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September 15, 2023

The month of September is always an exciting time of year, filled with all kinds of returns. Throughout this month, our schools have been filled with returning students, faculty, and staff while our sports fields and gymnasiums are already filled with returning athletes, coaches, officials, and spectators. And throughout all these returns comes a great wave of excitement, but also so nervous trepidation.

Most of us at one point or another have experienced a child returning to school from the long summer break with tears running down their cheeks or experiencing pains deep in the stomach. Many of us have also experienced the same feeling of nervousness on the first day of school, as our minds would be filled with all sorts of anxiety at the idea of returning to something we have been away from for so long.

In general, returns can often be fear-inducing for all of us. How many of us look forward to the first day back at work after a two-week vacation? What kinds of fears go running through our heads as we prepare to return to work after an eight-week paternity leave? Or what kinds of anxieties fill our minds as we prepare to return to our own homes after a prolonged hospital stay?

Perhaps what makes the idea of returning to some place we haven't been for a while, even our own homes, is our fear of the unknown. Most of us have a fear of the unknown and what we cannot fully see or perceive, whether it is a fear of how well we will be received somewhere, or how we will be able to adjust to a new environment, even if it's someplace where we should feel comfortable and safe, like our homes.

One such place where we should all feel safe returning to, but often struggle with, is church. Whether we've been gone from church for a week or for years, returning to church after an absence can often feel very daunting. Often this is because our minds are consumed with a whole variety of questions such as "Will I be judged for not having been there in a while? Will I be judged for the kinds of clothes that I wear or not having better control of my children? Will I sit down in somebody's seat or accidentally offend someone? What if I don't know the songs that are sung? What if I don't know anybody at all?" Or, worse yet, "What if I know everyone, and they all know that I'm not holy at all?"

Unfortunately, these are questions that many of us struggle with when it comes to whether or not we might return to church someday. Even more unfortunate is the reality that many of us have a legitimate reason for asking ourselves these questions. And the sad truth is that almost all of us have had an experience with church that has been less than perfect, and in some cases has even turned us away from coming to church at all.

While I am sorry about this, I want you to know how God feels about church and how He feels about you coming to it.

In Luke 15, Jesus tells a parable about a farmer with great wealth whose son takes half of his wealth and squanders it on reckless and debaucherous living until he eventually finds himself living in utter depravity. After a while this prodigal son realizes that if he were to go back home, perhaps his father would let him live as a paid servant. But upon the son's return, his father welcomed him with open and loving arms. The father was just happy to have his child back at home, and his son didn't need to be nervous at all.

If you haven't been to church in a while, I'm sure that you have your reasons, but I want you to know that the fear about how you will be treated upon your return doesn't have to be one of them. You have a God who loves you very much and seeks to pour out His love and forgiveness over you.

Sunday, Sept. 17 is National Back to Church Sunday, and if you haven't been to church in a while, I would like to invite you to consider coming back. I know that you will be welcomed with open arms.

Matt Kohl is the pastor at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Cloquet.


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