A recurring question regarding everyday life in these pandemic times has been "When will things get back to normal?" Easter Sunday morning service at my Bentonville church , celebrating what is arguably the most "not normal" event among world religions, provided an inkling.
I had not attended in-person services at any church since lockdown. The last time was at a Methodist church in February last year in Austin at a time when I most needed prayer and corporate worship. My daughter Kathryn was gravely ill. In my very first visit, she was included in the pastor's prayer before the congregation -- poignant communion of saints when desperately needed.
When I approached the front door of First United Methodist Church in Bentonville last Sunday, I felt like a Christmas-and-Easter Christian having been away so long. I've tried TV broadcasts and Facebook services; it just isn't the same as being in a sanctuary, whether traditional mid-century as in old downtown Bentonville or contemporary and utilitarian like Covenant United Methodist in modest suburbia of northwest Austin.
With Central Avenue's redbud trees in full bloom, blue skies shining above the church's iconic silver steeple and a light breeze passing through, Bentonville was Americana popping off a Norman Rockwell canvas into sunlight. Girls dressed in pastel solids and stripes topped with ribbon-wrapped straw hats were as Madame Alexander dolls. Boys in gingham plaids and khaki seemed plucked from Gap for Kids online. We dutifully lined up to the side as those who had attended the earlier service filed out to the sidewalk. It was rather like waiting for inbound passengers to deplane before your boarding group would be called.
That wasn't the only similarity to air travel, which I have sorely missed during the pandemic. Masks were required for the service, of course, but seat assignments were also, to allow for social distancing. Unfortunately the online reservation process was something I had missed in the church mailing days prior; I was placed on standby in hopes of a seat. I perched myself in a corner of the vestibule by the acolytes' candlelighters, waiting as if at a United Airlines Houston hub gate hoping for a first-class upgrade. Except that there was no status screen above the pulpit and my name, along with other waiting passengers, was not listed in pneumonics: "TAL, T."
But as the choir entered (abbreviated in head count and socially distanced) I was called to the registration table, given an offering envelope, a program with a tiny sealed plastic cup and then ushered to a spot in the back row. I was very happy. In spite of the masks, every other pew cordoned off and two new pastors I'd never met who were officiating, everything was warmly familiar and gloriously heartening. This was the church that had welcomed us with open arms when my late wife and I relocated the family to Bentonville in 2001. Our first visit was unforgettable. Long-time church member and noted local educator Mary Mae Jones flung the doors open wide with a happy "Come on in, we're glad you're here." We couldn't sell the house in Joplin fast enough and return to Northwest Arkansas, Bentonville specifically, and to this church, of course.
Scriptures were recited from John 20 retelling the good news of the empty tomb. The offertory hymn was "He Lives," surely the most sung Easter selection from hymnals across all of Protestantism. In the refrain I found myself singing the bass response to the treble call. "He lives (he lives), He lives (he lives)" as I had heard my father sing so low in the back row of choir lofts in my childhood.
The congregational recitation of The Apostles' Creed and The Lord's Prayer were equally familiar as were readings during Holy Communion. Not familiar, but greatly appreciated, was that little cup. I discovered its purpose. It included a minuscule wafer sealed above a portion of grape juice. We weren't dipping the bread as usual in the Methodist communal cup at the altar. Instead, it was Southern Baptist style with thimble-size individual glasses.
In spite of its reduced numbers, the choir sent us off with a powerful "Hallelujah Chorus."
Then, departing this church where funeral services of my wife Linda and daughter Emily had been held some years apart, I oddly felt life and faith had been reaffirmed.
Even in such stressful, atypical times, this may have been my very best Easter Sunday ever. Thus far, mind you, thus far.
Ted Talley is a resident of Bentonville who has lived in the Ozarks more than 25 years. His email is [email protected]