Sometimes, there are no words. That’s how it feels when I consider Sunday, our first service back at church after sixteen months apart. Was it was only a dream, or was it the last sixteen months that were a bad dream from which I suddenly awoke? I find it a little hard to tell. If you’ve ever read “A Wrinkle In Time”, you might recall that in it, Madeleine L’Engle describes time as a fabric that can be wrinkled so that a needle can travel through two points far apart on the cloth without the middle fabric being touched, et voilà, time travel. That’s sort of what yesterday and even the last few weeks have felt like, being plunged anew into the regular bustle of life after a *lost sixteen months that feel totally surreal.
First of all, New York’s statewide restrictions were suddenly lifted with a bang, literally, as across the state people celebrated with fireworks. That was mind-blowing enough, to see people’s chins again, and to ride in crowded train cars and stand elbow to elbow with strangers, after so very recently having such a plethora of restrictions surrounding almost everything.
And then on July 4th, the Brooklyn Tabernacle opened their doors for the first services since we abruptly closed after our last church service on March 8, 2020.
My Lord, what a morning.
Grace, my weekend guest, and I got up way too early and made our sleepy way to the train station, armed with coffee as was my wont in days past. We listened to choir songs on the familiar, orange, F train as we sped through Queens, Manhattan, and finally arrived at the Jay Street/Metrotech station. Through the tall metal turnstiles, up the left-hand stairs, and there it was, right in front of us. I took Grace around the back of the building to show her where I would always enter backstage (the choir isn’t singing quite yet, not till the church gets a little settled in again), and then as we rounded the second corner toward the main entrance, I began to run into choir members and friends I hadn’t hugged for over a year. We entered church together, past the grinning greeters holding signs and wearing custom tee-shirts welcoming us back, and into the auditorium. That familiar, warm, golden auditorium filled with music and cushy seats and so many smiling faces and hugs.
We settled in near the front, where I am not ashamed to say I rubbernecked with the best of them, exclaiming over more and more people arriving whom I hadn’t seen in ages and blowing kisses to the ones I couldn’t reach to hug. The band warmed up, excited exclamations flowed around the auditorium, and I spotted the singers hurrying back and forth behind the curtain, getting ready to go on stage.
Finally it was time. The lights dimmed, the singers took their places, and Pastor Cymbala and Carol came out to greet us. The crowd ERUPTED. Everyone stood to their feet and cheers resounded to the top of the domed ceiling. And the tears began to flow.
Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the man who was supposed to go play his bagpipe at a funeral, and got rather lost on the way. Finally he arrived, much too late, just in time to see the last lingering undertakers finishing up with the grave. Well, he thought, he was supposed to play, and so he guessed he’d just play for them. So he took out his bagpipe and played the most heart-rending rendition of “Amazing Grace” that he could, pouring his soul into the song. As he said, “I vept, they vept, ve all vept together.” When he finished and was leaving, he overheard one guy say to the other, “Many years I’ve worked on septic systems and I’ve never seen anything like that before.”
All that to say, “I vept, they vept, ve all vept together.”
I could have sang for hours, but all too soon the service was over and we were greeting all the friends we could reach, with ear-splitting grins. The next service was about an hour away, so a few of us caught up over burgers at the nearby Shake Shack, before heading back to church, because how could we not? Another round of praises and tears and hugs, and then after the second service ended, wait for it… more hugs. I think about how few humans I’ve touched at all here in the last sixteen months, and I think I’m going to have to hug half the church every Sunday for a while just to make up for it.
We headed upstairs to our old choir lunch room for the young adult gathering that was happening, and chatted some more over fruit and coffee, and then with a small group of friends, off to Mia’s Bakery, our favorite little post-church-hang, where we planted our elbows on the table and talked hard for hours over our drinks and cakes. Finally we tore ourselves away and headed toward the awaiting fireworks- reputedly the largest display in the country- amid the surging crowds by the East River. Celebrating on such a large scale felt felt like such an appropriate end to the day, you know?
What. A. Day. What a glorious, celebratory, resurrection day. So many emotions- I felt quite like a wrung out rag the next day, and was even a little hoarse from all the singing and tears and joy. I can’t even imagine how the people are feeling who have poured their whole lives into this place, not just a few years like me. And now I’m relaxing hard and looking forward to prayer meeting Tuesday evening and worship night later this week and church the next week and the next and the next… Is this real?
P.S. One of my favorite moments of church was admittedly when Grace’s seat neighbor began snoring rather loudly through the service. How even? 😀
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*I don’t mean to intimate the past sixteen months have been wasted. Just that they will, and already do, feel like a surreal season that doesn’t actually connect to the rest of my bustling life, although I’m sure there is much growth that will become apparent with a little more distance and perspective.