Free to Gather Again

Free to Gather Again
by Sheryl Overstreet

 

It’s been hard being in a stay-at-home order these last four months. Everything has been closed down. No shopping, no movies, the start of restricted travel, the NCAA’s March Madness cancelled (I’m a die-hard Big Blue Nation fan!), concert cancellations, and season tickets to everything were suspended—and no gathering of friends! One thing we could always count on was church, but that too was closed. The federal government may limit religious freedom if it is absolutely necessary to promote and protect the common good. Christ’s Church has had an online service for a couple of years, so our staff was prepared much faster than most churches. But we weren’t prepared! My husband and I aren’t technically savvy, so trying to figure out how to watch the worship service online was quite an experience. But we finally figured it out, and we were set. We enjoyed being able to see our worship team and hear our pastors preach, but we began missing our friends more and more. Then came online Bible studies and community groups—all good, because we could see each other and communicate—but we were still lacking being together.

It’s Sunday!
I looked at the clock and it was 6:05 am, ten more minutes to sleep—but I couldn’t go back to sleep, I was too excited. It was Sunday, June 28, the first time the church was open for everyone in months! I just laid there and thought about who might be back. When the alarm went off, I got right out of bed (something I normally don’t do, I’m not a morning person!), eager to get ready for church. The night before I ironed my clothes, got my jewelry ready, and changed my purse. Now, for some of you that might sound funny, but I didn’t want to be late for my first day back to church! I was so excited to go back to the church building, no more online for me. No more watching in my pj’s and letting other things interfere with my worship. God designed me to see, hear, taste, touch, and feel my way through the world. I’ve seen and heard the power of our online world. But I’ve also felt its limitations. I was ready to be back worshiping with my church family.

My husband and I were both serving Sunday, so we arrived earlier than most. As we drove up to the canopy of the church, I could see friends inside. My excitement grew in anticipation of who else would be coming back today. I knew some would stay home due to no children’s programming, and I knew some would stay home due to the fear of the virus. For me, seeing members of our church family lifts my spirits. The past months of sheltering in place has been difficult. I have a need for my mental, emotional, and spiritual health to be with fellow believers, who are my family. Authentic fellowship feeds my soul and nourishes my spirit.

Ed and I greet several Sunday mornings either at the outside doors, or at the auditorium doors. I like to think of greeting as a reflection of God’s love, that reunites Christ’s body, enables hospitality, opens doors for ministry, and bears witness to the God who’s welcomed us through Christ. Even if these greetings are masked, touchless, and distanced, there still can be life-shaping in church. The apostle Paul encourages us in 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, “Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! . . . And the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All God’s people here send their greetings” (NIV). One of the sweetest things was just seeing friends, our church family, for the first time in months—in person.

Free to Sing and Hear God’s Word
The Holy Spirit wrote through King David, “Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song” (Psalm 95:1, 2, NIV).

What a feeling it was when the music started, and the lights were dimmed; it was time once again to worship with others. Now I applaud the worship teams for leading the worship in front of just a few people during the closure of the building, but there is nothing like singing together in person. Singing together expresses our emotions to God. It symbolizes our unity as we harmonize over the words. We also sing to encourage one another: “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts” (Colossians 3:16, NIV).

I’ve even grown used to watching Trevor and our other leaders teach God’s Word through YouTube and Facebook. When I hear God’s Word taught to a congregation, I resonate not only with our risen Lord and his Word, but with each other. I’m struck not only by the content of the message but also by the gravity of the moment.

Freedom vs. Persecution
This has made me think about things bigger than myself, bigger than our church. I understand why churches were asked to close to protect us from COVID-19. Our First Amendment guarantees freedom concerning religion, expression, assembly, and the right to petition. To some it felt as though we were being persecuted not being able to meet together—but we know nothing of persecution.

While Christian persecution takes many forms, it is defined as any hostility experienced as a result of identification with Jesus Christ. According to opendoorsusa.org, 260 million Christians in the world experience high levels of persecution for their choice to follow Christ. One in eight Christians worldwide experience high levels of persecution. In Sudan, Russia, Nigeria, North Korea, Columbia, India, and many other countries, followers of Christ are targeted for their faith. They are attacked, and discriminated against at work and at school. They risk sexual violence, torture, arrest, and much more. Christians face more persecution today than any time in history, from Jihadist regimes, to Muslim mobs, to genocidal terrorist armies. Here are just a few examples:

James, the brother of Jesus, tells us to “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4, NIV).

America will stand together this July 4th weekend to celebrate our freedom. American flags will wave from homes and businesses. The flags remind us of the sacrifices that were made to protect our country’s liberties. Our freedom in Christ can be demonstrated through love. And, as we enjoy our freedom, we must pray for the persecuted church. As Christians who are free in Christ, we are free to worship and free to serve one another in love—freedoms I do not take for granted. Church is open—hope to see you this Sunday!

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened . . .” (Galatians 5:1, NIV).

 

Sheryl Overstreet retired this year after serving for twenty years at Standard Publishing, most recently as managing editor of The Lookout magazine. She and her husband, Ed, have been members of Christ’s Church since 2006.

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