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During Our COVID-19 Exile, Will Churches Listen to God?

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This past Sunday evening, I participated in our Lyndon Ecumenical Fellowship’s Lenten Taize service at St. Margaret Mary Catholic Community.

This year’s service came on the heels of our governor’s request that all church services be canceled.

While I would not have missed this service, I felt a bit of anxious guilt being there.

But not to worry, the 25 or 30 people who were there were sufficiently spread throughout the large sanctuary. Social distancing was well observed, except possibly by the small choir.

It is odd feeling guilty for attending a worship service. We had canceled our own church’s morning worship service, yet here some of us were at another church, in worship, focused on the meaning of Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross.

During the beginning of the service, all the feelings of the last five days washed over me.

I was pleased our staff had managed, on extremely short notice, to pull off a live-streamed service for our folks and the residents of Sunrise Senior Living.

I was grieving it might be a while before our congregation would be together in one place for worship.

I was struggling with the uncertainty of what my role as pastor needed to be in the days ahead.

It was my privilege to read the Gospel from Matthew 26:36-46, which tells of Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Three times Jesus prays the Father would allow the cup to pass from him. Three times Jesus finds Peter, James and John, who he brought with him to keep watch, asleep.

After the reading of the Gospel, we engaged in a seven-minute period of silence. As my mind began to calm down, and I resisted the temptation to use that time to talk to God.

In the ensuing silence, this thought came to me. “What if the silence of the church during the weeks ahead was a time for us to listen to God?”

Perhaps it is not such a bad thing that, through no choice of our own, we must silence the sounds of our communal worship services, eliminate the noise of our busy schedule of meetings and set aside our times of fellowship.

Maybe, just maybe, during this time when we are not rushing from one thing to the other, we actually may be able to listen to the voice of God’s Spirit speaking words of life and renewal into us.

Is it possible this period of forced exile from our normal routine may in reality lead to strengthening and renewing us?

We are in Lent, after all – a time when we are called to reflection, confession, penitence and repentance. We are in that season of the church year when we are called upon to give up something in order to focus on God.

Is it possible to see the circumstances being imposed upon us as a time of sacrifice? A time when we willingly let go of our routine by living into our exile from the familiar routine of church life?

Is it possible in that silence, we, like Elijah, may hear God whispering to us in the sound of silence?

What I needed to be and do in the days ahead became clearer. I needed to resist the temptation to fill the void of church activity with a harum-scarum round of new things to keep me busy.

I need to take the time to listen. And I also need to help our church to listen, wherever they are, to the Spirit among us.

That will undoubtedly mean some new patterns of activity, some new and different routines.

But isn’t that what Lent is all about? Giving up something that gets in the way of loving and serving God in order to hear God’s call to us anew.

I am sure many of us are anxious about what the days ahead will bring. I am sure that, as pastors and leaders, we are wondering what our churches will look like when this is all over.

But let me invite you to join me in this Lenten discipline of letting go and living into whatever new reality God speaks into being in your church and mine, in the church as a whole, as we live into the silence brought upon by COVID-19. Can we keep watch and pray with Jesus?

“Silently now, I wait for Thee, ready my God, Thy will to see. Open my eyes, illumine me, Spirit divine.”

Jim Holladay

Jim Holladay is pastor of the Lyndon Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.