How to Return to Church

A couple weeks ago, I wrote my final paper for my Prophets class on Isaiah 58, true fasting. Never has a paper or passage so deeply convicted me. After submitting it, I sat with my roommate over dinner and gave her the Reader’s Digest pop version with tears in my eyes, feeling very sympathetic to Isaiah’s deep sense of unworthiness and uncleanness. As a Christian “committed to justice and mercy,” or at least able to string together eloquent words to contribute to the cause–even as a deaconness who avowed to pursue such ideals for the benefit of the church–I was immensely challenged to re-examine my own life and the ways I fall short.

Isaiah 58 addresses a fast that some Israelites had undertaken and their subsequent questioning of God. “Why have we fasted and you not seen?” they ask. Up until this point in the passage we have every reason to believe these people to be genuinely devout and admirably zealous for the Lord. They seek the Lord, they delight in his ways.

God’s rebuke of their practice was swift and thorough. The ritual, unless accompanied by the true fruit of repentance and humility–the very things fasting is meant to reflect–was as good as having not performed the ritual at all. Doing one thing God commanded while neglecting other essential commands was actually self-defeating.

While fasting, these folks were self-seeking, oppressive, and argumentative (vv.3-4). And not only did they act in ways contrary to humility (vv. 1-5) they failed to act in other ways that humility showed itself to be true (vv. 6-12).

Several times, God highlights the fact that the temporality of fasting was leading them astray. The Lord’s response suggests they isolated the relevance of the fast to a mere day—”fasting like yours this day” (v. 4), “a day for a person to humble themselves”, and “a day acceptable to the Lord” (v. 5). Their view of fasting was overly confined to a 24 hour period, a narrow window of obedience to the command to perform a ritual, a small part of the whole they could set apart for God’s purposes, while the other days were spent on themselves. They reduced humility to a short-lived ritual and God was not pleased: “Will you call this a fast?” Fasting on its own was mere pantomime and under these circumstances not even worth being called by that name.

I plan to write more later about what else I learned writing that paper, but this afternoon as I sat outside in my backyard eating lunch, my thoughts turned to the complete emptiness of the fast improperly undertaken for a different reason. Tomorrow, many will return to church. Some will do so perilously in defiance of public health guidance, some will do so prayerfully because the risks in their community are low and they’ve thought long and hard and selflessly through the safest way to minimize further risk to their and outside communities as they gather. Still some will continue not to meet in person but virtually.

I wonder if God might ask the same questions of our Sunday worship services as he did of these folks’ fast. Is this the kind of worship he has chosen? A day to gather and sing? Is he pleased with this? Why do we insist on “worshipping” while seeking our own pleasure (v.3), oppressing others, and hitting with a wicked fists (v.4)? Will worship like this carry the words of our songs heavenward as a sweet fragrance before the Lord or as will they reach him as a stench? Do we worship in humility, the true fruit of a heart bowed in submission to God and neighbor, or do we worship arrogantly and miss the point?

To return gloating that you defiantly stuck it to someone is as good as being absent. God has almost not pleased by hearts unmoved by the humility true worship ought to imbue. Likewise, to return months from now smug because you consider yourself “not like the other churches” that re-opened early, saying in your heart “thank you God that I am not like them” (Luke 18:11) is also no better than not gathering at all.

I won’t pretend that these are not hard choices to make. This is new territory for us all. I won’t patronize you and say that if everyone would just pray, every church would come to the same decision. I lament that the consequences of impatience may be lives. I also am not unaware that the line between impatience and prudence may be almost imperceptibly fine. For most, I assume that these decisions are not being made lightly.

But I leave you with this, what I can say with confidence: if your shepherds are not also preparing you to return in humility on top of whatever other precautions they are or are not enforcing, they are leading you astray. This is as true for churches reopening in advance of the all clear from public health officials as it is for those taking a more conservative approach and waiting it out. The idea of returning without humility should be even more unsettling than the idea of returning without any other precautionary measures. Those of us on the more cautious side face the very real danger of the same self-righteousness of the older brother from the story of the prodigal son.

Follow CDC guidance. Social distance. Wear a mask. Minimize sharing of worship materials. Or stay home a little longer. Log in to the livestream in your pjs. Watch from your couch. However you come, come humbly.

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