A quick survey of recent church-related emails yields one prominent word: return.
“Return to in-person worship.”
“Return in time for Easter.”
“Return of regular programs.”
“We know you are all wondering, when can we finally return after these long, hard 13 months?”
What does the word “return” mean for your congregation – and for your church board – right now? To put it differently, what word would you use instead if you couldn’t say return? What would take its place? Re-launch? Re-engage? Re-establish?
Or, if the word is undeniably “return,” is there a fuller meaning you can offer your congregation?
American poets have written repeatedly of return, giving us many angles of approach to the “old home door.” (For anxiety, see Dickinson; for poignancy, Frost.) But the following poem by Montana poet Tami Haaland is especially simple and resonant:
By Tami Haaland
When I open the door
and reach to the light switch
the world opens as it did each time.
The garlic jar on the ledge,
the ceramic cup holding
cheese cutters and paring knives.
Outside a branch
from the ash tree
worries the window.
It was a place where I knew
the drawer pulls, the feel of steps
to the basement, the smell of cool cement.
If I open the middle cabinet,
the linen is there as you left it,
well-ordered, none of it fine.
The Old Testament prophets, too, wrote extensively about return. Separation from God and, in the exile, separation from homeland and known culture were prominent. Notably, there are texts about returning to God with our whole heart (Jeremiah 24:7), returning in repentance, trusting God’s grace and mercy (Joel 2:13), responding as God returns to us (Zechariah 1:3), and holding fast to love and justice as we return (Hosea 12:6). The prophets spend little if any of their words on returning to a building, a place, or a set of practices of their pre-disrupted life.
For your church board, perhaps one of the most significant texts for this moment is Jeremiah 15:19:
Therefore thus says the Lord:
If you turn back, I will take you back,
and you shall stand before me.
If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless,
you shall serve as my mouth.
It is they who will turn to you,
not you who will turn to them.
“If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless.” To go through what we have experienced in the last year and now simply rush to return begs the important question: What have we learned? What has your congregation learned about what is precious and what is worthless?
How is your church board talking about “return” right now? If you banished that word from your common vocabulary, what word would you use instead?
What details in Haaland’s poem catch your breath, and why?
What do you make of the last line in her poem?
What world do you imagine opening, when you open the church door again?
What will you find there that is well-ordered, but not particularly fine?
What might you discover that is newly precious, or newly worthless?