The New Normal
It has been almost seven months. The authoritarian usurpation of our rights was supposed to end at two weeks: “two weeks to flatten the curve.” As we approach another school year, no one can say with certainty what that year will look like or how the student will be educated. Among the most irritating phrases to arise and settle into common parlance is the phrase, “The New Normal.” It is the way the Media has taken to describe changes in our society that none of us voted for or hoped for, and many of us wish to see ended. Rioting, protests, masks, isolation, and life by dictatorial decree have come to mark our new normal.
The one thing that should not have changed, and has not for some of us is our faith and our worship. But some have left the congregation and not returned. Each one that withdrew from participation in public worship among us likely had their own reason. Whatever that reason was, the time to return is here.
The need for worship within the fellowship of the congregation is like so many things in the Christian faith, not immediately apparent. One may stay away from worship for a time and feel no different and not really have a sense of missing anything. It isn’t immediately sensed, but it leaves a mark on the individual’s heart and mind. Some people notice it first when they try to return to worship. They may sense a reluctance to return or an impatience with worship. Others feel no need, either having decided that worship is not a good use of their time or having a sense that they are doing just fine without the regular encouragement of worship among the communion of saints.
The first problem is that the absence from worship strengthens our flesh in the natural but false theology that faith and worship are things that we work up in ourselves and are a product of our own efforts and piety. God creates and sustains faith in us through Word and Sacrament, but our sinful nature tells us that it is our choice and our effort that counts, that makes it happen. When we remove ourselves from public worship, we remove ourselves from the sphere of God’s influence and lock ourselves into the realm of the persuasion of the flesh. Simply put, we give the flesh all the time to influence us and shut God out.
This is not deliberate nor does it seem that way to us. We intend to keep God and His Word uppermost in our hearts and minds, but like all good intentions, life happens and we frequently find ourselves skipping devotions and abbreviating our prayers. Life pressures us and we cut corners without expecting it to be a regular thing until it is. We also invent our own piety and worship. The church worship service drags us where we do not intend to go in terms of which Word of God we consider, what hymns we sing, what we actually pray about, and how the Word of God is applied to us. Self-directed worship takes us where we want to go and tells us what we want to hear and are willing to endure, thus catering to our flesh more and our true spiritual needs less. Congregational worship also surrounds us with both the encouragement of the saints and the need to accommodate those “others” that may make us uncomfortable or impatient. Private worship and devotion do not join our hearts and voices with the fellowship of believers for encouragement, and it does not drag on – thereby disciplining our flesh – for a moment longer than we are comfortable.
Self-directed and private worship also deprives one of the Lord’s Supper. Even when it is done with the best of intentions, private, self-communion, does not deliver us the Sacrament. Aside from the fact that communion means a sharing together in something, which doesn’t happen privately, it tempts the individual with the notion that there is nothing special about the Lord’s Supper, nothing given or received apart from the elements. The realities we share in worship are not to be had apart from the Church and her fellowship, and although we have no sense of it, our spirit suffers from the lack of the blessed gifts or the Holy Meal.
In some cases, prolonged absence from the “gathering together of ourselves,” as Hebrews 10:25 puts it, leads people to seek out other fellowships. They often will do so on the basis of how these other fellowships appeal to one’s flesh rather than on the basis of their clear grounding in the Word of God. Of course, there may be other fellowships sharing the same foundation in the Word of God and the Sacraments, but the congregation that loses its members during times of crisis like the Pandemic will be poorer for the loss.
The new normal for every congregation will be how these changes shake themselves out. God will sustain His people and will sustain each congregation according to His will. His will for His children is clear, that they remain in the faith, strengthened by Word and Sacrament, and serving one another in the grace and love of God. That is also the prayer of the congregation for each of its members, whether they finally return to us or choose to move on to another congregation. If that should happen, we hope and pray that they are led to a faithful congregation, which would be a Lutheran congregation.
The new normal of our lives in America appears to be heading toward a time of escalating persecution of the Church. Every Christian needs to be prepared for this eventuality. That preparation includes a firm grounding in the Word of God, understanding the Gospel for what it promises and what it does not promise. Preparations should also include surrounding each other with a faithful community of believers to shield and encourage one another in the face of the challenges that will arise. To that end, we gather for worship, and to receive the gifts of God with the goal of being prepared, wearing the full armor of the people of God. We also gather in our Bible Studies to study God’s Word and talk about the challenges we face in living out our confession of Christ as we confront the new normal of our society.
For us Christians, there really is no new normal, just the same old normal of the love of Christ for us, and the hostility of the world toward Christ and all that is His, and our abiding need for Word and Sacrament and the fellowship of the saints. If you have been regularly coming to worship these past months, thank you! If not, we invite you and welcome you to return. Come, let us reason together.
Yours in the Lord,