Walking through the park in the beautiful yet eerie stillness of the morning, the words to Psalm 122 come to mind. I know them off by heart and recite them to myself. I also know them in the 1620 metrical form. We sang it as children to the 18c tune St Paul with the almost clumsy double note at the end of the line in the second verse, to cope with the extra syllable. I remember singing it on one summer Sunday morning on the Isle of Muck. We had travelled earlier in a launch from our home in the nearby island of Eigg and scrambled over the slippy rocks to be treated to tea and fresh scones before making our way up to the school building. Through the tall windows behind the make shift pulpit, some sheep had left off their grazing to stare at the strange creatures standing inside singing. Somehow the relevance of the psalm, with the tribes gathering in Jerusalem and the houses packed together, so far away in space and time was quite lost on me. But today they have a special resonance.
The Psalm moves beautifully and quickly from the first person to the second to the third and then to the destination the home of the King. “I was glad when they said to me let us go to the house of the Lord”. It is full of movement in a single direction, a going up, a coming together, a closeness, a sense of belonging, and a sense of security, prosperity and of peace. You know that the Psalm writer is not describing something ephemeral, virtual or abstract. He is not talking about an idea, but an actual physical event and the joy that the invitation gives him.
Deprived of that special blessing, meeting each week together in church, I feel the loss so keenly today. This absence makes the heart go much more than a little bit fonder and the virtual replacements only make the longing for the reality that bit more intense. We have a weekly digital service and a sermon from one of the finest young preachers I know and afterwards we have digital coffee in cyberspace with our online home group. It is astonishing what technology has achieved and the blessings that can come from it, but it just doesn’t compare.
And I wonder why the church has, without, it seems any protest or question, followed the government instructions, cancelled services and closed buildings and so easily surrendered this most precious thing. It is not, of course, surprising that a secular government would view these gatherings as an unnecessary luxury in a crisis, while bicycle shops, pet shops, DIY centres, and off-licences on the other hand, are seen as essential to life. It is surprising, that the churches themselves think so too.
Still, in the vacuum, with social distancing, in the new normal, I will pray for the peace and security of Jerusalem. “For the sake of the house of the Lord our God I will seek your good”