Sunday I did something I had not done in exactly a year – I went to church – physically.
A year ago I had just attended my first church session as an elder. I was preparing for my new responsibilities at church, when, in the span of a week, our church went from plans to practice social distance and maybe require masks at church to online live streaming only. Now, our church had been doing live streaming of the Sunday 11 a.m. service for four years already, so there were no hiccups in being able to go to church without going to church. So my husband and I started doing that each week.
Now, participating – and I use the term loosely – in a church service online has its drawbacks, mainly not being able to see other worshippers and not going through the familiar rituals that come with an in-person service. But online worshipping definitely has its benefits – I can get up five minutes before 11 a.m., run downstairs in my nightgown and be ready for church. If I want to get a cup of coffee or fix breakfast, I can do that and still be a part of the service. And, let’s be honest here, if I want to read the paper or work the crossword puzzle while I listen to the service, who’s going to know or care? After working out the details of a totally online congregation, we settled into a “new normal.” Even communion was handled remotely – BYOB&W (Bring Your Own Bread and Wine).
Then July 5 our church decided to try in-person services again with a number of caveats – no singing, no handshakes, social distancing (with the use of some pews roped off and 6-foot boards to mark proper distance between “bubbles” – read that family units or friends who have continued to interact). And even communion at church was changed to BYOB&W. Oh, we have disposable communion elements for anyone who forgets to bring their own, but we are encouraged to do it ourselves.
For a number of reasons – notably our age and the continuing rise in coronavirus cases at the time – Tom and I decided to continue remotely. And our fears seemed justified since the second Sunday of in-person church, our minister had to announce that someone at the previous week’s service had tested positive for COVID.
But last Sunday, it seemed like a good time to return to church. We’ve both had our vaccines (at least two weeks ago), and it was the last Sunday for our minister of seven years. I got up early enough to get ready for church, for once. I put on a dress – something I have rarely done since March 2020. (At first, last March, I would get up and dress for church as I normally would, but that went away quickly.)
I knew it was going to be emotional when we were greeted by bagpipe music, thanks to George Grinton.
We were able to sit in our “usual” spot by getting there a little earlier than had been our habit. I looked around and realized some things have not changed in the last year. Most everybody in the congregation was sitting exactly where I saw them last – at least as close as possible to their usual spot.
Of course, there were differences. We were all wearing masks. Bulletins now sit in the pews rather than being handed out by ushers (contactless worshipping). Audio apparatus is no longer available for folks who could use a little help in hearing the service. There’s no nursery, so little ones are all part of the larger church family. There is still a children’s church, but kids are no longer asked to come up and sit together or hold hands for the final prayer. The church still provides children’s packets (to give little ones something to do during the service), but now they are designed to be taken home – where we used to have totes filled with crayons, coloring books, etc., along with a children’s bulletin directed at the week’s appropriate scriptures.
But perhaps the hardest part for me was the music – or lack of it. There was organ music. Our bell ringers are back at “work” in their efforts to enhance the worship experience. There is special music (thanks to the of use specially designed masks), often from our choir director, Daniel Hamilton (who lives in North Augusta and teaches music at Redcliffe Elementary). And while all of that definitely set the tone, for me it didn’t make up for the big void – singing hymns. All my life, singing hymns has moved me, often more than any other part of the service, so I grieve for that loss.
It probably didn’t help that it was our minister’s last day with our congregation. But his sermon really hit home. Dr. Brian Coulter preached on the topic of “don’t call it a list.” He read a passage from Romans in which Paul is about to journey forth from Corinth, and he lists all these people who were significant to his ministry there. Brian noted a seminary professor had warned his class to avoid the lists in the Bible – they’re often long, have unpronounceable names and frankly, are boring. But Brian led us to see beyond the list. He told a story of his daughter, when she was in kindergarten, toiling away at writing the names of all her classmates on Valentines. He looked over and said, “That’s quite a list.” To which she responded, “They’re not a list; they’re my friends.” From there Brian read the “list” again, and you could see that Paul was not just listing the names, but recognizing each person’s import in his life.
Without Brian saying it outright, I saw his desire to recognize our congregation’s contributions to his life, as he moves on in his ministry. He said simply, “You will always be my people.”
And it brought home the reality of my church and the people in it – the congregation is not just a list of names; they are “my people.” They are the reason we join together for communal worship. And even with masks, even with social distancing, I need that.
It’s good to be back with my “pepes.”