Post Author: April Berends
My neighbor, Ali, sent me a text to see if I wanted to hang out on Sunday morning. She was flying solo with her two kids for a stretch of time, and I had invited her to come over at some point during the week so that our two year olds could play together and entertain themselves long enough for Ali and me to drink a glass of wine while juggling our babies, not that I condone juggling babies while drinking.
I sent her a text back, “I think I’m going to go to church on Sunday, would the afternoon work for you?” I was a bit surprised by my response. I had hit week ten of my maternity leave, and I had yet to darken the door of a church. Why start now?
I took my text to Ali as a firm commitment, and a few days later, I was on my way to church for the first time in a good long while. It wasn’t the church where I serve as a priest, it wasn’t the church where my husband serves as a priest, and it wasn’t even another Episcopal Church. I decided to go to the ELCA Lutheran church in my neighborhood. I didn’t want to run into colleagues or people with whom I serve on diocesan committees. I just wanted to be with my kid, close to home, and to have the chance to worship.
Getting out the door proved to be something of a challenge. I was all dressed, teeth brushed, baby changed, shoes on, baby carrier tied around my body so that I could just slip the baby into it when we got out of the car. I was all ready to go, but then I couldn’t find my keys. They were not buried under a pile of papers on the kitchen island as they usually are. They were not among the abyss of mom stuff in my purse. I finally found them in the playroom. I’d like to blame the two-year-old, but I’m afraid I’m the one who put them there. We were going to be late for church. Ten minutes late. Nearly every Sunday for the last nine years, being late for church hasn’t been an option, so these ten minutes seemed like a big deal.
On the way to church, I hit every possible red light between my house and my destination. I also encountered a fire truck, an ambulance, and a very drunk person crossing the street at a snail’s pace. Fortunately, I found a parking spot on the street just across from the main entrance to the church. I slipped into the space. I heard music spilling out of the church doors, and my whole body relaxed. It was the early service, so I wasn’t sure that there would be music, and I was glad to hear it. I skipped up the steps, the baby in tow.
I forgot to grab an order of service, and there wasn’t anyone standing by the door when I arrived to remind me to take one, most likely because I was ten minutes late and there were only about ten people in church, so the ushers had already taken their seats. I slid into a pew, holding my sweet, new child, and I was caught off guard when tears started streaming down my face. I must have looked a like wreck, and with only a few people in church, I couldn’t really hide. I wasn’t sad, just grateful for the sense of peace that I had in being there. The tears kept coming, and I dabbed my face with a burp cloth.
Within the next ten minutes, the size of the congregation tripled. I wasn’t the only one running late. A couple of kids handed out tambourines to nearly every family or individual who entered. They skipped me, and I assumed it was because I had a sleeping baby in my arms. I laughed. Tambourines—this was a new thing for me in church. My two-year-old loves tambourines, but at least fifteen times in the past week, I had to tell him not to shake his tambourine too close to the baby’s ears. These kids understood that tambourines and sleeping babies are a bad combination, and I appreciated their thoughtfulness.
We sang songs, many of which were unfamiliar to me. The praise band was good—piano, drums, bass, and a song leader. Children and adults shook tambourines and shakers. People raised their hands in praise. Episcopalians aren’t really known for hand raising, but then again, neither are Lutherans in the Midwest.
Though they are separated by just a couple of miles, this community was very different from the mostly white, relatively affluent parish that I serve. During the congregational prayer time toward the beginning of the service, the pastor walked around the worship space and invited people to share requests. People freely shared the difficulties they were living through, asking for God’s help. Their prayers reflected the injustices in our society. One woman prayed for an end to violence in our city and neighborhood, which has seen a lot of crime, including shootings, lately. Another person prayed for a family in the church who was awaiting a verdict in the trial for their son’s murder. My heart broke for the burdens that my neighbors carry every day. My heart broke for this little corner of the city that I love so much, this place where I make my home. I thought about adding a request of my own, but I found that I, a person who makes my vocation praying with other people, was at a loss for how to put into words what I wanted to lift up to God. I sat, listening to the prayers of others, and joining my heart to theirs.
An adolescent boy read the reading from Revelation 21 from Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message. “Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people, he’s their God. He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes.” My heart broke open yet again, as I heard the promises of scripture, the promise that God has made a home among us. I heard these promises from the mouth of a teenager who could have been anywhere that Sunday morning, but chose to be in this church.
I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to the sermon, mostly because in my frenzy to get out the door I had left my morning cup of coffee sitting on the kitchen counter, untouched, and because the baby was hungry and there wasn’t any tambourine jangling to cover up his fussing during sermon time. I do remember the children’s sermon, where the pastor had the kids stand shoulder to shoulder, and then asked one of the children to try to run through the line, which he easily did. Then, the pastor asked the kids in the line to link arms, and had the same kid try to run through that line, which was much harder. He talked about the community of the church, and how being together in Christ makes us stronger. I thought about how grateful I was to link myself to these people on this morning, how it didn’t matter that I was a total stranger, because we could sing and pray and listen and be together in God’s household, and it didn’t matter in this moment whether I was a priest or a frazzled mom who hadn’t had her coffee yet.
I spend a lot of my time as a professional minister planning out details for services—choosing hymns, writing prayers, crafting sermons, and sifting through announcements. Last Sunday, I was reminded that these are not the only things that matter in church. I was simply grateful to be in a space with people who welcomed me. It was enough to sit and to sway and to sing and to pray, even though I didn’t know all of the words. It was enough to stretch out my hands to take a piece of bread. It was a good and joyful thing to join with others in worship, though they were strangers to me. I felt at home in a place I’d never been before, and I glimpsed God at work in a corner of my neighborhood.
I have one Sunday left before I return to preaching and presiding. I think I might take my two-year-old to shake some tambourines this week.
Photo by rosefirerising, http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/394855131/, July 11, 2013, used under Creative Commons license.