When I was a confirmation student at Good Shepherd in the mid-1970s, one of the most popular sitcoms on television was WABC’s “Welcome Back, Kotter.” The series featured a wisecracking teacher who returns to his high school alma mater to lead a remedial class of students known as the Sweathogs.
This week I return to my church alma mater, not as a flippant teacher but as a pastor. And the welcoming committee is not a collection of misfit students but a community of faithful disciples.
Returning to church after a long absence can be difficult. Several years ago, a woman enduring a personal struggle decided to come to worship, seeking spiritual support to help her through a dark time in her life. She confidentially confided to me that she was afraid the church ceiling would collapse once she entered the sanctuary. It did not. Instead, the gathered welcomed her into the presence of our Lord.
Her anxiety in returning to worship reminded me of my own nervousness many years ago. Good Shepherd was the place where I spent my childhood and teenage years. But during my college years, my Saturday evening social calendar usually took priority, resulting in late Sunday morning sleep-ins missing the 8:30 and 11:00 AM worship services. I thereby slipped away, and the church no longer remained part of my routine. In my mid-twenties, I recall being embarrassed to return, fearful of the “where have you been?” questions and other inquisitions from the church folk. My conclusion was that it was just easier not to return.
Eventually, I gained the courage to show up one Sunday morning. I made a stealth entrance, successfully avoiding the anticipated great inquisition about my whereabouts from church greeters, ushers, former teachers, revered (and some feared) church elders, angels, archangels, cherubim, or seraphim. My dash through the church’s side aisle ended at the destined familiar pew (left side, second pew after the third window), the one my father staked out decades earlier and, albeit unspoken, claimed for my family as “ours.” Safely seated in a familiar space, I settled into the nostalgic setting, even with an unfamiliar preacher in the pulpit who became pastor sometime during my faith sabbatical. At the “Go in Peace,” I immediately spun around with the full intention of leaving as quickly and unnoticed as I had arrived. But my exit strategy was suddenly dashed. I was stopped by neither the feared nor revered church folk nor my beloved 3rd Grade teacher (Marilyn Benner). Instead, it was a stranger with an outstretched hand, joyfully exclaiming, “You must be new! Let me be the first to welcome you to our church!”
A global pandemic, a pastoral transition, and other life challenges have compelled many to break their routine of participating in public worship. While we may fear it won’t be easy to resume our past church activities, please know that the Lord always welcomes you back. Why not join us this Sunday, February 6th for one of our worship services, 8:00 AM, 10:15 AM, or 6:00 PM? Welcome back!
Rev. Marc Herbst
Church of the Good Shepherd – Lutheran
99 Central Park Road
Plainview, NY 11803