"A high school stage play is more polished than this service we have been rehearsing since the year one. In two thousand years, we have not worked out the kinks. We positively glorify them. Week after week we witness the same miracle: that God is so mighty he can stifle his own laughter. Week after week, we witness the same miracle: that God, for reasons unfathomable, refrains from blowing our dancing bear act to smithereens. Week after week Christ washes the disciples' dirty feet, handles their very toes, and repeats, It is all right -- believe it or not -- to be people. Who can believe it?"
(Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk)
I first read Annie Dillard's apt description of corporate worship services at a time in my life when I was really, really tired of corporate worship. I'd been trained to hope for, above all else, a Holy Spirit revival when God's people met on Sundays. This hope made every other part of church life pale in comparison. You can imagine the cumulative effect of such hope year after year with only rare sightings of anything other-worldly in our worship services.
Eventually, I began to wonder things like "Why did Jesus ask us to do this little routine with the bread and wine when we're just waiting for the Pentecost flame moment all the time?" and "What's the point of the Lord's prayer if we just want the tongues?"
Probably these questions marked the moment of my conversion to Anglicanism. I needed to find an ecclesial container large enough, and sturdy enough to nourish and sustain the healthiest parts of those roots -- all that was good and true and beautiful planted into my childhood church experience that would produce good fruit in the dailiness of following Jesus.
The Anglican liturgy is old enough, and broad enough to articulate all that I strove for in years of restless worship and anxious altar calls. Then and now, I hold out hope that one of these Sundays all of it would blow into smithereens, that the Holy Spirit would rend the heavens and touch down in our sanctuary. In the meantime, this preacher's kid has found rest knowing that no matter how convicting the sermon or provoking the altar call, at the end of the service it is Jesus Himself hosting the feast. That every child, woman and man will walk to the front to receive gifts of God for the people of God, while healing pray-ers stand by waiting for the ones who can’t make it that far.
Last evening we had to modify our liturgy at Christ Church because both of our priests were on vacation and we had no one to serve the Sacrament. This morning it strikes me funny that I didn't think twice about this. Oh my, the conversations we would have had years ago imagining that there were actually Christians in the world who believed a priest had to preside over the Table. And not only that, but that there might in fact be some mysterious element to the Lord's Supper that makes it something more than a mere symbol of remembrance, therefore requiring a wholly-dedicated representative of the Christ we can not see, but can only ingest.
I missed it though. And Brian led in Evening prayer and taught us well out of the Gospel of Mark. Our worship pastor Bryan led us passionately and thoughtfully into the worship of all the saints. We sang the words that even now cherubim and seraphim are singing at the Throne: Holy, holy, holy..." And we sang about the reality of this place where Jesus sits with the Father "Clothed in rainbows, of living color / Flashes of lightning, rolls of thunder / Blessing and honor, strength and / Glory and power be / To You the Only Wise King."
And for just a moment, aided by the skillful musicians and the Holy Spirit, the veil that clouds my eyes from seeing fully this throneroom of Christ was lifted for a tiny glimpse. It was a transcendent moment and my eyes and ears were more closely attuned to the Real World that is "on earth as it is in heaven." And we sang and I raised my arms in the woefully inadequate physical response to this knowledge. And I prayed in the lyrics and I imagined a more beautiful Truth than I'd imagined for at least the last seven days. And then the song ended.
And it kind of reminded me of the time my friends Scott & Kim LaGraff performed a vocal recital for us in New York. With all the grandeur of their voices, it was the moment of silence immediately following each song that nearly wrecked me. That moment when the only response we can muster is silence. As a group, we were transported and wondering if we'd returned to the place we started from or somewhere new altogether.
Last night, the pause felt the same way. Might flames of fire actually fall from the sky and transport us into a new dimension of intimacy with Father, Son and Spirit -- and please, God -- with each other in the room -- and Lord, have mercy -- with hurting, desperate neighbors so in need of miraculous healing, let diseases and demons and death be gone. And the silence is a sort of time outside of time in which we anticipate and imagine and listen for our orders. And, hearing no new instructions, we take up again the mantle of praise and we sing -- what our Church mothers and fathers taught us -- the truth that we did not make, but instead makes us:
- Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heav’nly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
And then we walk across the courtyard to a little, plain room where we potluck (emphasis on the "luck" since no one seems to have remembered it's potluck week) together because Christ has, in fact, made us all priests with food and stories to share.
May we all be sustained and may the lonely, desperate in our city draw near to the Gift who gives us life even while we wait to see Him face to face.
“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” (Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk.)