The strangest long weekend I have ever experienced was Christmas in a freezing cold New York, where the city seemed to have simply shut down.
We even battled to find a place to eat on Christmas Day. Fortunately there was one upside to our brief stay.
Walking back to our low budget hotel on Christmas Eve, we stumbled upon the facade of an unpretentious church hemmed in by large office blocks. The sign read Grace and St Paul Lutheran Church – Christmas Eve Mass!
We immediately decided that, despite the cold, this was an event not to be missed.
Unlike most things American, it was a small building with a very special atmosphere that felt magical and smelled strongly of incense.
The beautifully covered altar was central, the candles plentiful and the priest dressed in his finest festive vestments. A small choir and a small congregation completed the welcoming scene.
The worship service was framed by a sung liturgy. A surprise for us simple Methodists from South Africa. The sermon focused on our responsibility to the poor and needy. We were aware of a strong sense of community.
The Eucharist was celebrated with great dignity and the organ music warmed our souls. After the service we joined the other worshippers for tea and snacks.
Then came the second surprise. As we prepared to leave, the priest quickly broke away from his flock and greeted us with a warm embrace.
It was truly an experience to be remembered… upon reflection, that moving Christmas Eve Mass highlighted the stark absence of good liturgical worship in many churches in the 21st century.
It is one of the positive elements missing in popular church culture. Swaying, foot-stomping, hand-clapping masses fail to create a sense of mystery, awe and suspense. Liturgical worship has become one of the lost satisfactions of our time. Bereavement, divorce, retrenchment and relocation are examples of life crises that produce many lost satisfactions.
Shared experiences, family holidays, financial challenges and the absence of friends leave us sad and alone.
Our hearts reel at the thought of starting all over again. Where do we begin? What lies ahead? How are we going to survive?
The suggestion that there is a silver lining is sometimes not very comforting. We have become aware of many lost satisfactions during the six months of our oppressive lockdown.
Foremost was the cancellation of a reunion with our two overseas-based families.
A trip to the Pilanesberg Game Reserve and a hike on the Wild Coast were just two of the many planned activities that fell by the wayside.
My involvement with a local counselling centre and a mental health support group came to an abrupt halt.
Visiting relatives, friends and frail seniors immediately stopped. Everyday activities like exercising and shopping were suddenly a challenge.
Even driving beyond a certain area was forbidden.
Obviously, all these things were insignificant compared to the suffering of the majority of the population.
The point is that our attention was focused on who and what is really important.
Our lost satisfactions revealed the sources of meaning in our lives. We will never again take them for granted.
Slowly but surely, as the burden of restrictions were lightened, we began to see the silver lining. Some of the simple pleasures reappeared and added value to our lives.
A tongue-in-cheek phrase comes to mind, “Don’t waste a bad experience!”
I wonder who and what you have desperately missed during the lockdown? How about discussing it with your loved ones, or compiling a written list of lost satisfactions?
The exercise may be revealing… Did you miss visiting people as much as you thought you would? What happened when you found yourself locked up with your family for months on end?
Did you miss spending every weekday at the office? What happened to your mind and your body…? Were you able to spend your newfound supply of time meaningfully? Did you miss attending church, mosque or temple, and if so, what did you actually miss about the experience?
This global bad experience must not be wasted! The future is not as bleak as the naysayers say it is. There are exciting opportunities for change. We can climb out of our suffocating ruts, breathe deeply and embrace challenges that we have avoided in the past. We may be able to change our career, start a business, repair a relationship, drop a bad habit, fall in love!
Carpe diem, seize the moment – Shalom!
Rudyard Harrison is a retired Methodist minister, and a counsellor at the Ruach Centre in Somerset West.