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What the Exile Can Teach Us about Returning to Church

My latest essay for

Greater than the return of the hobbits to the Shire, greater than Dorothy waking in Kansas, even greater than Nemo’s return to the reef is the return of the disciple to an in-person worship service.

That return feels like a great deliverance from exile.

I arrived at our outdoor service on Easter Sunday, before the sun rose—excitement and emotion insulating me from the chill in the air. It’s a moment I will not soon forget, for it was far too long in coming.

The Body of Christ is the disciple’s home. Even though we are connected while apart, united by the Holy Spirit, it is both the grace and design of God for us to be together. Which may explain why this separation has felt much like a type of exile. Except we were banished to our homes. But many of us have been away from our heart’s home, the church.

It’s not possible for me to even imagine what it was like for the Jewish people to be oppressively taken into exile.

They were displaced from the land promised by God as His chosen people. They were torn from their homes, families, and temple life, which was central to their lives because it was symbolic of the presence of God dwelling among them. Being away from church during the pandemic is hardly the same as the Jewish exile to Babylon, but it has made it slightly more relatable.

The prophet Jeremiah had a message for the Jews exiled in Babylon. He instructed them to settle in, build houses, farm, and raise families (Jer. 29:4-7). They were to carry out activities of a normal life as they waited for restoration. There is just such a record in the Old Testament about a man named Daniel who remained faithful in such circumstances. They were able to sing the communal prayers in the Psalms even in exile. As the people, nation, and kingdom of God, they had still been given the worship service and Jewish feasts ordained by God.

Back in our present day, quarantine looked different for a lot of different people.

Many wanted it to take on a redemptive quality. They wanted to come out the other side better for it. They learned new skills, took online courses, got healthy. And now the time has come to emerge. And we want the return to also have a redemptive outcome.

Masses are returning, as churches are re-opening and cases are waning. But what we are returning to is different. Processes are more controlled (and rightfully so). Safety precautions are in place. Gatherings are typically smaller, attendance is lower. In many churches, people are masked and spaced apart.

It’s a joy to be reunited with church family members. However, as we look around us, we long for those who have not yet returned.

Again, I recall the exiles. I imagine their disappointment when, at the end of decades in exile, they returned to the rebuilt temple. Things just weren’t the same. But that doesn’t necessarily mean things were worse. Gratitude transforms everything—including, and most especially, worship. We are thankful to God. We are thankful to be there. We are thankful for the technological age we live in that made gathering on Sundays possible during our isolation. Endless streams of Christian content was readily accessible to feed and encourage faith. It made things temporarily bearable, no doubt—and yet it was still hard. Because we were isolated. And discipleship is meant to be lived out in community.

As we return, let’s ask: What can we learn from the returning exiles?

What can redeem our time spent away? What will make us better disciples now that we are rejoined with the Body?



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