I want to tell you about some new developments in my life. I’ve been going to church.
Odd statement, for one whose vocational life has been centered on church for over two decades now. I do church for a living.
But that’s the thing; I do church for a living. And one of the primary gifts from my sabbatical time earlier this year was the bestowal of clarity when it comes to what I do and where I do it on Sundays (Sunday being the normal day of worship in American Christianity.) Because while I’ve been present at church, I haven’t necessarily been reaping the benefits of being in church.
The difference matters.
For several years now, I’ve been pulled to a deeper discovery of spiritual practices. What are they? Why do they matter? Where can I do these things?
I’ve read and listened and read and tried to learn about All The Things. Aaron Niequist’s podcast called The Eternal Current – wonderfully illuminating. Rich Villodas wrote a great book called The Deeply Formed Life. Richard Foster’s work is seminal; Still Running by Vanessa Zuisei Goddard. Ruth Haley Barton and Richard Rohr and The Ignatian Book of Days and Jan Johnson’s Meeting God In Scripture…
SO. MUCH. INFORMATION. I’ve loaded up my brain, but recently I had the gift of time to begin to put some spiritual practices into…well, practice. The gift of a six week sabbatical from my regular work offered the most precious commodity of all: TIME. I determined to use it well.
I chose to spend my Sabbatical Sundays in environments very different than my regular tradition and expression of Christian faith. Every morning that I was in town, I went to a small country church in a nearby county. I sat in a pew as someone seeking an experience with God – just like everybody around me. It was transformative to attend church with that perspective; I was able to focus my attention and my affection in deeply meaningful ways, through the music, the teaching, and – most impactful – the heartfelt engagement of the people around me. There was something deeply resonant, profound, and true in the gathering itself. Worship is a spiritual practice, and I realized that while I can authentically engage in a worship experience when I am serving as a musician or a minister on a Sunday morning, the fact that my service comes with a layer of responsibility creates a certain tension. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I began to appreciate the difference between bringing an empty, vulnerable self to submit to the leadership of others, and showing up being “me” at “my church.”
The difference matters.
Further reflection has really shaped my understanding of the weekly ministry I do, now that I’m back in the normal routine of my work life; those Sunday mornings revealed a leveling of some sort, a personal insight that’s caused me to see people differently. It’s suffused with kindness and love, so I’m accepting it as a good thing.
Sunday evenings, I drove into the city to sit in a chapel graced with candlelight, infused with silence. The Celtic service at St. Stephens Episcopal Church is unique, with an eight-page printed program, classical music (played by exquisitely gifted musicians), Celebrants and Reflectors and Kyries and Deacons, and multiple opportunities for silence.
Again; in a setting where our normal joy-infused gatherings are filled with energy and enthusiasm and lots of big sound, this approach was very different. It was unnerving, at first; I didn’t understand everything that was happening. I wasn’t sure of the routine.
But I was drawn back, repeatedly; and I’d made a commitment to spend all six weeks in these settings, so I kept going, trusting that the process would work on me.
It continues to do so.
And therein is the key to the spiritual practice I’m learning to exercise.
Submission, for one; learning not to be in charge, and to be okay with that. Submitting to ways of doing church that are not my church’s style – and recognizing the compelling invitation of the Spirit to so many people, in so many ways.
Silence, for another. Several times in the course of the Celtic service, the program actually reads, A period of silence is kept.
Silence is observed after the reading.
Two minutes of silence follow.
A friend went with me last week; as we travelled home, she turned to me and said, I don’t know when I’m ever just silent. I never just sit in silence.
She paused for a moment.
That was beautiful.
It is, indeed, beautiful. And I have discovered that my soul needs what this church service provides – not because it’s better or more comfortable or because I like the minister or because it’s my preference…but because it offers me an opportunity to practice worship.
In this season of my life, I need these things in order to do the things God has called me to do; to serve my church, the one that ordained me and surrounds me with life-giving community and friends, the one that allows me into the sacred spaces of life and death and joy and sorrow and everything in between.
Mostly, though, I need these things because I long to be transformed into the image of Jesus. Going to church – even working at a church – is not the same thing as transformation. They are not mutually exclusive, but they’re not necessarily the same thing.
The difference matters.
I choose to put spiritual practices into place to be changed. In this season of my life, I’ve found what works. I go to my church on Sunday mornings, where I practice my vocation; I go to church Sunday evenings, where I’m part of a gathering of silence-seekers responding to the invitation printed in the program:
So, come, you who have much faith and you who have little, you who have been here often and you who have not been here long, you who have tried to follow and you who have failed. Come, because it is the Lord who invites you. It is his will that those who want him should meet him here.-The Invitation
I’m going to church.