The last time I led a worship service and preached a sermon in a sanctuary was 461 days ago.
And the last time I was in a church building for any reason was 434 days ago.
The primary reason, as you might expect, was the pandemic. With most churches doing their best to follow guidelines and keep their people safe, the last church I served made the move to online worship in mid-March of 2020. About a month later, I preached my final sermon there (via Facebook Live) before beginning my position on the UCC national staff.
My entire church existence--work and otherwise--has been virtual ever since. Just like pretty much everybody else.
Both of those numbers finally reset yesterday, as I traveled to a small Lutheran congregation to fill the pulpit for them. With an average attendance of about 12, they've been making do with supply preachers for quite a long time. They're small, but they're faithful and feisty, serving their members and community as best they can with what they have.
The last time I led worship for a Lutheran congregation was quite a while ago, and I recall feeling confounded by the rubrics. This time things were much more streamlined, with everything printed out for me to read. There was no singing either, which simplified things even more.
After such a long time, stepping into the role was like putting on an old, comfortable shoe. It was easy to slip into, and much of the language was familiar to me, if not slightly adapted for a different denominational context. To wear the alb, to step into the pulpit, to say seasoned sacred words, came back to me as if I'd never stopped doing it.
Afterward, I sat at a table with a few members during coffee hour and heard a little more about their ministry. I heard about their vibrant clothing drive that is really blessing the area, their building repair needs, their relationship to their diocese, and their struggle to involve families given all the other demands on kids' time.
All of this felt as worn in as the preaching and praying. The ordinary struggles of a congregation was my life for such a long time that to hear about them barely registered. The refrain was as familiar was the hallelujah during communion.
In over a year, many churches are increasingly coming back to some semblance of normal. And while that "normal" will come with changes due to how the pandemic has changed how we approach life in general, let alone church life, it will also return us back to the struggles of engaging young people and building maintenance.
Maybe the old words of scripture and song will lead us through. These words of God sustaining people through mundane and extraordinary times have led people of faith in worse moments than this, and will do so again. Perhaps once again, if we listen for the Word behind the words, we can listen for what God is bringing into being.