Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Light of the World

Every Sunday at the end of our service, we end by extinguishing the chalice flames. (Yes, plural, because we have a children's chalice as well as the "big" one.) When we do this, I usually say something like this:

"As we extinguish our chalice flames this morning, I invite you to take their light and warmth into your own hearts, and go out to LIGHT UP THE WORLD with them. Because you are the light of the world. Then I invite you to return next week to rekindle these flames together in community." I use a snuffer to extinguish the flames. Then I say "Go in peace, return in love."

The congregation is well trained. They won't budge until I say "Go in peace, return in love."

I absolutely love to say "You are the light of the world." I always hear the refrain from "Godspell" when I say it -- "if the salt has lost its flavor, it ain't got much in its favor, you can't have that fault and be the salt of the earth," and "You got to live right to be the light of the world." I usually look right at someone who I KNOW is the salt of the earth, and I say it to them as though I believe that these words will carry them through their week.

Reading PeaceBang reminds me of this moment in our service every week, and how I really do believe that my congregation IS the salt of the earth and the light of the world. I tell them that every Sunday, just in case they need to know.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Flying Solo

I have renewed appreciation for my colleagues who manage their Sunday worship services week after week all by themselves. Today I was flying solo, and it was quite an experience!

I share my ministry with my husband, each of us conducting worship with a Worship Associate each week. The one who isn’t preaching is either teaching in RE, guest preaching somewhere else, doing some other kind of work for the District or the UUA, or participating in worship here as a member of the congregation. When I’m preaching, I always appreciate having Hubby nearby to help with the recalcitrant sound system, greet folks with me, and handle all the little details I tend to forget.

Today’s service was planned weeks ago (before General Assembly) with a Worship Associate who warned me that there was a tiny chance she wouldn’t be able to be here today, as she was participating in an academic conference that ran Sunday through Tuesday. Sure enough, they scheduled her to deliver her paper at Penn State (a 2-hour drive away) at 1 p.m. today.

Hubby was scheduled to teach in RE this morning, but our DRE managed to arrange a switch so that he could assist me with the service. We had planned a service which would allow the congregation to experience six different ways of participating in Joys & Sorrows, so that they could actually feel how well it can work even when done differently from the way we always do it. (The good part was that there was no sermon to write four days after returning from a two-week trip to the Pacific Northwest. The bad part was that it was very complicated, involving a large number of props, furniture moving, and an unusual order of worship.)

So yesterday morning Hubby comes down with a killer of a summer cold, and he’s utterly miserable. He bailed on the wedding I was conducting last evening (where he would have been a guest), and this morning I suggested that he might prefer to stay home from church – a suggestion to which he readily agreed in his croaky voice.

So here’s the scene:

I leave home at 9:30 (earlier than usual), all clean and pressed and tidy in my linen skirt and blouse, and find the front door of the meeting house unlocked (for Lord knows how many days… fortunately we are in a friendly little village). After opening the sanctuary windows and turning on the fans (we are not air conditioned, and it was predicted to be in the 90’s today), I move a table into the sanctuary on which I set up flowers and a vase (for the kids’ sharing), stones and a bowl of water. I lug in a 50-pound bag of sand for the Joys & Sorrows candles and get someone else to round up some scissors to open it so I can scoop out many handfuls of sand into the bowl we use for candles. (I’m wearing a white linen skirt.)

As I’m doing this, I notice the 6-year old son of one of the musicians (who are practicing right in my pathway) heading out the door of the sanctuary with all of the prayer request slips in his hand, slips which I had copied and cut yesterday and disbursed in the pew racks along with sharpened pencils. I catch him in time, and ask him to put them back, three in each box, which he cheerfully does.

Then it’s on to the sound system, which dates back to the 1950’s and is powered with vacuum tubes. Of course I can’t make it work, so I call Hubby on the cell phone from the control room (located nowhere near the sanctuary, and deep inside the concrete walls of the building) to ask him to walk me through the setup. He can only pick up every third word, so every time I have a question I have to leave the room and walk 20 feet toward the front door so he can hear me. Meanwhile, the musician with whom I am to sing a song wants to rehearse; I tell her I can’t until we get the sound system figured out. Hubby reminds me of the peculiarity of one switch, which has to be jiggled just so in order to put sound into the sanctuary, and it works, thanks be to God. By now it is 10:15 and the service starts at 10:30.

