Exhaling on Ash Wednesday
This past Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent (and my 35th birthday), I spent some time at church participating in a carefully planned and socially distant observance. Worship attendance, like nearly everything else, has been thrown into upheaval by the pandemic. We tune into the stream from home each week, and I've had some opportunities to assist with technology behind the scenes. But physical attendance has been on "pause" for the past year, for the most part.
To be clear, I believe this to be the correct reaction during this most unusual season. If loving and protecting my neighbor means staying home to avoid spreading illness, it's a choice I'm happy to make. And I believe that God is teaching and strengthening the church through this pandemic, even as Christians have reached differing conclusions about the best way to proceed throughout. Even so, I have felt this loss deeply. My entire life (not to mention much of my work and education) has been structured around weekly rhythms of gathering, singing, praying, and learning with God's people. Streaming worship and virtual experiences, while a blessing, can't compare to the incarnate community of the church. I have longed to return to that community fully, to gather around the table once again.
When weather permitted in the fall, we held a few small outdoor services for which I was blessed to lead music. Singing together in creation, even with masks and distance, was a wonderful experience. After so many months away, it felt like a deep breath of fresh air! Of course, the weather quickly turned colder, and it has been a long winter. So the opportunity to worship together in a small group on Wednesday, even briefly, outdoors and in freezing temperatures, was a welcome one. As four of us stood together in a snowy parking lot at the ending of the evening, it was suggested that we might sing a hymn. As we lifted our voices together in a single verse of When I Survey The Wondrous Cross, I was surprised by the emotion that swept over me. It was as if I had held my breath all winter and could finally exhale! The blessing was as rich as it was unexpected, and I thanked God as I got in my car to drive home.
This season of Lent provides us with a reminder to turn toward God, away from this world's distractions. It also offers the opportunity to reflect on our human frailty, a reality that we feel even more acutely during this pandemic. As we look forward to the celebration of Christ's resurrection, I am also looking forward to the celebration of returning to full corporate worship, whenever that may come. There are many hopeful signs, and I trust the timing of the God who makes all things new. In the meantime, I'm grateful for these brief moments of grace and beauty, whenever they arise.