Returning from Exile: Coming Back from COVID
Just a little more than a year from the onset of the pandemic, the recession of COVID-19 glimmers on the horizon. Without discussing the data and the various perspectives on when herd immunity will be achieved, there’s a qualitative, gut sense of things beginning to change for the better. Sorrow is giving way to joy. Light is dawning in the darkness. We get to return “home.” Still, it’s clear that home will be different. And, if we’re honest, we too are different than we were a year ago.
In the Biblical narrative, there is language and a story that help us navigate the particular season in which we find ourselves: Israel’s return from Exile – the period of Israel’s history in which God’s people were removed from their home and taken to Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt as a result of their persistent sin against God. They were forcefully ripped out of their places of comfort and plunged into an extended experience of grief as they experienced the loss of familiarity, safety, independence, social ties, religious expression, and wealth. After 70 years (and we’re reeling from just one year), the people of God were able to return to their home following this layered and generation-spanning devastation.
Finally, the Lord cleared the way for their return. And further, after years of backbreaking and fearful work, He enabled Zerubbabel and his workers to rebuild the temple of God in Jerusalem. At this sacred and familiar place of worship and fellowship with God and His people, there was a new look, a fresh perspective, and a renewed commitment, while the phantoms of what used to be haunted the remembrances of the older generation. This story of return from exile finds a culmination point at the temple dedication in Ezra 3:10-13:
And when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests in their vestments came forward with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the LORD, according to the directions of David king of Israel. And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.”
And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away.
There is great joy at this wondrous occasion of dedication. God had been faithful to His promises. He had shown mercy to His people. He had brought them out of exile and brought them home. And yet, joy is not the only emotion– and rightly so. This joy is intermixed with sorrow. A sadness hangs over the older generation and they weep loudly during worship because they “had seen the first house” – the former temple in its glory before its destruction and their exile. The elders remembered what had been while they were experiencing what God had now established. They grieved as they rejoiced. The result was a cacophony of joy and sorrow: “so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping.”
We often think that joy and sorrow don’t go together. We imagine they’re more like oil and water than peanut butter and jelly. From Scripture, however, we get a very different take. Over and over again, joy and sorrow exist alongside each other – intermixed at times in the Psalms and the prophetic books like a well-made cocktail. This reality could not find a clearer expression than the experience of the people of Israel gathered around Zerubbabel’s temple.
As the pandemic begins to subside, this intermingling of joy and sorrow in Ezra 3 has everything to do with us and with our students. We are coming out of a season of deep, extended sorrow, grief, and loss. Even as we feel the joy rising within us at our “return home” in our churches and our youth groups, the sorrow lingers. This is especially true as we remember what once was and who we once were. Everything has changed – our homes and we ourselves.
Here are a few suggestions as we prepare to return from the exile of the pandemic:
- Take stock of how you have changed and how your students have changed over the past year. What has God been cultivating in you? How have you seen Him at work in your students?
- Consider how your youth ministry and your church has changed. What has been the good, bad, and ugly of the past year?
- Take stock of opportunities due to heightened spiritual urgency. The slate has been wiped clean. Hearts have been broken. Grief has awakened many to deeper realities. How and where have you seen this take place? Who could you move toward in empathy and solidarity?
- Create space for your students to grieve and tell stories. Your youth group could be a space for appropriately and biblically grieving what has been lost. Model how to grieve yourself. Your youth group could also be a place for an expression of that bittersweet mixture of joy and sorrow.
- Teach students this portion of the biblical story and the theme of exile and return found across Scripture. This is an opportunity for us to connect our stories to the Story.
- Going further, connect the joy of the “end of COVID” with the deeper joy of union with Christ and the fuller joy of our final “return home” when He makes all things new. This can set the stage for the cultivation of a sturdier, gospel hope in God’s promises in your church.
- Finally, this season has invited us to consider where to make adjustments in our ministries, pushing us to innovate. Things should be different going forward than they were before. How can you simplify and focus your ministry along the lines of The Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) mandate to make disciples? How could you do this creatively and in a way that is tailored to your context?
Doug McKelvey, author of Every Moment Holy, Volume II: Death, Grief, and Hope, captures this interplay between joy and sorrow in his “Liturgy for Embracing Both Joy & Sorrow.” In the end, we will all be more like Christ and experience rich intimacy with Him in our churches if we can pray McKelvey’s prayer with earnestness as we “return home.”
So we, your children, are also at liberty
to lament our losses, even as we
simultaneously rejoice in the hope
of their coming restoration.
Let me learn now, O Lord, to do this
as naturally as the inhale and exhale
of a single breath:
To breathe out sorrow,
to breathe in joy.
To breathe out lament,
to breathe in hope.
To breathe out pain,
to breathe in comfort.
To breathe out sorrow,
to breathe in joy.
In one hand I grasp the burden of my grief,
while with the other I reach
for the hope of grief ’s redemption.
And here, between the tension of the two,
between what was and what will be,
in the very is of now,
let my heart be surprised by, shaped by,
warmed by, remade by,
the same joy that forever wells within
and radiates from your heart, O God.