Thursday, September 07, 2006

The view from the pew

It has been more than a year since I sat in the congregation during Vespers.

All of this summer and much of last, I served as liturgist and helped serve communion at our weekly Wednesday Vespers service.

But last evening, through an odd set of circumstances, I sat in the congregation.

The first circumstance was my need to work yesterday and therefore my joyful recognition that I could attend Vespers, something this semester's school schedule won't often afford. But the rest of the day was so chaotic and unpredictable -- and so was my strength and health -- that I didn't feel like I could commit to serve, though I appreciated that Molly had asked.

The afternoon was as busy as I had expected, so I found myself rising from my desk right as the prelude would be beginning. Then, someone stopped me outside my office to talk for a bit. So, I rushed across the plaza to the sanctuary and up the staircase just as Molly and Mary, our new deacon, both in vestments, were about to head up the side aisle. As she finished putting on her wireless mic, I saw Molly reach for containers of oil.

I saw that and I immediately regretted that I had not committed to serve. It was the first Wednesday of the month, the day we add a healing service to Vespers and it is always meaningful to me to hear people's deepest concerns and be in prayer with them.
I had forgotten. I almost rushed forward to see if I could help.

Instead, I found a seat in the pews. I let go of my regret by telling myself it really wouldn't have been wise for me to take my cough and any lingering germs so close to people. It would be a shame if someone came for healing and instead caught my nasty cold.

The prelude music was wonderful, but it didn't have quite the same effect that it had all summer when I sat in the front pew and prepared mentally and spiritually to read the evening's scripture. All summer long, I always felt a palpable change come over me during that centering time. And the view out the front window is far better from the front pew.

It felt odd to be in the pews. But, I told myself, this IS what it would feel like if you decided to return to the congregation. So I decided to live briefly into what that might feel like.

But my mind wouldn't let me, because I kept seeing congregation members who I had visited or whose parents I had visited or whose health concerns I was well aware of. Like George, who had open-heart surgery in January and had a pretty serious setback afterward. I had seen him then in a CCU clutching the pillow they give heart surgery patients. And now he was walking spryly down the aisle to find a seat. And I rejoice for George and I even smiled as I saw his quick step, and in the same moment I wished that George's triumph had also been Dad's.

I listened to the prelude and finally felt drawn into the restorative spirit of the service when Bob played the final piece, a work called Contentment.

The oddness of being in the pews was strongest when Molly stood to greet the congregation. I realized that I was among the people being greeted. That made it real.

I lost myself in the opening hymn, though I had to sing it an octave lower because of my cold. And I missed Molly's alto next to me. Toward the end of the last verse, when I would normally prepare to go to the lectern, I looked up, and Mary was already in place.

When the scripture was read, my first reaction was nonsensical: It was a jolt to me not to hear the Vesper scriptures in my own voice! Beyond that though, much more substantially beyond that, I almost always feel an indwelling of the Spirit when I read scripture in Vespers, and that was missing.

The brief sung reflection between scriptures was lovely and that's when the Spirit arrived for me last night. Singing hymns has always been a form of prayer for me and this simple piece was beautiful and comfortable and contemplative. And it was at this point that I could lose myself to the moment and simply worship.

I have never been able to put to words the beauty of the communion prayer in our Vespers, and words fail me now, but there is a graceful solemnity to these moments that defies description.

And last night, in her words of invitation, Molly used a phrase I have only recently heard for this open communion feast -- The Table of Welcome -- and nothing the Church with a capital C does can alter that unbounded grace.

So I walked forward to the Welcome Table and kneeled at the altar rail, and my prayer, repeated as a prayer of repetition was this: Which side of the rail do you want me on? Which side of the rail do you want me on? Please show me which side of the rail you want me on.

I returned to the pew and listened to the words of hope that are part of our healing service. And then I walked forward for anointing and prayer. My heart was broken when my father died nine months ago, and that heartbreak reverberated through my life. I prayed, as I always do, for continued healing for that brokenness.

I returned to the pew and listened to the postlude. And when it was over, I left down the center aisle with the rest of the congregation.

It took some time for the experience to move back and forth between my conscious and my subconscious, between my mind and my soul.

One thing I realized was that the richness I experience with Vespers, the fullness, comes through reading the scripture and serving communion and helping to open the Welcome Table for others.

But before I formed those thoughts, my first one was this: I sat in the congregation at Vespers and it just didn't feel quite right.

Thanks be to the loving Spirit of God for Vespers and for all those who open the Welcome Table so warmly.


molly said...

And I had an odd, vague sense that I was cheating on you, sharing those special moments with Mary, and you sitting in the congregation. Bizarre, but true.

(We both sing alto, Mary and I, so the harmony wasn't as good either, 'til Mary felt moved to move up to the alto line by about stanza 4.)

Coconutbug said...


that was a really nice entry.

i think i've found my side of the rail.