Our Esther is a devotee of tradition. When she retired from supervising an emergency room in Philadelphia, she retired to her family home in our town. Now in her 80s, Esther never really liked the Service Book and Hymnal adopted by the Lutherans in 1959, to say nothing of the two more recent ones. In fact, she recently visited a friend who had a recording of her pastor-father leading the liturgy from the 1918 Common Service Book, and the two women cried together over the “beauty of the reverence.”
When a young adult vocations retreat recently met at the church and provided some gentle acoustic prelude music, Esther predicted that they would all be deaf before they’re 30. Fortunately, loud organ music doesn’t ruffle her equilibrium, and she’s also the most faithful of our faithful attendees for Sunday worship at St. John’s.
Ben, in his 40s, is a liver transplant recipient and cancer survivor. He’s also Pentecostal. Ben likes to move when he worships, and does not mind traveling to find a church where he feels at home. He is also a friend of St. John’s, having been involved in several of our Bible studies — including some he’s led. He recently wowed the aforementioned young adult vocations retreat with stories about his array of medical and faith challenges.
On a sleety Sunday last winter, Ben decided that it was folly to drive the 25 miles to his church of choice. I was touched that he chose St. John’s as his cold-weather alternative.
Our worship leans toward the Esther side of things. It has been described as “contextually sensitive high church,” which makes me laugh, but it gives you an idea. Our liturgy is traditional, with blunt and simply phrased prayers, provided in part by the faithful. We sing long hymns and we sing all the words, thank you very much, but some of our liturgical music is multicultural.
Nevertheless, it was a challenge for Ben. He thought the hymns very long indeed, and when Esther got up to read, he admits thinking, “The service will be over before she gets up there.”
It is true, she doesn’t move quickly, and there is a strong quaver in her voice. But when she started, Ben stopped wiggling.
He recognized the Spirit.
And by the time she was crying with the weight of the text — a not-unusual event — he was too.
Esther noticed that he noticed, and thus did not bat an eyelash when he raised his hands and swayed through much of the rest of the service. When came time for Communion, we fed each other the food of immortality as we always do, passing around the bread and cup. Esther and Ben stood next to each other, and although I don’t remember who fed whom, I remember the tenderness with which it was accomplished.
They both know, although they don’t always get to experience it, that worship is not a matter of doing what we want to do. That is true even if you treasure the gifts of your own tradition.
The Spirit of God works in places where you are not predisposed to see it, and the church exists in forms far from your comfort zone. When you are given the gift of encountering one of those foreign forms, do it with as much grace as you can muster, and with a sense of trust. More will be revealed.
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