I put on the lapel mic, needing to secure it with a paper clip to my now soggy linen blouse, since those little clippy things always disappear. I pray that the batteries won’t run out, since the mic makes a very rude noise (think amplified fart) when that happens and it is, shall we say, an impediment to serious worship.

Now that I am ready to rehearse, I can’t find the musician, but she shows up momentarily. She looks slightly frazzled. I tell her I need to sing this song for my own sake. (We are going to sing “Comfort Me” as part of an inclusive prayer.) Our voices sound wonderful together, and I am immediately comforted. Her son and daughter interrupt us in the vestry where we are singing, and I banish them, hoping their grandfather can keep them from further mayhem. When we finish rehearsing, I find the grandfather outside the vestry door waiting to see if his crutches are in there. They are. I feel terrible.

Usually the ministers and Worship Associate stand outside the sanctuary door for about ten minutes before the service and greet people as they enter. Today I have about three minutes left. Someone wants to tell me how the collection bin for the food pantry has disappeared, and give me an announcement. I tell her “later.” (Fortunately, she is totally cool with this.) I have scarcely had time to check in with the pianist (one of a stable of four—how I long for the day when we have ONE consistent pianist on staff!), but we have e-mailed about the service and I trust her. She is playing the Music for Gathering, it’s 10:30, I take a deep breath and enter the sanctuary.

The entire service went absolutely like clockwork!!! The thrown-together quartet (guitar, mandolin, violin and recorder) did a perfect job on “Be Thou My Vision” for the prelude. Okay, the kids didn’t have much to share (as one Mom said later, “Who’s going to have any sorrows? It’s summer!”), but I got my point across with the two colors of flowers by adding some red ones for “sorrows unspoken.” And without Hubby there, I had no “down time” to sort through the prayer requests while he was leading something else.

After they were collected, I whispered to the musician “Keep playing” while I sorted through the twenty-four requests (I had been expecting maybe seven or eight), and then wove them into a prayer interspersed with verses of “Comfort Me” (sing with me, speak for me, comfort me). This was such a powerful part of the service for me, speaking a heartfelt prayer on behalf of people I love, and hearing them sing “comfort me” right along with us.

There were statements of joy from parents for their children keeping them on track, for “being love with the most wonderful man,” for special vacations spent with family, for appreciation of the spectacular beauty of this area where we live, admiration for a relative whose life will always be difficult.

And there were statements of grief at a child’s deteriorating health, at the loneliness felt after moving here, at upcoming surgeries, a mother’s Alzheimer’s causing her to forget her daughter’s name, an alcoholic father-in-law, toxic neighbors, and more.

To have twenty-four people (out of maybe seventy-five) requesting inclusion in a communal prayer was stunning to me. It’s a reminder of how hungry these folks are for the balm that corporate prayer can bring, even if they would never use those words themselves. And I found that at coffee hour I was able to connect more authentically than I usually do with everyone, just feeling that we had all shared from our hearts with great trust and compassion.

I am always, invariably, energized by conducting worship, and today was no exception. I loved this service, though I did get a few comments during the coffee hour that it was “interesting,” which I always interpret as veiled criticism.

Nevertheless, it was powerful and meaningful for me. At the end of his book Preaching, Fred Craddock writes, “…there is at least one person in the sanctuary listening, one person who, because of this sermon, may have a clearer vision, a brighter hope, a deeper faith, a fuller love. That person is the preacher.” That was my experience today, despite the sand and the sweat and the six-year old boy.

P.S. At G.A. I attended the Excellence in Worship workshop on Joys and Sorrows, with today’s (already planned) service in mind. I was astonished at how closely the presenters’ plans matched my own, though I did pick up a few good tips which improved on my ideas. If anyone wants a copy of my manuscript from today, I will be glad to share. (I’ll need your e-mail address.)