The Worship that Surrounds Us
It is no small thing to ascend the stairs behind a pulpit.
When I walk up those two maroon-carpeted steps at my contextual education church, Haygood Memorial UMC, I shake with something other than nerves. If I quake for any reason, it is for the fear of God–the good kind–and my vast unworthiness to approach such a lectern and stand before the people of God . Yet it is my calling to be there all the same. Taking the pulpit is a privilege of the highest regard–what an amazing thing to be called upon to do–truly a sacred task.
My voice was one thing that did not waver or falter (even as I question my decision to wear heels on those steps!). The first thing I did as liturgist at Haygood was read an opening collect taken from the Hebrew Bible. There is a power and an authority that flows from the thousands of years of tradition in those words, a power to which I am privileged to lend my voice–in this time, in this language, in this context, for these people. Hear, O Israel! Shema, Y’Israel! Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad.
It was the Shema that I was asked to read. The beauty of these words nearly brought me to tears when we sang it in Hebrew at the Shabbat service I attended as a part of Beth Corrie’s world religions course. This is the text that is at the core of the Jewish faith, the text, too, that Christian children know from Vacation Bible School songs, the text that has initiated in me the practice of writing reminders of God’s love for me on my inner wrists, the text that led me to hang the cross I received from my church upon graduating high school on the upper door frame in my room–a living reminder of the faith I carry whether I’m in my room or without.
It is no small thing to read these words. And as I did, I was reminded of the first time I ever read Scripture in church. As part of my sixth grade confirmation class, we each were required to read in big church, and though I didn’t know really anything of its context at the time, I still remember that my text as sixth grade liturgist was Isaiah 6. It is poignant now, to think of reading this famous call narrative, not knowing then of the call I myself would come to answer when I came to Candler. And like Isaiah, still even today as I approach the pulpit, I feel the truth of the words, “Woe to me, I am a woman of unclean lips!”
Yet we know God’s M.O. in these call narratives: the prophet complains, but God offers reassurance. Eventually we might get it, God–we will never be worthy of the tasks you call us to do. But still you want us. You cleanse our lips and put words in our mouths.
While these experience of Sunday morning worship with Con-Ed II have been such concentrated little bursts of ministerial formation, I was reminded today, too, that the awesome thing about the kingdom of God is that it is everywhere among us. I can have church while I’m listening to Ingrid Michaelson in my car, because she sings the words that are otherwise trapped in my soul. I can have church while I’m sitting with one of my best friends outside at Starbucks, and we’re talking about our frustrations with ourselves and with the church and with seminary. We say that maybe it’s okay if she decides to someday walk away from the faith of her upbringing, that faith that was once so sure but now seems distant–it’s okay because it’s a part of the journey. And as we say those things, God is so tangibly near to us that I can taste it in the air (and I pray that she, too, will feel God again, soon, close enough to taste and feel and sense). And there we are, having church, just being friends and loving one another.
Emily Dickinson has a poem that talks about the worship that happens everywhere, all around us. Some might use such a poem as an excuse to not come to Sunday morning worship–a trend that is becoming all too real in our society. I think we need to be in church on Sunday mornings, worshiping God corporately and coming before God’s presence with a bit of fear and trembling every now and again. But it is good, too, to see the God-force all around us. It is a reminder that yes, the pulpit is a sacred space of intoning the words of God before the gathered assembly, but (as any good Methodist will tell you) the world is our parish, and the words we say and the God we meet in our everyday moments, with each breath in and out, with those words we also can preach.
What is it, then, that I am saying?
Whitney is a 2nd year MDiv student from North Carolina and a regular contributor to the Beatitudes Society blog.