In worship, be careful what you ask for. Because you just might get it.
I suppose there are a few ministers out there who have the kind of artsy, game-for-anything congregations that immediately warm to any kind of creative, interactive moment in worship. You know who you are! But most of us, when we plan and organize some sort of alternative, hands-on worship moment, have to say an extra prayer to the Spirit, “Oh, please please please, let them go for this. I think it’s cool. Let them think it’s cool, too.”
I usually only take the big worship risks when I’m working with my youth group. Not so much because I think they’ll go for it, but because youth work is where I, as the pastor for youth, have the most control. The fact is that teenagers are just as traditional as adults, and sometimes more. I would risk excommunication if my youth group’s closing worship on the annual mission trip didn’t involve footwashing. Every last one of my kids really hates footwashing. But none of them can do without it because it’s always been done. (Although, “always” in youth-group parlance, means, “about the last 4 years.”)
On this year’s mission trip, a week spent working as “buddies” to differently abled adult campers, I thought I’d take a risk. I decided to add another physical, touchable moment to that closing worship. Sure, we’d do footwashing, but I thought it was time to mix things up a little, to add something new. I thought it was time. Three years into my ministry here, I had built up enough credit to take a few risks, and push a few edges. So I planned worship with a twist to the opening: we would build an altar, an altar made of things that represented the hard work we had done, and the times and places and experiences of the week that were holy.
There were, I thought, two risks to this plan. The first, and most likely, was the blank teenaged-stare. I would explain the altar concept, and everyone’s eyes would go completely glassy. No one would move, and someone would mutter something under their breath about how stupid this idea was. The second involved too much enthusiasm: perhaps a few people would come up with wildly inappropriate items. Dirty underwear. Contraband. God only knows what else.
My prayers of preparation were mostly of the “please, please, please” variety.
Things spiraled out of my control before we even began. A group decided to order pizza, and negotiations with the pizza delivery guy took longer than expected, so we started ridiculously late. Those of us not involved in the complicated order process filled the waiting time not with a prelude, but with open-mike stupid human tricks. I kept reminding myself that laughter is holy, just as holy as organ toccatas.
And finally we got started.
I explained the altar concept, and steeled myself for the glassy-eyes.
Instead, they all looked thoughtful, and stood up quietly, and left the building. In the much-too-long time before anyone re-entered, I got ready for the dirty underwear. Finally, one head popped back into the room and said, “Um, can I bring in one of the porch rockers? I sat in it and talked to Russel every afternoon.” And while I was trying to decide what to say, the picnic rocker itself, lofted above the head of 16 year old, came around the corner into the room. I smiled my tolerant youth pastor smile, figuring this would be the most dramatic item of the evening. But the rocker was followed by the mattress where one youth group member found rest and solace from hard work. And the mattress was followed by a large fan that kept the too-warm cabin cool at night. And the fan was followed by a landscaping boulder from the garden where one person’s camper was most at peace. And then came other rockers, another mattress, and handfuls of pebbles.
By the time one of the picnic tables came sailing around the corner on the backs of four of the boys, the picnic table where a buddy and camper had spent every afternoon together learning to sing a song for the talent show, by that time, I had gone from tolerant youth pastor, to doubled over in laughter, to grateful tears.
Because holiness, it seems, was not a small thing that week. It was out-sized and heavy, perfectly obvious, hard work, but worth carrying with us.
And, while we were in a bit of danger of violating camp policy (I was certain the moving large boulders out of the landscaping was against the rules), there was no containing what had just happened. There is no containing of the Spirit. When we prepare to lead worship, even the pleading prayer, “Please, Spirit, please,” is loaded with possibility, potential, even a bit of danger. Because you might actually get what you pray for.