What’s Even Worse than Leaving Your Fly Down in Worship…

Jason Micheli —  October 16, 2013 — Leave a comment

zipperEarlier this week I posted a red-faced reflection on having liturgized for an entire service with my fly down. Not the glimpse of glory one hopes to give a congregation.

My most recent Sunday-morning gaffe reminded me of another, equally-horrifying worship experience.

I preached the following sermon 6 years in the Aldersgate hotbox, aka: the Fellowship Hall sans AC. While my unzipped zipper may have escaped most folks’ notice this Sunday, what wasn’t missed 6 years ago was the egregious, child-molestor amount of sweat dripping off me, everywhere, even on to the communion bread…giving new, gross meaning to the words of institution: ‘This is my body given for you…’

The last thing you want is people to say ‘the communion bread was moist’ and have it be your fault.

Revelation 4.1-12

Too often we make God smaller than He is- we try to prove He exists, explain away evil, make our beliefs sound reasonable, turn mysteries into how-to’s. Maybe it’s enough to experience God’s presence and trust the Holy Spirit to do the rest. 

We’d left the ‘real’ world behind with its honking horns, neon lights and newspaper headlines, and we’d entered a celestial world punctuated by the smells, sounds and secrets of heaven. Pungent clouds of incense hung heavily in the air. The slow, ceaseless echo of a choir wound its way through the room, bouncing off the stone walls and mixing with the whispered prayers of the gathered faithful.

The room itself was in the shape of a Cross. Its dark candle-lit corners housed a rainbow of painted images of Jesus and Mary and the Saints before which some knelt in quiet adoration. At the head of the sanctuary, an opaque curtain was stretched taut from wall to wall, intentionally obscuring our view of the large altar table in the middle.

In the center of the curtain were two great doors, painted the colors of jewels. The doors stood closed, as if to guard us from the thunderous mysteries behind it. Not seeing any pews for us to sit in, we stood surprised on a cold, stone floor that was as smooth as glass.

I glanced down at the half-sheet of manila paper in my hand and read one of the footnotes: “The faithful stand and move freely in the church, feeling at home in God’s house.”

The twin towers had fallen only weeks before and, with them, a good many of the casual certainties of our faith. The world seemed to be spinning out of control. God seemed an absentee landlord at best and here we were training to be religious professionals at a time when faith appeared to wield woefully little power against the Powers of the world.

That fall, my seminary classmates and I were enrolled in a mandatory course on ‘Worship’ and a requisite of that class was that we visit other churches to experience a variety worship traditions: high-tech bible churches, traditional Catholic masses, and unadorned Calvinist preaching services.

Our visits had unwittingly made us combatants in the worship wars that currently rage in church denominations. We fought over familiar turf: contemporary vs. traditional worship, hymnals vs. PowerPoint projections, and the power of ritual vs. the sufficiency of scripture.

But it was the specter of the twin towers that loomed large over all our scrutinizing debates. ‘How do you convince people that God is not distant or far-removed?’ We wondered.

     ‘How do you reassure them that God is in control when God appears anything but? What sort of sermon do you preach? What music do you sing?’

One of the churches we were to visit was St. Gregory’s Orthodox Church. For the field trip, our teacher had provided us with liturgical cliff-notes- footnotes typed on a half-sheet of manila paper to explain the service and spare us embarrassment.

He’d given them to us with the warning that providing guide notes to an Orthodox worship service was like explaining a work of art. ‘Some things resist explanation,’ he said.

So, my friend and I, we stood on the stone floor of the sanctuary clutching our manila half-sheets and wondering how long this worship service would last. And, more importantly, for how long we’d actually have to stand on our feet.

At a side altar to the left of the opaque curtain, an old white-bearded priest stood in a long black robe and prayed aloud for the forgiveness necessary to fulfill his duties. Sounds of a choir were already coming from somewhere when he purposefully entered the sanctuary and put on his brightly colored vestments. The priest then soberly held up a large, round loaf of bread.

The bread had an elaborate seal impressed on the top of it. In the center of the seal was a square with a Lamb in it along with the Greek verb ‘Nika’ meaning “is victorious.”

Our manila cheat-sheet told us that the large triangle we saw imprinted on the bread was for Mary, the Mother of God, and that the 9 smaller triangles represented the People of God.

In one fluid motion, the priest laid the bread down and took what looked like a spear, and he cut the lamb out from the bread and he placed the lamb on a gold dish. He then poured water and wine into a single chalice. When he was done pouring, the priest took the spear and cut from the bread the ten triangles.

As he did so, he held each one up to offer a prayer for the living and the dead before placing it on the gold dish around the Lamb. And when he’d prayed ten prayers for the ten triangles, the priest placed two large strips of silver-bound together- on the gold dish so that the strips of silver hovered above the Lamb and Mary and the People of God.

