Going back is never what you thought it would be! Do you remember returning to your hometown and discovering a new building on the corner? Or that the old ice cream store is gone? Or that your favourite park has been redeveloped? The memory of home and familiarity of places and people are disrupted by the way things changed while you were away. The comfort you long for is not there in the same way as you expected.
That will undoubtedly be our experience as we continue to emerge from different phases of the COVID-19 lockdown. We long for everything to go back to “normal,” as it was before the beginning of the pandemic. Instead we are facing new protocols and habits. Even the most familiar tasks, such as grocery shopping, have become adventures in wearing masks, one-way aisles and plexiglass dividers between shoppers and staff. Worship services will be socially distanced, too—your favourite pew closed off, no lingering at a coffee hour and, so far, no singing!
Going back will be different than we expected. In fact, there really will be no going “back,” since everyone and everything around us have been changed by the pandemic. Some are ready to resume gathered activities while others, for a variety of reasons, are fearful of ever gathering beyond family and a few friends. If you are ready and willing to gather, you may dismiss the fears of others as overly cautious. If you are hesitant to gather again, you may feel unappreciated. The desire for the comfort of familiar relationships will not be met.
This is a time when the description of our calling as the body of Christ is more critical than ever. We are not going back. We are moving forward in a pilgrimage. We are on this pilgrimage together, and it will take extra efforts for us to see and hear the different perspectives around us. If we charge ahead with the most fearless, we will split the very community we long to preserve. We need one another—the fearless and the cautious; the grieving and the adventurer—especially so that we see and know what we are losing and ensure that we carry with us what we need for the continuity and longevity of our life together. Every voice is needed. We may well be in the midst of a “great rummage sale” (to borrow from Phyllis Tickle, author of The Great Emergence) in which a testing of what we need to carry with us will be critical—and a discernment for the whole community to undertake.
In this time I feel a deeper connection with the disciples in the first months and years after the resurrection, as they faced such rapid change in their expectations while they experimented with how to share the glorious good news they knew. They tested and tried ways to gather; they drew on their memories of times with Jesus, before and after the resurrection, to shape gathering around meals and bread and wine; they listened to the Spirit speaking in their hearts and souls and they prayed together at every step.
There will be tensions ahead as we emerge into a new and different world. Anxiety, fears and a desire for the familiar may bring conflict. We cannot go back to what was before; it is gone and something new is waiting to be born. Be gentle with one another. Each has a part of the story we need in the emerging patterns for church life. Make praying together a central part of whatever your parish, deanery or diocese does to plan for the future. The Spirit is with us to lead and guide. Thanks be to God!