Sunday, September 09, 2007

Trying to get some church

So we went to church this morning, as usual, and it was so weird. We did the procession and opening hymn (#1 in LEVAS, great song), as normal, and then we were told to remain standing for a reading from the gospel. The day's gospel was read, and then the priest led us into a time of silent meditation and then open sharing (this is something he sometimes does instead of preaching). Nobody said anything. Well, of course not - it was the perfect example of the Holy Spirit not showing up because she wasn't invited.

I was just sitting there, tears running down my face, thinking, "What happened to church?" We weren't gathered in God's name, nor did we invoke God's presence, nor did we read any of God's word save for a few verses from the gospel (and the readings were really good today - I was supposed to read the OT, and it really helped contextualize the gospel, as the lectionary choices usually do). We were simply asked to walk in off the street and fake it. Just immediately hear from God without context, without being invited into holy space or time, without explanation even of why we skipped half the service.

After there was some silence, the priest did wind up speaking for a few moments, on a topic somewhat related to the gospel but that honestly came out kind of as a rant. It was like he had personal thoughts raging in him and just gave them free reign, without thought as to how the congregation - already perplexed and out of whack - might take them. I know what he said wasn't very coherent because I got a completely different - almost opposite - message out of it than J did. It was clearly off the top of his head, but it was very vehement, to the point of almost sounding angry and definitely chiding. And I'm sitting there thinking, "Wait, I haven't even gotten to pray yet, or praise God, or hear Scripture, and you're yelling at me?"

After the speech he went into the creed as if nothing weird was going on. As if we were somehow now in that holy place, just because he'd spoken. As if church had commenced with his word. As if the liturgical rhythm that this community has grown into and uses weekly to meet God - with much success - could just be tossed aside by his own agenda. It didn't feel like God was speaking when he spoke; it felt like he was. Like we'd happened upon a street preacher who just calls out words from the Bible that have no context and mean very little in the present situation, both because you are not ready to hear them and because God hasn't been publicly invited (or at least, you weren't there when the Spirit was invoked). I was listening to a man. I have huge respect for the words from the pulpit - but there has to be some kind of prep, you know?

God, it's almost like there was a requirement for intimacy with no foreplay! And I really did feel like if I'd said anything, I'd have been faking it.

It was just so weird. And I couldn't take it. I couldn't deal with it supposing to be normal, that there was no effort made whatsoever to explain, to be pastoral, to offer to the body why they were being shaken up in this way. I'm not against shaking things up. But it can be done in such a way that the proper elements remain - the narrative of God's story, the move into the holy of holies, the transition from our self-concern to becoming the Body of Christ and listening to our Lord together.

And that just didn't happen because it wasn't allowed to. For no apparent reason. I couldn't deal, and I left. I was a mess. It was so liturgically wrong. There's no other way to explain it. I can tell you in all kinds of jargon why it was wrong, but most of the people there probably just knew in their guts that it felt wrong, and that's what happens when you fuck with the liturgy.

Anyway, J came out, saying since we weren't having church today there was no reason to stay, so we left. I was considering going back in for communion, but I honestly didn't feel welcome (that goes back to the speech he gave, but that's another topic, and apparently I might have misunderstood or at least what I took from it is not what J did, so maybe he didn't say what I think he did).

We're going to check out All Saints BH's new service tonight, so at least we'll get a little church in (and I hope to God we'll get Eucharist, but we may not). It was so strange. I don't feel like I got to go to church and I'm sad. It just elevated the sermon too much, it even, I daresay, elevated the gospel too much. I love the words of Jesus as much as anybody, but they are not the only words of God. And when we selectively read scripture - or selectively perform liturgy - we are on shaky ground. We are messing with not habits, not preferences, but the work of the Holy Spirit, what she's inspired in her Church throughout centuries, and even in the decades this one body has been there. What we've created together is important. And it is not the prerogative of any one person to change it without some assent from the Body. Or at least, the person leading must explain and make clear that God has laid this on their heart, and invite input. I chose this kind of church because pastors can't do whatever they want.

Well I have to call my mother and get ready for this service tonight. We did wind up helping friends move most of the day, and that felt really good. At least we got to go serve someone. It made me feel a lot better.

Has this ever happened to you? Complete weirdness or switching things with no explanation or warning? How did you react? Did it eventually make sense? Did God use it? (btw I know it's not just me being overly crazy/emotional b/c everyone I've talked to had the same weird feeling)

post-priest-meeting update, Monday morning:

So the priest called this morning to say he was "grieved in his spirit" when we left yesterday and would I please meet with him to talk about it. Great start, esp. considering at the moment he was leaving the v.m. I was praying that God would lay this on his heart. Neat when God works stuff out like that.

So we met and had a really wonderful, productive discussion. He felt awful after the service - even during it, knowing that it was not working at all. Many of the folks there just choose to ignore it when he does something they don't like, figuring that's his prerogative (and they'll outlast him anyway). But he was really grateful and thanked me many times that I did call him on it. I simply explained why there needed to be context for the worship to work, why I didn't feel invited or feel as if God was, and how I sensed some of his personal issues coming out perhaps inappropriately. I also had the opportunity to remind him that we must always preach hope when we proclaim the gospel, not just the hard stuff. And that the people there are God's, ultimately, and he must put them in God's hands.

Well he took it all fabulously and said it was confirmation of what he already felt. He, I think, was more distressed about the "sermon" he'd given (more like a rant) and how his anger had gotten the better of him. But most impressively, he was humble enough to thank me for giving him tough feedback. It was such a blessing to have that kind of conversation with him, and to honestly be told I'd done the right thing in leaving and that my feedback was, to him, God's spirit nudging him about his failings.

I gotta say that, as difficult as this experience was, I learned so much about listening to the promptings of the spirit and about how to handle criticism graciously from watching how he did it. And I learned that no matter how careful I am, I will undoubtedly make mistakes like this, and that it is so valuable to have people around me who will be honest with me when I mess up. And I really realized how important all what I've learned in seminary has been - a lot of people leave seminary complaining that they didn't learn anything they really needed to know. Well I have. Just to know why a properly crafted service is necessary, and why giving hope always always is paramount - those are two things I was taught in lecture classes and have bourne fruit in practice.

In the end it has been extremely educational, fruitful, bonding, and affirming - I feel closer to my priest, to God, and to the church to which I've been called. I now understand that this is a big reason why God brought us to St. B's. I'm humbled and honored to offer this feedback and to have such a gracious recipient. And I'm really blessed to be learning how to be a priest - including how to stumble and get up again - from him. Thanks be to God!


twocents said...

Yeah, that would have definitely pushed my buttons!! That kind of preaching is part of my history; and often spontaneity is used as an excuse--whether consciously or not--to be emotionally self-indulgent and out of control. And then to say it was somehow "inspired" if you're offended....believe me, I know...

Vitaly Kartsev said...

That sounds awful. :-(

I've had a similarly jarring experience, at the University chapel nearby. The service was fine until Communion, though the choir was pretty pushy and whoever had planned the service kept marking beautiful, singable hymns "choir only", which I found inappropriate.

Anyhow, when it came time for Communion, the congregation was split in half with the back half receiving facing away from the altar. Someone was sleeping through their liturgical theology course in seminary. I haven't been back, and don't plan to.

Kate said...

That's just ... wrong. I hope the congregation can get the point across to please, please not do this again...

twocents said...

I'm grateful for the update. That's fabulous that he took the initiative to have that discussion with you.

Kate said...

Wow -- what a great conversation! I'm so pleased things turned out so well, that he _listened_ and appreciated what you had to say.