We went to worship this past Sunday in a small, rural church. (It was the third church we’ve visited since beginning our sabbatical, actually. The first two were in a major city and a suburb, respectively.)
Worship Sunday was… familiar, recalling our days serving similar churches in rural Illinois. Volunteers played piano and organ together to classic hymns, adding the “A-men” at the end of each; wooden pews with long cushions lined in two rows down a narrow church; church leaders filled in for the vacationing pastor, adding “special” gospel music by a few groups and reading all four of the lectionary passages; a lay leader read his “sermon”; visitors were invited to identify themselves.*
Several times during worship, I thought to myself, “they are trying.” The church’s members and leaders were trying, but they lacked the strength and charisma I am accustomed to in other settings. They stumbled in their extemporaneous statements. The sermon both lacked the good news of the gospel and was completely disconnected from the four lectionary readings that preceded it (it was, in fact, a collection of different authors’ statements about world hunger and very little call to action in response). I did not experience a sense of wonder for two “folksy” versions of songs offered as special music, and the three classical hymns chosen for worship were played so slow they were difficult for me to sing.
There was a moment early on when the congregation was invited to have a moment of silence, where I began to feel a sense of connection; where I began to feel immersed in the greatness of the wonder of God even as bulletins rustled around me. But it was cut short too soon for me…
The service was, though familiar, a far cry from the worship we had experienced the previous three Sundays in two other churches. Indeed, more than once during worship, I felt pulled out of my desire to connect with God and was distracted.
But, even so, in the midst distraction, I was aware over and again that the people around me were trying. And in an almost Whitman-esque moment of insight, I realized what was happening. You see, Walt Whitman has written two poems that often come to mind: “Miracles” and “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer.”
In each of these poems, Whitman gives insight in to our predicament. We live in a world where we are surrounded by wonder –
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,
– but when we try to synthesize or explain them –
to add, divide, and measure them
– the experience is not the same as actually stepping outside
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look[ing] up in perfect silence at the stars.
Here’s what I realized Sunday morning:
Sometimes we catch momentary glimpses of such intense grandeur that our words, and even our best photographs, are insufficient to portray the wonder that envelops us.
Sometimes we experience such an overwhelming sense of our deep connectedness to the world around us and to others within it** that even our best generosity and hospitality fail to truly convey the gratitude we feel.
Sometimes we are privileged to know such kairos moments where the otherwise hidden divinity that imbues all the universe around us manifests in such a way that our limited senses catch but a glimmer of the light they so desire to know.
And here’s the thing: When we experience some form of the wonder of the world, we have a desire to share it with others.
Compare that while today we take pictures and videos and show them to others on our phones, previous generations filled carousels of slides to show at parties, and before that drew and painted grandiose landscapes to share with others what they had experienced firsthand.
In the same way, when we experience the wonder and grace of forgiveness, or Christian community, we want to draw others to experience the same. We try. Our efforts at welcoming others, at bringing a sense of the divine to worship, of helping lift people’s spirits are all just attempts to share something. To point in a direction and say, “hey, this happened to me. Maybe you can experience it, too! And, even if not, let me do what I can to share just a part of it with you.”
That’s something wonderful, and generous, in and of itself.
*Ugh! No! I insisted we stay anonymous…
**Such moments are often sudden and unbidden, but welcome. Those times when the world’s colors appear differently; where our vision of the world is through a sheen of awe and wonder.