“President Trump said Friday that state governors should allow churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship to reopen immediately. In brief comments at the White House, Trump said houses of worship are ‘essential places that provide essential services. . . . These are places that hold our society together.’ . . . White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said, ‘We can all hope that this Sunday, people are allowed to pray to their gods across this country,’” – May 23, 2020. NPR news (https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/05/22/861057500/trump-calls-on-states-to-immediately-reopen-places-of-worship).
Where do we worship? Where do we pray? Worship and prayer for me knows no walls.
I am not a scholar of religious history. But with a master’s degree in divinity, and a working knowledge of the history of Christianity, I think I can say that the experience of worship and practice of prayer that is only connected to a structure called a synagogue or church is not historically accurate. Following the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., Judaism understood the worship and experience of God not bound to a temple structure but worship was found within the pages and teaching of the Torah, wherever that occurred. Jesus never gathered in a church, for there were none yet, and rarely within a synagogue to preach. He taught, healed, and preached on boats, mountains, valleys, and in homes. Christianity started for the most part within homes. House “churches” were simply small gatherings of families or small communities. Churches were built in larger numbers once Christianity became a state religion. They often allowed the ordinary person to be in a space where they could worship, learn and grow in God, but church buildings also functioned to draw barriers between peoples’ own understanding and experiences of God and the church authorities’ interpretations. When peoples’ lived religious experiences in places outside a church building set themselves against the doctrine of the state church, they were often shunned from those buildings, excommunicated, etc.
Within my Moravian heritage from 1415 to 1722, there was rarely a physical church building that the Moravians could safely use. Rather, it was a practice of necessity that made Moravians worship, pray and learn about God in hidden and secretive places. Persecution that followed the founding of the Unitas Fratrum (Moravian Church) drove the church underground. Worshipping in their homes and in nature, the early Moravians were truly a church without a church building. With the Catholic-Protestant hostilities of the 15th – 17th centuries, the Moravian Church was church in their community and fellowship, their small prayer groups and house meetings, and prayed and worshiped in whatever house, valley, or mountain they could safely find.
This is all to say, as followers of Jesus, we have a long and treasured tradition of faithful worship. Worship centers us in God as our core and reminds us that we are not the beginning and end of our creation. Worship reminds us that we are called to be covenant people, not cast off into the world alone but connected between God and humanity in love. Worship shares with us teachings from ancient traditions and Scripture, and gives us wisdom and understanding to approach the life we live now. Worship connects us with others, reminding us that following Jesus is not an individual pursuit but one to do in community.
Worship is wonderful when we can do it within a structure like a church building. It helps to have both comfortable and awe-inspiring surroundings, physical reminders of the God we worship. It helps to have a gathering space for a larger community that can’t fit easily in most peoples’ homes (and also big coffee makers to supply beverages for all those people!).
Yet worship and prayer in our history and in our present should never be connected to a building. It has been and it will continue to be because we reflect the love we have for God and our community upon the physical space that has facilitated so much of that love. Yet when we are lifted away that physical space, we know, deep down, that the love is not removed.
So may we remember that when we are asked to reopen worship or start praying that we have never stopped. We have never stopped praying because we didn’t meet in a church building, nor have we stopped learning, growing or worshipping. We certainly mourn that our traditions have been changed and we grieve that technology barriers prevent all of our community in finding the ability, interest, or adaptability to new worship opportunities. No one is taking this lightly or finding it desirable. But we have worshipped, prayed, grown in faith, and listened for God’s voice and God’s presence over these past two months outside of a physical church building. Our worship and our prayers have never stopped. Just as historical movements of persecutions did not end the worship or prayers of our ancestors, the closing of a building has not stopped worship or prayers.
Maybe there is something else we should be continuing to open.
Maybe what we are hoping will be opened or reopened is our spirits’ ability to truly believe that God is understood, experienced and worship beyond physical structures. Maybe we are asking for all of our hearts to be opened a little wider to receive the patience and love and understanding that is a free gift of our Creator, regardless of where we worship and pray.