Wednesday, July 18, 2007
Unnerves me, yet, sustains me.
Tonight, I was the communion celebrant at Vespers for the first time since I became a local pastor with sacramental privileges.
And I was solo.
Molly is at junior high camp this week.
And I was nervous.
Which is as it should be. I was nervous preparing for Water's Edge this past Sunday. I was at the computer attending to a few worship order details and reflecting on the upcoming service and my sermon and communion, realizing I hadn't reviewed THE WORDS, and I thought to myself: "I don't know if I can do this." And then, I answered myself: I think I'll be more worried about the day when I say with confidence: I can do this. I'd rather always hear the question in my head as: Can I do this? And answer myself, not alone, but with God's help I will.
My Arizona pastor friend Jeri told me that one of her mentor pastors told her that she worried more about the people doing worship who weren't a little nervous, or at least in awe.
So, when I realized tonight that I was nervous again, I took that as a good sign.
I did a good bit of preparation, reading tonight's scripture, reviewing the service, reading over the liturgy.
And then it was time to "robe up." I had tried on some robes at the Cokesbury exhibit and Annual Conference, but this was different. It was startling to see myself in a robe. I actually think I did a double take.
I've been trying to decide whether to wear a stole. Most of the probationary elders I know -- who are technically local pastors -- wear stoles. But, I know one who does not, prefering to wait until ordination. I'm still not sure what I will do, but tonight I decided not to wear one. Seeing my head emerging from the neck of a white robe was dramatic enough for me.
I entered the sanctuary, greeted our sacristans and walked down the side aisle to my seat on the front row. Usually Molly is there, too. Sitting there alone it began to sink in on me that I was the minister present, but I didn't have too much time to wonder or worry about that because Ryan's grinning face peeked over the pew at me and gave me a kiss when I turned to greet him. Jeff was right behind him. Jeff asked where they should sit, but Ryan didn't hesitate, he crawled up beside me, grinning still. Are you excited about doing your first Vespers? He touched the robe and smiled.
After Stan's beautiful prelude of four Bach pieces, I stood to greet the congregation. Several familiar faces were smiling at me, wishing me well. I welcomed the gathering and then I ran out of things to say. I made some silly comment about the beauty of the summer day and then stopped cold. Finally I thanked them for being patient with me while I "do this for the first time."
The opening hymn was not a familiar one to me, but it was singable. I shared a hymnal with Ryan and Jeff, but neither of them was really singing. When the song ended, I walked to the lectern as I do every week at Vespers, catching the hem of the robe under my foot twice. Once at the lectern, I felt more comfortable. It was familiar, it was something I do every week. The first reading was Psalm 146: Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord, O my soul. And the congregational response was "Holy Spirit, Truth divine," a hymn of both truth and comfort for me:
Holy Spirit, Truth divine, dawn upon this soul of mine;
Word of God and inward light, wake my spirit, clear my sight.
Holy Spirit, Love divine, glow within this heart of mine;
kindle every high desire; perish self to Thy pure fire.
The Gospel was from Mark, where Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed. After that, came the hymn of mediation, which was a retelling of that parable. As I sat struggling with the words and tune of "The Kingdom of God," I realized I was too nervous to concentrate. My next steps would be into new territory. Usually I move into the chancel choir pews at this point and get to relax for the rest of worship because my work is done. The distance from the chair near the lectern to the altar seemed vast, yet, when the song ended, I don't even remember covering that ground. Suddenly I was behind the altar and it was time to pray. My prayer was extemporaneous and it was not very long, and I really don't recall much at all of what I prayed. I weaved in some of the kingdom and creation concepts that had been in the two scriptures and then offered a brief prayer of confession on behalf of us all, first for the things we have done or said that we regretted and that were not pleasing to God -- with a long pause for personal reflection -- and then for the times when we had failed to speak up or act -- also with a pause for reflection. I know I then prayed in thanksgiving for grace, and while I recall the passion of the words, I do not recall their content.
Then it was time to chant.
Stan played the note, and I chanted acapello:The Lord be with you.
And listened to the congregation's response: And also with you.
And then I raised my hands and chanted: Lift up your hearts.
