory, as do our senses.
As churches begin to reopen in phases, our memories will recall the physicality of our liturgical worship. It has been over three months since I have worshipped with other believers in person. I have not partaken of communion; I have not embraced my brothers and sisters during the Peace; I have not passed the offering plate down the pew; I have not processed into nave behind the cross with the weight of my alb and stole on my shoulders; I have not touched the water in the baptismal font and made a slightly dampened sign of the cross, nor held the chalice and paten aloft (“these are the holy gifts of God for you the holy people of God”), nor felt the swell of the organ and the voices of the faithful as hymns of praise are directed toward the heavenly throne room…
I know exactly how each of those things feels across my five senses. I remember their meaning, their touch, their aroma, their sound. I remember them, but things will be different…
How we are supposed to worship when we gather for in person worship?
Things will be different when we begin worshipping together again. Worship will include masks and hand sanitizing stations. It may be months before communion is offered in both kinds instead of just one. Congregational singing might be absent for an extended period of time. Our physical senses will engage in worship that is at once intimately familiar, yet wholly different.
As much as I would like to time-travel and hold each of my boys once more as infants and toddlers, I am forced to hold tightly those memories which have seeped from mind into my heart and muscles. The scene of bouncing and holding tight which was once so familiar to me is now but a tiny (yet utterly essential) component of my relationship with those three boys. We now create new memories and engage in different activities. Some things have changed while our relationship remains the same, totally familiar.
I would invite each of you to acknowledge the ways that worship will look and feel different as our churches slowly reopen from one phase to another. Release any and all expectations that things will “return to normal.” Liturgical life will never go back to precisely the same way it was before because, as a people, we have been forever changed by the events of the last several months. Even if one day things feel more “normal” than they do now, we are still changed. Give thanks for memories you have—those memories which have penetrated your senses beyond just cognition—and hold them tight, but then open yourself up to what the Spirit is doing during this strange season of corporate worship.
As we prepare to re-enter corporate worship together, we are left with our memories of “before the pandemic,” and we have an opportunity to give thanks for all God has done. We can hold in tension the gratitude for worshipping in person and the lament of change, but let’s give the muscle of thanksgiving more space to grow and flourish.
When the church gathers for worship, she does so to offer her sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving upon the altar to the glory of God and for the life of the world. Things may be different, but they are altogether familiar.