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This summer, I read and preached on the stories of King David in 1 and 2 Samuel.
Of course, we covered the familiar and popular stories – David and Goliath, David and Bathsheba, David and Jonathan – but we also read the less eventful Scripture where David settles into the palace and promises to build God a house too (2 Samuel 7:1-14). But God doesn’t care about David’s promise to build God a house. In fact, God insists that the God of the universe is more into camping (or at least that is how I read it): “Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in? I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt to this day. I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling. Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their rulers whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”’
And then God goes on to completely ignore David’s request, instead promising to make David’s name and lineage great, building God’s kingdom through David’s family. It seems David is the one who wants to stay in one place, not God. How often do we read our own desires into what God wants for us?
The realization that the God of the universe is into camping seems quite applicable in our pandemic world right now. The outdoors has been our sanctuary and security while a deadly virus seems to spread more rapidly indoors. The only real vacation I enjoyed this summer was camping with my friends in northern New Jersey. My church, like many others, has engaged in outdoor services throughout the pandemic to keep us all safe. But more than being outdoors, camping embraces impermanent dwelling. Camping is temporary, flexible, offering the ability for one to pack up and move to a different place from day to day.
Christian worship, gathering, education, discipleship have all been done differently during the pandemic. If your church is anything like mine, worship has moved from place to place. We have gathered differently – outdoors for social time, online or participating in the same Advent devotional at the same time in our own homes. And study practices have morphed too. And, all the while, I have heard the desire of God’s people to “get back to normal.” But if the last year has taught us anything as a community of faith, hopefully it has taught us that we can share Christ together no matter the circumstances — that we can adapt and be flexible. We can still encounter the Holy Spirt even in surprising spaces and places. Perhaps we are starting to learn that it is less about the where, the what or the how, and more about Jesus. And perhaps the church has stayed put so long for too long and maybe, like the story of King David, God is inviting us to go out rather than stay in. Remember the sanctuary was not God’s idea, but David’s.
About a year ago, I read an article depressingly proclaiming that this virus is here to stay for quite some time, and so we need to learn how to live with it. So far, I don’t think we have figured out how to do that as a country. But I think churches have learned a lot. Instead of being focused on getting back to who we were and what we were doing before the pandemic, let’s celebrate how we have camped during the pandemic and continue to move from place to space in order to be with one another and God. Let’s celebrate how flexible adaptable we can be. Let’s embrace loving God and loving others in a new way.
The church I pastor moved to outdoor worship again recently due to elevated COVID-19 metrics that seem to be stemming from the delta variant. I know it is tempting to see this change as going backward – going back to where we were months ago – but I just don’t think God sees it that way. Instead, I believe God sees it as a commitment to be faithful and loving in every time and space. The words of 2 Corinthians 4:4 seem appropriate: “Therefore, since through God’s great mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.” It is tempting to see these pandemic challenges as linear, but true faithfulness is never linear. What if the flexibility itself – the ability to worship, love, and share the gospel in any circumstances – is the victory, rather than getting back in the sanctuary or Sunday school in classrooms or coffee hour or how we’ve always done it.
Perhaps the God of the universe is inviting all of us to go camping. Is your tent ready?
JULIE RAFFETY serves as the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Franklin, New Jersey. Julie is a violinist, aspiring writer, snowboarder, runner, identical twin and crazy about popcorn.
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