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I have watched them coming back, filing from the parking lot like refugees returning to a long-abandoned home. They move through church foyers and hallways with furtiveness well learned from two years of hiding behind masks and social distancing. No one—not pastors, greeters, even longtime friends— is fully trusted yet, for this strange season has persuaded us that other humans are the greatest threat to our existence.
Where once we feared the mushroom cloud, or galloping inflation, or society’s long slide toward amorality and disintegration, we’ve learned in 24 short months to fear each other—even well-intentioned others. Who knows what unmasked moments may yield?
We sit in clusters that seem safe, like sculptures carved to fit the pews. No hands across the nearby pews; few hugs; no unnecessary talk. We rise for hymns and kneel for prayers with nothing like our former zeal. The music dies upon our lips, as if it is unseemly to be singing of a God of light and color after two long years of gray. A weighted blanket rests on all, suppressing what we once described as joyousness in Jesus. Few babies cry: young families are still missing from the gathering.
In 60 years of watching fellow Adventists in church, I’ve never seen the like of it, even in our moments of great loss or tragedy. Where once a remnant people huddled close to find what warmth and joy they could, we now make do with showing up— hoping in our heart of hearts that some small piece of God’s good truth might light a fire or warm a hymn.
Which makes this moment exactly the one in which the gospel must be heard—the everlasting good news that long predated this pandemic and will be told when all this pain is mercifully forgotten. Hearts grown cold from fear and loss will only warm when we decide to tell each other once again the well-worn stories of hope and love— how Jesus came into this darkened world with music in His heart and healing in His hands. This is the hour—for sometimes, that’s all the window we have—to trace His kindness toward His enemies; His deep compassion for those lost without a shepherd; His unrelenting interest in the ones He termed “the least of these.” We need to hear again that God’s first attribute is love—that all our brokenness is met by grace that does not alter when He alteration finds: “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:17).
This isn’t a responsibility only for the preachers, for they are living this strange time as well.
Their hearts are not the fonts of optimism we frequently imagine, for they have seen the losses of these years on larger and collective scales. They’ve buried friends and longtime leaders; wept with desperate, grieving families; and worried for their spouses and their children. They’ve asked themselves a dozen times if they should do this painful work or seek the solace of some simpler job. The gospel we expect them to share from the pulpit is the same gospel we must share with them at the door—the Word of affirmation; the gratitude for caring; the stories of fears overcome; of sins forgiven; and the enduring power of hope.
A new covenant awaits our full endorsement—a deep calling to companionship, to holding on, to staying with, to gently weaving once again the fabric of community so tattered by the last two years. The post-pandemic church of Jesus won’t rise from the ashes like the mythical phoenix just because the worst of times may now be over. It will require intentional re-tellings of the gospel; arms reaching out to re-embrace; a deep forgiveness born of grace for those who have offended us through these contentious months.
Nothing in the last 2,000 years has ever stopped the gospel. Nothing ever will.