This morning, I attended in-person services at church for the first time since the beginning of the Covid-19 shutdown back in March. I’ll confess, it’s not the longest time I’ve been away. There have been many consecutive Sunday mornings in the past where I just decided to sleep in. There have also been times during UK Basketball season where I’ve disappeared for a few months at a time. And oh yeah, there was that decade and a half in my 20s and 30s where I didn’t go at all. But by and large—at least for the past quarter of a century—going to church on Sundays and visiting with my Centenary church family has been a pretty big deal.

So, I was excited when Centenary announced their plans to restart their on-site Sunday services on Father’s Day. In fact, I was so pumped for the re-opening that I wanted to be first in line. Here’s what it was like returning to Holy Ground.

Okay, I’d be lying (and it’s never a good idea to lie, especially while in church) if I said I wasn’t at least a little bit hesitant about coming back so quickly. As much as I hate to admit it—morbidity wise—I’m approaching that vulnerable age group deemed by the CDC to be the most susceptible to the virus.

But I figured there’ll never be a safer time to return than right now. Strict sanitation standards will surely be implemented, social distancing requirements will be rigorously enforced, and everybody present will be on high alert against coughing, sneezing, or touching their face (or anybody else’s face for that matter). Everybody has their guard up. No one wants to be the church that screws it up for everyone else.

The single church service begins at 10:30, and we’ve been told to arrive about 30 minutes early. There’s minimal traffic this morning, so I pull into the noticeably-less-than-full parking lot at just after 10. Immediately, I sense that something’s just a bit off kilter—it’s eerily quiet and a bit awkward as we all march up towards the single front entrance. After such a long absence away, we’re not quite sure how to greet each other—especially behind the veil of our protective masks.

It’s a bit surreal (I promise I won’t use that word again) walking into the building. I grab a dollop of hand sanitizer, receive my pre-packaged communion elements, and resist the temptation to violate everyone’s 6-ft bubble by shaking hands and dispensing hugs as I usually would.

Entering the front doors, I notice the narthex has been completely transformed. Gone is the comfortable seating, the free coffee, and the lively conversational cliques we’re so used to seeing on Sunday mornings. There’s no handshaking, no backslapping, no bragging about the golf game or the recent trip to Alaska. The message has been received LOUD and CLEAR: Come, worship, leave—DO NOT CONGREGATE!

It’s even more sterile within the sanctuary. The abundance of plexiglass and the roped off pews gives off a definite public vibe—as if I’m waiting in line at the post office to mail a package. The hundred-plus worshippers this morning are seated every third pew, three to a pew, with much more than the required distance of separation in between them.

The choir is noticeably absent, as are the usual number of kids and youth milling about. In fact, I’m a bit surprised at the disproportionate number of older folks like me who are filling the pews. Don’t they realize their life is in danger? I take a moment to chit chat with some familiar faces, exchange pleasantries and wave to those making eye contact, and remain poised for the sermon ahead.

The sermon by Pastor James is a good one. He talks about how God’s plans for our life are often different from our own life plans. God has a road map lined out for you, but it’s often not placed directly in front of your face. Our continued obedience and faith in God will eventually draw us close enough to view the map clearly. In the meantime, stand firm and keep trusting.

After Communion in the pews and a poignant benediction, we’re punctually dismissed. Like good soldiers committed to following Governor Andy’s rules, we file directly out of the church, into our cars, and back to our pets waiting expectantly for us at home.

Reading this narrative, you might guess I was disappointed by my lack of a familiar church experience. I mean if you have to wear face coverings, can’t hug anybody, have to sit by yourself, can’t attend Sunday school classes, and are discouraged from congregating, drinking coffee, and socializing with friends—then why come at all? Sure, the sermon was fantastic, but I could have watched it online—naked and unmasked—from the comfort of my bed.

And yet, there was something ethereal about the entire experience. It wasn’t just the taking of Communion either. Honestly, there really is a heavenly power at work when like-minded believers gather together in worship.

In the second chapter of the Book of Acts, the Apostle Paul wrote, “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.”

Paul was talking about the entrance of the Holy Spirit into the lives and bodies of the early Christians. For us present-day believers, as the world around us seems to be crumbling, it’s easy to forget the power that already resides within us—that same power that raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms. For me, being back together in worship this morning under one roof was a much-needed reminder of the sovereignty and dominion of God.

The good Lord designed us for relationships—affinity for Him, and connection with each other. Throughout my Christian walk, I’ve prayed until I’m blue in the face, I’ve memorized Scripture ad nauseum, I’ve listened to sermons galore. And yet, the greatest inspiration for my faith journey to date has always been the presence of other like-minded pilgrims on the same path as me. I know there’s more to genuine relationships than face-to-face interactions, but in our temporary world of quarantine and self-isolation, that presence together this morning rekindled a flickering flame.

It’s hard for me to describe the power of Christian community. There’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. Even as I try to explain it to you, it’s a heck of a lot better if you experience it for yourself.

To God be the glory!

See you next Sunday!

9 thoughts on “Returning to Holy Ground

  1. John, God has given to you a wonderful gift for writing. I’m thankful that you are using your God-given gift through a host of media..

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  2. John, you braved the Covid and survived. I appreciate your thoughts. I too agree that God created us for relationships and interaction. It appears that Centenary has taken the first steps back to normalcy. I pray that the virus will take a good turn towards decreased virulence and the incredibly smart scientific minds come up with an effective vaccine. Thanks for sharing you heart.

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    1. Thanks, Greg, for checking in. Yes, I braved the COVID this morning. The “surviving” part remains to be seen. Can’t wait to get back to normal.

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  3. Dear John. I so enjoyed reading your account. It is hard for us to stay away from the place that feels like a second home. You were able to have some conversations with folks while keeping a safe distance, right?

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  4. Thanks so much John! I’m sure you would agree with this slight paraphrase on the verse James sent out in advance of Sunday morning service from Psalm 122:1 – “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go [back] to the house of the Lord!”

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