This isn’t the sort of topic I usually write about on here, but tonight I wrote some reflections on our first day of real church post-lockdown and I didn’t know where else to post it, so here we are.
It’s been four months. Four months since we did real church in a real building with real people.
All this time I’ve been looking forward to the day when things finally go back to ‘normal’ and imagining what that moment will be like.
In the earliest weeks of lockdown, I realised it would be months before I would hear other people sing worship songs together again. It was the end of a long work day and I was walking through the rolling grassy slopes at the Roma Street parklands listening to music: the beginning of a new daily sunset ritual that formed my attempt to unwind from working at home. I was revelling in the pleasures of the music I was listening to, the warmth of the last rays of sunshine on my skin as the sun disappeared behind the weeping fig trees, and my new-found freedom in the peaceful solitude that iso life had brought.
One minute I was enjoying a pleasant walk at sunset, then the next minute I was sitting down crying.
I was crying because the song had changed and a worship song came on shuffle. I don’t even remember specifically which song it was, but that wasn’t what brought me to tears. It was the singing. I heard multiple voices singing in joyful unison together and in that moment I realised how deeply I grieved the loss of congregational singing. I realised it would be months before the next time I could stand in a room full of people and sing to each other. It may even be years before we can enjoy singing to each other without the stigma and anxiety of worrying that we might be unknowingly spreading a virus that is transmitted by airborne respiratory droplets. I have always loved singing and especially the Christian practice of singing to each other as an expression of our gratitude and our mutual commitment to each other’s spiritual growth. My church’s music ministry is built on a key verse in Colossians that instructs believers to “teach and admonish one another” through singing “psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” (Colossians 3:16). I’ve always been struck by the way we aren’t just a bunch of individuals singing to God on our own, but we are a body of people singing to each other as a concrete expression of our communal identity and mutual devotion to teaching each other the message of Jesus.
It’s almost like singing to each other as we sing to God is an embodied metaphor for our communal identity. It declares that there is an “us” and that our union with Christ gives us a deep union with each other, whether we like it or not.
I love that when a church sings together in unison, we exemplify our union as one body.
I love that when a church sings together in harmony, we exemplify our beautiful interdependence as different parts of the same body.
(Side note: I would love to hear more Western churches spontaneously breaking out into harmony like our African and Pacific Islander brothers and sisters do so heartily.)
So when this song came on shuffle and I listened to these vocalists harmonising together, I felt a wave of emotion come over me as I realised what we would be missing during lockdown.
We tried to sing together. We did live singing on Zoom in every service, with one household leading singing and everyone else politely muting their microphones to sing along from home. At one point we even did a kid’s song with everyone deliberately unmuting their microphones, and it sure was a “joyful noise” with all the familiar chaos and enthusiasm of real-life kids church songs. I’m so grateful to be part of a church family that worked hard to keep embodying these expressions of our togetherness, no matter how glitchy and unglamorous they were. We even tried doing new things like reciting the Nicene Creed together every week, speaking the same words echoed by believers all over the world for centuries and adding our voices to theirs in a cosmic unison that has transcended language, time, and denomination. We did this with microphones unmuted as well, and despite our best efforts to count in and set a pace together, each recitation was a chaotic jumble of voices out of sync with each other.
At first I found the chaos charming. It reminded me of the chaos of real-life gatherings (and if you’ve ever been around my very large family, you’ll know the sort of chaos I mean). Each week we tried to get a little bit better at syncing up with each other’s voices, but there were always a few people whose internet speed let the team down or some boomers who didn’t understand the concept of lag enough to compensate for what they heard. Like singing, the creed become another reminder that what we had on Zoom wasn’t “the real thing.”
So yesterday morning when a room full of people stood up together and spoke these same words in synchronised union, it was a remarkable moment. We were able to listen to each other, to responsively adapt our own speaking habits to match each other in togetherness. There were the inevitable moments when one person misreads a line or gets out of sync for a few words: those moments that remind us that we are a group of ordinary people where a bit of chaos is normal, even familiar. And in those moments when we messed up a few words, we could exchange a knowing smile with the person next to us—a real-life person whose body language we could actually read meaningfully—and adapt our phrasing to match the rest of the room in rhythmic unison again.
I was lucky enough to be sitting in the front pew, because I got to hear the dozens of voices wafting forward from behind me. I was less lucky that my prime position meant the ridiculous grin plastered across my face was probably highly visible to everyone looking forward. I don’t care. It was a moment that deserved a silly smile, the kind of smile that you can’t control even though you know it makes you look a bit unhinged.
Then we got to sing. Together. I wish I could tell you that it was exactly what I expected and that I cried happy tears as that special moment I’d anticipated for four months finally happened. But mostly it just felt… normal. I don’t know how or why, but it felt weirdly normal. It felt so normal that it nearly erased the last four months of singing to Zoom on an iPad in my bedroom while playing an electric keyboard with a glitch that plays vibrato on every note. I still don’t quite understand what happened to make it feel so normal for me, but I do know that in that moment it felt so real that the last four months felt more like a distant dream. This present moment just felt so viscerally real.
It felt like real church with real people who I could see and hear and smile at and sing to. People who were singing back to me, singing words to teach my heart truths about God’s kindness: “We are the people of God with the freedom of hope in our hearts. How great is the love of the Father!”
We sang those words to each other and to God. We breathed together as one body at the end of each phrase, and looking around I felt this weird excitement at the fact that we are physically embodied people who need oxygen to nourish us and air to make noise in our vocal folds. We’ve spent so much time meeting in disembodied ways that something as simple as breathing the same air (airborne droplets and all) felt like a privilege. There’s a cool scientific phenomenon where people who sing together literally synchronise their heart rates as they breathe at the same time, and I think it’s beautiful that even while keeping a 4sqm distance from each other, our hearts started physically beating together as one.
To me that was a reminder that being human is being physically embodied with a physical heart and lungs: a reminder that we connect with God and with each other in embodied ways, not just through screens but by offering each other our physical presence. What a privilege that is.
Yesterday we stood in the same room singing to each other for the first time in months and our heart rates synchronised our bodies in exactly the way God created them to do. With our hearts literally joined together in worship, I couldn’t help but think that this is a cool physical metaphor for the church being one body (1 Cor 12:12-27). I wonder if he planned that.
Remember those words we were singing? “We are the people of God with the freedom of hope in our hearts.” Maybe it should be “heart” singular. I’m feeling pretty overwhelmed with gratitude to be part of a body that has been brought together in wholeness with God as our head. It feels pretty special to know we’re connected spiritually but even more so to finally be together again physically.