Booths and the Post-Pandemic Church
You shall live in booths for seven days; all who are native-born in Israel shall live in booths, so that your generations may know that I made the Israelites live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
I think we are all trying to figure out what church will look like as we leave the storm of confusion caused by the COVID pandemic. There is so much uncertainty about what we will be able to return to, and what is changed forever. Many naturally want to “go back to normal” and recreate the church the way we had it, and act like the storm of the pandemic never happened. Others want to continue some of the new learnings and practices we were forced to adopt, and found to be useful: Zoom meetings and streamed worship, for example. And some are going through some post-pandemic stress as they assess the state of their church, like hurricane survivors looking at the state of their homes after the storm has passed.
One thing that I remember from the years of COVID is the faithfulness of God, and the faithfulness of God’s people. Our churches survived amazingly well, through agility and resourcefulness we didn’t know we had. Our faith was tested, and as it became harder to worship and care for each other, we found ways to stay connected with God and with each other, even when exiled to our own homes. This doesn’t mean we did everything right—in fact, my hope is that we learned that God doesn’t expect perfection, but faithfulness, and staying connected imperfectly is better than staying the same, but apart.
As I thought about the possibility of returning to a post-COVID world (if, in fact, we are ready to do this), I thought about the Israelites returning to Jerusalem after the exile. They had much to do as they worked to reestablish their world, starting with the Temple. Their leaders Ezra and Nehemiah gathered them, and read them Scripture, reminding them of the covenant that God had established with them, proved by bringing them through the Exodus, and now bringing them home from the exile.
One of the ways the Jewish people commemorate God’s faithfulness through times of uncertainty is the festival of Sukkot, or Booths, which just happened to have been completed yesterday. I am no expert on this important holiday, but I’ve always been intrigued with it. Along with Passover and Pentecost, Sukkot is one of the three holidays that call Jews to gather in Jerusalem, and has its roots in the traditional harvest festival that most if not all cultures celebrate. While Leviticus mentions the festival of Booths, the holiday is reinstated in Nehemiah 8, when the exiles returned to Jerusalem and tried to rebuild their nation. The people gathered, and the leaders Nehemiah and Ezra read from the Torah to remind the people of God’s faithfulness, and their responsibilities as God’s chosen.
According to Nehemiah 8:14 and 17, “they found it written in the law that the Lord had commanded by Moses that the Israelites should live in booths. . . And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in them, for from the days of Jeshua son of Nun to that day the Israelites had not done so. And there was very great rejoicing.”
During this festival, the people erect temporary shelters and eat in them for a week; some sleep in them as well. I love the experiential nature of this custom, as the people are reminded of the times when they were thrown into crisis, and God brought them through. Whether they were escaping slavery during the exodus, or homeless in the exile, when the very basic elements of life such as freedom and home are taken away, God’s people were able to persevere. Life wasn’t easy, and sometimes God’s care (and our faith) seemed fragile and impermanent, but we got through. I think these booths are also a reminder of the agility we gain with impermanent structures—a skill I believe we need to keep.
As we try to figure out what the church will look like in our post-pandemic world, we are blessed to have leaders among us who have great insight in this. Two of these leaders have been recognized on a national and international scale. Rev. Dr. Terry McGonigal was dean of spiritual life and then director of church engagement at Whitworth University, and now he works with churches around the country as they consider God’s call to them in this very changed world. Rev. Dr. Dongwoo Lee wrote a book on the post-pandemic church which quickly became a bestseller in Korea.
We have the great opportunity to hear from these two leaders and discuss what God is calling us to be in our churches now. Terry can give us insights he has gleaned from the many churches he is currently advising, and since Dongwoo’s book is in Korean, this talk will enable us English speakers to hear his vision for the next-generation church. Consistent with our pandemic learnings, we are holding this mid-year conference by Zoom, on Saturday, October 29, 9 am-noon. We are asking you register by going to https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZMlcuChqzkrHtyTsKXYLE8huEeDOBHnmPNL.
Whether reenacting our transient existence in ceremonial booths, or gathering virtually through Zoom, it is important to remember that circumstances will change, but the love of God never changes. Even as we have to adjust our strategies and techniques, may we do so with confidence and hope, knowing that God will get us through. And as we live out our lives with this confidence and hope, may we offer this to the communities around us.
In confidence, hope, and gratitude,