‘It looks like an asterisk’ I joked to my friend. ‘No,’ he said in hushed seriousness and motioned with our manila notes, ‘it’s the Star of Bethlehem.’ The priest then draped the bread with cross-shaped veils and blanketed all of it with a thick cloud of incense, praying that the sweet-smelling smoke would carry the prayers of the faithful to heaven.

My feet were starting to get cramped, but at that very moment, the choir began to sing louder. Even my Methodist ears could make out their words: ‘Kyrie Eleison,’ ‘Lord have mercy.’

The priest held up a gold-plated bible and, with it, made the sign of the Cross. And with seven altar boys in white robes carrying seven lamps, he marched the gold-plated bible to the front of the great altar doors and rather than ask politely for the Holy Spirit’s blessing he shouted demandingly: ‘Wisdom, Arise!’  

With the promise of illumination thus assured, scripture was read, and a sermon was preached. As soon as the priest finished his sermon, almost like they’d never stopped, the choir began to sing: ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.’

While they sang, the priest processed around the sanctuary with his brass censer and engulfed the congregation in the sharp-smelling smoke of the incense. The doors to the altar table were opened and the gifts of bread and wine were processed through them and placed on the table.

From there, the worship service settled into a somewhat familiar rhythm. The Creed was confessed and we began to pray the Great Thanksgiving.

Now up until then, my friend and I had both been distracted and surprised by the number of people walking around the sanctuary, praying to icons, lighting candles, quieting babies. For stretches of the worship service, it felt like we were the only ones standing still or paying attention.

But when we got to the conclusion of the Great Thanksgiving and when the priest turned his hands down towards the Table and prayed: “Pour out your Holy Spirit on these gifts of bread and wine…” every single person in the sanctuary immediately threw down their heads and bowed down on their knees as if the King of Creation had just entered the room.

Because, of course, he had.

With everyone kneeling, the choir sang ‘We praise thee.’ The priest held up the bread and the wine and he declared:

“Holy things are for the holy. With fear of God and faith and love, draw near.” 

We’d been caught off guard, and we were the only ones not kneeling in adoration. Embarrassed, I looked down at the final footnote on my crinkled manila cheat-sheet and I noticed that Jason was doing the same.

‘Orthodox Christians,’ it said, ‘consider worship to be Heaven on Earth.’ 

How do you convince people that God is not distant or far-removed from them?

How do you persuade them that there is a Power above all the frightening powers of the world?

How do you reassure them that no matter what is to come, God is in control, that the true course of history resides with the One who is, who was and who is to come?

If you’re St. John of Patmos, writing to Christians who have by turns suffered for their faith or compromised their faith or had their faith ground up by the callousness of the Empire….

If you’re St. John of Patmos, writing to Christians who have become convinced that the situation of their lives in no way substantiates their claim that Jesus Christ is Lord….

If you’re St. John of Patmos, you give them a picture of heaven.

You paint a picture of an outsized royal throne and at the foot of the throne you scatter crowns and jewels so that, next to it, all the power and splendor of the earth looks like pocket-change.

And beneath the throne you draw the sea as still as glass so that people will know that in heaven and one day soon on earth all chaos and evil will finally and forever be subdued by the glory of God.

If you’re St. John of Patmos, you paint thunder and lightening all around so that people will remember the terrible, holy presence of Yahweh, who rescued them in the past.

And above the throne, where the seven archangels stand guard, you sketch a rainbow just like the one that streaked the sky after the great flood so that everyone will know that no matter what’s to come God’s judgment never comes without God’s mercy.

You paint the creatures of the earth and the people of Israel and the fathers of the Church bent down in adoration.

And you add in music, lots of music, ceaseless singing, because, if you’re St. John of Patmos, you want the faithful to know that heaven is worship.

You want them to know that the centrifugal force of the whole universe is directed towards praise and worship of this God.

You want them to know, that no matter what the evidence of their lives may imply:

  • whenever they join in heaven’s song
  • whenever they bow down in adoration
  • whenever they gather around the throne of God’s presence

They are, in fact, pulling back the curtain to expose the true power of this world.

The twin towers had fallen only weeks before and later, the next week, we sat in class dissecting our experience at St. Gregory’s. ‘It was too long’ some judged. ‘It was too foreign, too confusing. It wasn’t practical. No social issues were addressed.’ The verdict was overwhelmingly negative. But my friend, whose impending marriage was forcing him to revisit and wrestle with his own father’s suicide, he disagreed:

Too often we make God smaller than He is- we try to prove He exists, explain away evil, make our beliefs sound reasonable, turn mysteries into how-to’s. Maybe it’s enough to experience God’s presence and trust the Holy Spirit to do the rest. 

Friends, the Table is set. Heaven’s Door is about to be thrown open and True

Power’s Curtain pulled back. With fear of God and faith and love…draw near.

 

Jason Micheli

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