I can't believe I'm writing that after such a prolonged time away (I'm avoiding the word 'unprecedented' given it became overused by April …).
While a welcome is something Christians should always hope to give, it still feels strange finding ourselves three months behind schedule for a Sunday service. Which is perhaps why 'welcome back' is the right phrase. And unique.
We will be among the first churches in the British Isles to gather together following lockdown. That in itself is humbling: returning to what our community loves, enjoys and needs. Our brothers and sisters elsewhere don't have this opportunity so we must treat it as an honour.
Yes, streaming and recordings of worship material (check out the many resources if you haven't already – including our own on Facebook! – have grown exponentially, but they are no substitute for God's children gathering together. And if something symbolises the gathering of God's children together, it is when they have done so after journeying through trials together.
Be it leaving Egypt, facing lions in the Roman Circus, addressing thousands in front of the Lincoln Memorial or singing in protest on Hong Kong's streets, the stories of God's children facing down adversity remind us that our journey together is held firm in our faith, our hope and our love: relying on God to hold us through the most uncertain of times, knowing that beyond them "all shall be well".
That is even more important when Easter – the ultimate celebration of coming back to life following the most demanding of deaths – was prevented from being held in churches. We were unable to gather together to commemorate that time and use it to look to our future. We take the Resurrection into our lives every day when we recognise it was not a story for its time but is an eternal rescuing of our lives, for every day: so that we live life looking to a hopeful and loving future, not regretting the past or living in fear.
The same with Pentecost, which we also had to miss: the disciples cowered after the Resurrection in fear of arrest, but seeing Jesus and then receiving the Holy Spirit gave them the life to leave the darkness of the past behind and take the light of what they had into the future. Bringing with them faith, hope and love.
And now, the trials we have faced, both locally and globally, have confronted us all too readily to see if we are living in that truth and light. Do we live with faith, hope and love, delivering an example as God's children to our communities, even if we cannot gather together in a church?
That question has gone beyond the virus to issues of basic humanity. Civil rights issues have again asked if we are learning from our behaviour through historic dark times. Sadly, those calls usually highlight bad decisions of centuries past, so what about the examples of goodness which shine through; those times the good decisions of God's children were seen? One such example resides in Old Kirk Braddan churchyard.
Many know the story of Samuel Ally, a boy born into slavery who was freed from it by Colonel Mark Wilks. That simple action, of giving back to a human being the freedom no person has the right to take away, meant Samuel chose to serve in Wilks' household as a free man until his death. His memorial stands as a testament that in dark times there is always light. And that light shines within us, proving we have the character to do good when we choose to.
If we can learn anything from these times, therefore, may it be that our places on earth are given by the highest power, and we must live our lives honouring life for all. And though our lives may be tested, when we hold to the beautiful things of faith, hope and love we prove we can journey as God's children together, leaving behind bad decisions and choosing the good.
These past few months have proven we can do that, with true evidence of God's children gathering together in action. We might not have been in one place but standing in a doorway dropping off shopping, or being on the end of a phone to someone in need, is still the children of God gathering together. Opening ourselves to that is the true joy of Easter: giving life and overcoming death.
So, as our society begins again, we should use this time as an opportunity to re-experience Easter by learning to leave the darkness of the past behind and journey into the future with renewed faith, hope and love.
It is lovely to be able to welcome people back to church from 5th July. In doing so we will celebrate Easter from when we were denied, because it is a celebration which should happen every day, regardless of what we currently go through. To prove we are able to stand firm in the face of adversity, as the children of God, together.
God bless you and give you the peace, joy and new life the Resurrection brings.