Dear Rosebank Union Church,

Next week Sunday we will be starting a new Teaching Series called ‘Coming Back Stronger’. It’s a series through the Old Testament book of Ezra, which we believe has particular relevance to our lives in these strange times.

This little-studied book of the Bible tells the story of the return from exile of the people of God, and how they sought to re-establish themselves in the land of Israel.

After seventy years of isolation God sovereignly orchestrated human events to allow the people to return, but even then the process was painfully slow- it took decades for the story to play out!

When I first heard this story it resonated so much with what I was experiencing during lockdown. Initially lockdown seemed like a temporary disruption, but it quickly became evident that this season of ‘exile’ would be a long one.

The good news is that eventually we too will return ‘home’, to a rhythm of life a lot more like the ‘normal’ we were used to. This Coronavirus season will end. But even then, the return journey may be painfully slow.

The significance of the story of Ezra is that whilst the period of isolation was long, and the return journey slow, God sovereignly used that time to shape the people in such a way that they would come back stronger. The book details people being shaped in resilience, purity, devotion to God’s word, worship and community.

It is our hope that as we journey through Ezra we will be shaped in the same way, ready to come back stronger, in our personal lives, families, community and as a Church.

When will we be meeting again?

Speaking of coming back as a Church, we have deliberately been taking our time to process the ruling allowing for religious gatherings of up to 50 people during Lockdown level three.

Whilst I was initially excited at the opportunity to be in gathered worship again, I quickly realised that our responsibility towards the health of our members, as well as our responsibility to the wider community, meant that we should wait and discern before making any attempt to return.

In some ways the decision to wait is made easier for a Church the size of RUC simply because there is no logistical way that we could fairly accommodate the approx 1000 people who attend a Sunday service.

Circumstances change so quickly these days that we feel it appropriate on a number of levels, to wait, and we ask for your patience and understanding in this.

Church Online Platform

This concession to religious communities also came at the same time as the launch of our new online Church platform (what we call ChurchAtHome 3.0), which we hoped would take us as far as we could go in terms of providing an opportunity for engagement with our Sunday services.

I have spoken much about the ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ interactions that we experience during gathered worship on a Sunday. At the beginning of lockdown the priority was to bring the ‘macro’ interactions online, such as worship, prayer and preaching.

Our priority in this latest iteration of ChurchAtHome is around engagement with the ‘micro’ interactions that take place during gathered worship, the weighty accumulation of all the little engagements you would experience on a Sunday.

The friendly hello from a parking volunteer, the nod of acknowledgement from a passer-by on their way into Church, the warm greeting at the door, the casual conversation in the pews waiting for the service to begin, the catch-up with friends over coffee after the service, the reassuring words of comfort or prayer before departing.

There’s no way we can replicate all of that online, but our new platform at least goes some way towards experiencing these interactions.

If you haven’t tried gathering around our live online services at 9:30 on a Sunday (8:30 for Kids Church) please give it a try, just log on here: golive.ruc.org.za.

What else is happening?

There are a few other ways that we are hoping to continue building our Church community during lockdown:

  • Prayer meetings: It has been so encouraging to me to see how the gathering for prayer has also become the primary fellowship platform for our Church. The best part for sure is the breakout room time, where people get to meet others, connect and pray.
  • ‘First Mondays’: a monthly webinar series dealing with practical topics related to life in this Coronavirus season. We kicked it off on 1 June with Dr Nat Schluter, who helped us think theologically and pastorally about the Coronavirus. If you haven’t yet watched it go visit our YouTube channel for the replay, it is well worth your time (and share it with others!). Next up in the series we have Jane Kratz, chair of Biblical Counselling Africa, who will speak on the topic of fear and anxiety in this season.
  • Fathom’ course: an online learning opportunity around the wider subject of the Gospel, on our brand new online learning portal. Click here for an overview of the course. It’s a four week course that you can do in your own time!

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One of the most moving moments in the book of Ezra occurs in chapter 3 (spoiler alert!):

All the people gave a loud shout as they praised the Lord when the temple of the Lord was established. Many of the priests, the Levites, and the leaders  – older people who had seen with their own eyes the former temple while it was still established – were weeping loudly, and many others raised their voice in a joyous shout. People were unable to tell the difference between he sound of joyous shouting and the sound of the people?s weeping, for the people were shouting so loudly that the sound was heard a long way off”

Ezra 3:12-13

I find that to be such a poignant picture of life at this time: a peculiar mixture of godly grief with faith-fueled hope. Most of the time they are so intermingled we can’t tell the difference between the two!

It certainly is creating the perfect conditions of heart, allowing us to be shaped by God so that we will come back stronger.

Waiting expectantly with you,

Richard