And listened to the congregation's response:
We lift them up unto the Lord.
And then, I did what I do every week, I began to sing:
"It is right to give...
ooops, that's the people's response.
I laughed at myself and then corrected:
Let us give thanks unto the Lord.
And the people responded: It is right to give thanks and praise.
At Water's Edge, we do not use a formal communion liturgy prayer. We focus on the words of institution and the invoking of the Holy Spirit. At Vespers, we do follow a formal liturgy, so I decided to draw on the communion prayer I had written for worship class. It begins:
With boundless joy we give thanks to you, O God of our Creation.
From that first spark of life and Spirit you set the cosmos in motion, you breathed life
into humanity, you brought light into the world.
Your love amazes us, for even when our love turns to doubt or fear, your love is
constant and immense.
You delivered our ancestors in faith from captivity and you deliver us daily from the
bonds that keep us from living into our promise as people created in your image. You
freed your people and made a covenant to always be with us.
You have spoken to us through prophets and you speak truth to us through one
And then it was time to join in the unending hymn of praise: Holy, holy, holy...
And I left the altar, walked down the chancel steps and waited and watched as Joann approached me with the cup and plate. I took the elements from her hand and returned to set them on the altar and continue the prayer:
Nurturing God, your greatest gift to us is the grace we know through Jesus Christ.
Your Spirit descended on him and was ever-apparent in his ministry.
Through his teachings and example you showed us how
to be in meaningful relationship with the poor,
to care for those who seek release from burdens,
to free the souls of the weary and anxious
and to proclaim the Good News of grace and abundant love.
In an act of unimaginable love, you delivered us from hopelessness to grace through
Jesus, and made a new covenant with us through water and the Spirit.
When Jesus died and rose again into eternity, he promised to abide with us always
in your Word and Holy Spirit.
The word -- my own word from a prayer written last November -- leapt out at me. Jesus abides with us always in Word and through Spirit.
And suddenly it was time for the words of institution that remember that very Truth. And as I lifted the large wafer and broke it, my hands shook. And as I lifted the cup I felt that connection I have imagined before -- that link across two millenia that connects each of us every time we partake in communion to that first communion table.
And just as suddenly, we were singing The Lord's Prayer and I was offering an invitation to our open communion table.
I took the cup and plate to the back altar, where it felt odd to be back there alone, and even more odd not to have someone to share communion with before serving. I moved to my place near the altar rail and joined in the remaining notes of "Bread of Life from Heaven" and felt myself in communion not only with everyone there but with some of my dearest friends.
Serving communion, like reading scripture, felt familiar again. I moved down the rail offering the bread and cup with the words: "The body and blood of Christ, given in love for you." And then I saw Ryan, kneeling at the rail, and beside him Jeff. My heart began pounding at the thought that I might get to serve communion to Jeff. But first, Ryan: The bread of life and the cup of blessing, given in love for you. He took the wafer and then hesitated over "the blood," but he was beaming up at me. The cup of blessing, I repeated, and he dipped the wafer in. Jeff now crossed his arm in front of himself and said: None for me, thanks. And I moved down the rail.
As communion concluded, I moved back to the altar to lead the concluding prayer, sing the nunc dimittis, the congregation's sending forth hymn, and offer a benediction. As the Amens were being sung, I moved back to the front pew, where Ryan stepped out in front of me and gave me a big thumb's up, smiling broadly. I sat down to listen to the postlude, and Ryan crawled into my lap and hugged me tightly.
Afterward, a woman who was one of the very first women I met when I joined this congregation, a woman who was one of the first to discover Ryan's love of music as a VBS choir teacher, a woman whose husband, when he was alive, knew me as "Ryan's mom", a woman who Ryan and I had seen and sat with just last night in a different kind of communion during a free concert at Balboa Park...
...a woman came up to me and said I loved that first prayer, did you write that.
The Holy Spirit did, I said. But did you write it? I prayed it, I said, pointing to my head, but I realize now I should have pointed to my heart.
I knew it, she said. I knew you were experiencing something very powerful.
And I was.
Vespers sustains me.
Thanks be to God.
Posted by karen at 11:31 PM