I was stepping out of my comfort zone attending. My congregation is far from "diverse," but it is multi-ethnic. At the seminary, I have been in community with lots of different ethnicities, denominations and traditions. That I was a stranger was not what was intimidating. More intimidating was the knowledge that I would be "other." The anxiety of being a visitor for me was amplified by the knowledge that I would be obviously different...obviously out of place...
But wow...what a worship experience it was. These people showed up expecting to meet God in worship. They showed up expecting to move God with their prayers and praises and petitions. These people knew there was heavy lifting to do and they knew that THEY ALL would be doing it. This was the people's church and the people's worship, where many hands made "light" work (by light I only mean diffuse...there was no simplicity or lack of real effort...whether making announcements, reading liturgy, praying, singing, being summoned to stand with others during the altar call...it was all intense and real and powerful).
There is a classic Annie Dillard outtake that goes like this:
“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. ”
At Hughes, I am pretty sure there were life preservers and signal flares under the pews.
It was an experience that made me long for worship that invokes the true presence of God and evokes our genuine response in relationship to the divine. Maybe it's a midlife thing for me...On my yoga retreat in September, I became aware of the powerful embodied presence of God in yoga as prayer. And sitting in the pews at Hughes, I was once again aware of the tangible desire for God and the faithful influence that draws God near. Prayers in this place were heard and answered. It wasn't the pastor telling you that (I will point out that the pastor, Rev. Constance Smith, did not speak until about 70 minutes into the service [yes, 70 minutes in...and no one was checking their watch but me]). It was knowable in the deep reverence, in the praise, in the unvarnished petition, in the ways that brothers and sisters in Christ stood with one another during the altar call.
I know not everyone wants to lift their hands in praise or shout amen. But I hope that when we show up in worship, we really do expect God to show up. That is our work as beloved children of God. The responsibility of both expectation and response rests with the gathered. God's waiting for US to show up. Not the pastor. Not the organist. Not the choir or band. Us. All of us. With expectations and willingness to do the hard work.
How does this happen? I don't know the history or the operation at Hughes. But I am pretty sure that it happens because people have expectations, and they expect to participate and feedback, name their needs and dive in to helping one another. They clamor to share their news during announcements, to share the Word during the scripture lesson, they expect their brothers and sisters to share in their petitions, they are truly giving a portion of what God has given.
Is this a big church? No. A rich church? No. Do they pay 100% of their apportionments? I don't care. Is it a vital church? By my count, yes. An alive church? Yup. A church struggling to keep the next generation? I would guess yes. But I witnessed young people request and receive powerful prayer. They know there is living water in this place. Living. Key word
I pray that when we show up in worship, we can feel our role in that place. I pray that we feel the need to be present with one another in our joys and our concerns. I pray that we see the space and place and tone and theme as ours as community. I pray that we all know this church and these prayers and hymns and and litanies and even messages are our work. Our praise. Our hope. Our expectation. Our offering. We are the church. Worship is our work. We are fed and comforted and refreshed SO THAT we can go out and love the world with God's love.
Let it be so.