I go to church almost every week. I go even though I don’t always know why we are all there and I am often disappointed with what I experience–or don’t experience–in church.
Today as I sat in church, at Trinity Lutheran Church in Moorhead, MN (that’s my home church, though I end up in a lot of different churches) I worried I would experience that again. I sat wondering what it was I was expecting, and often don’t find. I think what I often miss is the glimpse of something luminous or holy or sacred–something outside of every day life that touches on something larger. Something that both drives me deep within and also lifts my attention to the world I am called to care for.
Today, I went hoping to hear good news proclaimed in a time of national tragedy. I also went as study–since I am also a pastor, sociologically and ecclesiologically, I wanted to see how this church would handle 20 kids dead (and 8 adults) across the country in Newtown, Connecticut in the middle of the Holidays.
I just prayed they wouldn’t ignore it, and drone on with the words we always say. And then this happened: We started the words of confession and forgiveness, and I heard the voices of the table full of children next to me, saying the words in that confession: “We are truly sorry” as I sat, thankful for their voices, thankful we were all in this room together in a posture of prayer, thankful they knew the words by memory because someday they might need them. As the words of forgiveness were said, I looked up and saw the line of water in the stained glass window behind the altar, that runs like a lifeline from a depiction of baptism to the cross.
Then we stood up to greet the Gospel, and we were all singing the oh-so-familiar words ”Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Those words take on new meaning when you are trying to figure out how to make sense of things like death that comes too early.
Sermon time–I saw all the chatter from my pastor-friends, trying to figure out how to address this tragedy, or if they should. I watched to see what would happen here. Pastor Matt McWaters first sat with the children and acknowledged that it was a dark time, and had been a hard week for many people. Then he asked them to help by doing three things: hugging their parents a little tighter, laughing and playing a little wilder, and telling their parents “I love you.”
I could see these children, paying attention to the gravity of the situation. They promised to hug, and laugh and love like they knew it was important.
Then Pastor Matt got behind the pulpit and, visibly shaken, preached his way into the good news of Christ until tears came down his face as he named the stupid things people might say at times like this, like that “God must have needed another angel” or “She’s home now” and just nailed those ridiculous unhelpful sentiments right to the cross and said it is not true–that God does not cause evil to happen, and reminding us that Christ always came that we might have life, and that always wins, and always comes in the dark places.
During communion I heard the words of the song around me, talking about healing, as I made room for the man with his walker. I don’t know what healing looks like for this man, but it is moving nonetheless. I was reminded that these are the hurts we can see–how much more is inside each of us as we reach out our hands and hear the words spoken to us: This is the body of Christ, and it is given for you. After communion we hear words of blessing and hope–that at this meal we share we might be strengthened and kept in God.
Last week someone from The Project F-M book club said, “Fake it ‘til you make it.” She was talking about how she started going to church with her grandmother, and wasn’t sure why she went either, but now it has become important to her.
And then there are the words of my friend, Pastor Matthew Bolz-Weber who says, “The liturgy* works. You can’t say when or how, and you can’t force it, but it does work.”
If I didn’t go every week, and say those same words every week I might miss it. On this day, those words we repeat over and over and over had a different meaning.
Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Alleluia.
*liturgy is a churchy word that can variously be defined. One way to define it is that it is the prescribed ‘form’ for public worship, talking about the order of things, and what words are said when, and what is included, especially in the context of a worship service with Holy Communion.