Putting on Layers

Since October, my church has been meeting for socially distanced, fully masked, outdoor worship at 10 a.m. each Sunday.

There were several weeks of beautiful services surrounded by fall colors and mild temperatures. But as fall gave way to Advent, Christmas, and now “bleak mid-winter,” we are testing the temperature boundaries of “weather permitting.” So far, precipitation is the only form of inclement weather that has prompted cancellation.

Here in the South, we’re not accustomed to dressing for extended periods of time outdoors in cold weather. Our pastor keeps saying “Dress like you’re going to a Big 10 football game.” Well, first of all, that’s blasphemy. Who would go to a Big 10 football game? Second, we don’t own clothes for going to a Big 10 football game!

What I have learned to do is the age-old technique of layering: thermal underwear, wool socks, pants, undershirt, shirt, sweater, jacket, overcoat, hat, and gloves. By the time I get to the car, I look like Ralphie’s little brother, Randy, from “A Christmas Story.”

I continue to add layers as the temperatures decrease, and I can’t help but think about the metaphorical layers I put on for worship. See if you can relate:

Physical. What we wear to church does make a statement. Right now, my statement is “I want to be warm!” The focus for me is on practical rather than aesthetic considerations.

Social. There is currently no hugging and handshaking, as I have written about in this space recently, and our smiles are covered by masks. For me right now, this layer is about making eye contact, giving a friendly wave, and acknowledging as many people as possible without invading their six-foot zone. It warms my heart, if not my body, to see my sisters and brothers gathered for worship.

Emotional. The pandemic is exhausting. As an extrovert, I miss connecting with people, and the isolation saps my energy. I’m not much of a “happy clappy” worshiper, but during services since COVID hit, I have often been on the verge of tears and said a hearty “Amen” with more vigor than in the past.

Cultural. Even before the pandemic, I wondered if anyone who wasn’t already culturally familiar with church would attend a worship service anymore. This is even more true now that we’re sitting in folding chairs in the parking lot. Part of me thinks this would demystify the experience for the unchurched. It’s all right there in the open. But I also wonder if it’s not asking people to expose themselves to risk by attending a gathering of any type. This is a layer people of faith will be grappling with long after the pandemic ends.

Mental. The pandemic combined with the social and political unrest and economic uncertainty has produced a low-grade depression that weaves in and out of my thoughts each day. I’ve never let my mood dictate my decision to attend church, but my ability to worship and hear the message of the service is very much dependent on my mental state. This time has made me more aware of the mental layer than ever before.

Theological. It should be a no brainer that what I believe about God is a central part of my worship experience, but surprisingly, I can go for weeks at a time without seriously questioning the assumptions that underlie so much of faith practice. Do I believe God caused the pandemic? Do I believe God feels the world’s suffering? Is the pandemic a punishment from God? What is God doing in the world? These deeper questions about the nature and character of God are always relevant and should always be on my mind when I worship, but it’s a layer to which I have given more attention during the past months.

Spiritual. When I break through all of the distractions, the spiritual layer is what allows the experience of in-person worship with brothers and sisters to truly sustain me. It is the communing of my spirit with God’s spirit and the connection I form with the pastor, worship leaders, and congregation that help the message land on fertile soil and germinate into truth and renewal in my life.

As I continue to don the physical layers of clothing during the winter of this pandemic in order to worship in person, I hope I will better understand all that goes on in my spirit each week. Maybe this will be a time of greater understanding and growth.

I hope so.

Lance Wallace is a Baptist layperson and member of Parkway Baptist Church in Johns Creek, GA. He earns a living in higher education communications and writes a blog at newsouthessays.com.

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