Becky Goodwin: Empty building, hearts full of love
“Here’s the church, and here’s the steeple. Look inside and see all the people!” Such is a childhood rhyme with interlocked fingers. Today the rhyme would end with a question: “Where ARE the people?” Answer: They have all gone home to wait out a virus!
Facing a global pandemic, as we all do our parts to reduce risks to public health, religious communities, too, must close their doors. This is ironic for my denomination which proclaims itself to be “open hearts, open minds, and open doors.” Absurdly, we must close our doors for love of people!
Specific personnel may enter the buildings, for essential tasks. This includes me, the pastor at Grass Valley United Methodist Church. So I go into the empty sanctuary daily. It is just as we left it on March 8, the last day we had public services.
The first thing that gets my attention is the altar. This is as it should be, for the altar is the focal point of a Christian gathering space. It calls us to worship. It reminds us of our purpose: to join in gratitude for our God of everlasting love.
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On the altar, I see the traditional purple cloth for Lent, (“Lent” being the name for the current season of the “lengthening of days” in the spring), the cross, the open Bible, the altar candles, the children’s lantern, the peace lamp.
Off to one side of the altar is the baptismal font and that tall “Paschal” candle that the children acolytes love to light with the special wand that reaches up high. Off to the other side is the new organ, so beautifully played by our music director.
I assume my leader’s vantage point, looking out at the empty pews, the historic stained glass windows all around. I nod to the silent grand piano, then I walk slowly down the center aisle, and look at each pew, and I pray.
One day on my rounds, a message on the wall caught my eye. It was the banner, which has been there since February, hand-quilted by a congregation artisan.
“LENT: a time to give up what we are for what we may become.”
How true! More true than ever! When this isolation ends, we will be different! Lent is always a season to embrace transformation, but this year, Lent is about BIG changes! We will definitely NOT be the same as we were.
And then I cried. I knew tears were going to come eventually, and there they were! I wept for the sorrow of people around the world who have lost a loved one to the coronavirus, for overworked health professionals, for the disruptions of work and school, for the increased dangers to the vulnerable, for the growing ranks of the unemployed, for the challenges at all ages and stages of life.
I wept for every community of faith, for this painful separation is not just on worship days, but seven days a week. Normally, we are busy inside this building and out in the community, with many worthy causes, studies and projects. This place is normally alive with the hum of office sounds, music rehearsals, meals served to the needy, conversations in the halls, children romping up and down stairs.
This is a place dear to the wheelchair-bound resident who arrives on the lift bus from a nursing home. This is a place where a recovering addict finds solace in a sermon. This is a place where dreams and schemes for peace and justice are hatched. This is a place where heads are bowed in prayer.
But now the building is quiet, dark, thermostats set low for nobody will be here for awhile. The altar, symbol of the living God, stands majestically, like an orchestra conductor who has set the baton down, and has commanded us all to rest, to be still.
The people of the church have left the building, but Church is the people, after all. We even sing a hymn about it with these words “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is the people …”
Indeed! We have always been Church outside the walls. We have always been the people outside the building, who do loving care and service and peace-making and justice advocacy. It is just painfully clear right now. And strangely, we must stay at home to do this.
Rev. Becky Goodwin is pastor at Grass Valley United Methodist Church.
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