I find in myself a weariness from the COVID-19 lockdown. I am weary of my tenure as a televangelist, leading a worship service of ten with more participating virtually. I am weary of fasting from the Lord’s Supper. I am weary of not being able to smile at congregants, shake their hands, and see the children of the congregation play together between services. Life is not meant to be like this—our God is Triune, three-personed, and made us, his image-bearers, for fellowship. We consist of body and soul—and physical presence cannot be replaced by virtual presence.
This forced fast from a truly public worship has given me a new appreciation for the cries and prayers of the Psalmists when they were separated from the public assembly. Psalm 42 provides a powerful example:
As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, ‘Where is your God?’ These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival.
Physically disconnected from worship in the house of the Lord, the Psalmist fondly remembers when he used to go to the house of God with fellowship and praise, and expresses a feeling of disconnection from God resulting from his present exile from God’s house. Matthew Henry’s comments on this Psalm apply well to our situation: “Sometimes God teaches us effectually to know the worth of mercies by the want of them, and whets our appetite for the means of grace by cutting us short in those means.”
We find ourselves in a comparable situation today. Despite the blessing of technology and all it allows us to do on Sunday mornings, virtual connections still leave us with a feeling of disconnection. Psalm 42, and similar psalms, like 61, 63, and 84, show us that this disconnection, far from being a sign of impiety, is how believers should feel when unable to worship corporately in person. It is not natural for the Christian to feel fine when disconnected from the house of God. William Plumer explains, “Love to God’s house is of the essence of true piety.”
Public worship services, of course, are not ends in and of themselves, but they connect us to God. Again, Plumer puts it well: “truly pious [people] were never satisfied with the ordinances of God without the God of ordinances.” We long for the courts of God because we long for God himself. Psalm 84:1-2 links these two things: “How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.”
The writers of these psalms longed for public worship even while knowing that God is not bound to one place (1 Kings 8:27). Ezekiel 11:16 expresses this powerfully: “Thus says the Lord GOD: Though I removed them far off among the nations, and though I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a while in the countries where they have gone.” As Jesus would say later, we worship God in spirit and in truth (Jn. 4:23). At the same time, regular worship with God’s people is a critical part of the believer’s spiritual health (Heb. 10:25). Utterly unique, corporate worship is a foretaste of heaven, and the heaven-desiring soul will cherish its foretaste.
As we long for lockdown’s end, we should have the same confidence expressed in Psalm 42. The writer twice insists, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” As Jonah expressed it from the belly of the great fish, “I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.” Lord willing, we will soon gather again and joyfully worship our Lord.
We must be realistic: the return to public worship will not be apocalyptic; the people in the pews will still be sinners. They will still, to borrow the description by C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters, “sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes…” Pastors and churches will still have their weaknesses. Some churchgoers will easily transition back to the rhythm of Sunday, like when old friends reunite and it seems that no time has passed. Others will find it more challenging. Adding a layer of awkwardness, we return to taped off pews, masked smiles, and hospitality hamstrung.
Nevertheless, just thinking about resuming worship fills me with the excitement of a child on Christmas Eve, anticipating Christmas morning festivities. God’s people will be back in the banquet house of the soul, returned to the means of grace. The weekly pilgrimage to and from God’s house will again shape our Sabbath and anchor our week.
We will come back, no doubt, as changed people living in a changed world. By God’s grace, we will return to regular services more patient, more reflective, and less willing to let our lives become so busy that “first things” get crowded out. Above all, let us pray that all God’s people emerge from lockdown with a deeper hunger and thirst for the public assembly, a greater appreciation for the church, and a greater love for our faithful God himself.
Andrew J. Miller is the pastor of Bethel Reformed Presbyterian Church (O.P.C.) in Fredericksburg, VA.
 William S. Plumer, Psalms, Geneva Series of Commentaries (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1990), 499.
 Plumer, Psalms, 495.
 C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (NY: Harper Collins, 1996) 5-8.