Walking up the several concrete stairs, I think of the songs of ascent, sung by the faithful of ancient times as they went up the steps to the inner court of the temple to meet God. I am not ascending the steps of the temple, these are steps to a Methodist church building — a space which is rented on Sunday evenings. Through the big red doors, and into the warm narthex — the steam heat warming my nose and ears, previously exposed to the cold Wisconsin wind. It is four o’clock on Sunday afternoon, and the sun is kissing the Western horizon as it treks to the other side of the globe to bring light and warmth to those in far away lands.
I take a bulletin from the bench ahead of me, and enter into the sanctuary. The musicians are beginning to congregate. The pianist warms up the keys, the acoustic bassist plugs in the cord which will allow us to hear the soft yet chest-vibrating bottom to the musical accompaniment of congregational song. The guitar player opens his case and fixes the strap to the two pegs on either side of the body. The violist tightly holds his instrument between his chin and shoulder, playing each note slowly and carefully, finely tuning each string, slowly turning the wooden friction pegs at the head until each note sparkles with perfection.
“Hey all!” my beloved calls to them. She pulls out music and heads toward the single microphone perched atop a stand on the floor right in front of the chancel steps. Here, everything takes place on the floor in front of the chancel. It provides a holy intimacy Word, table, and fellowship.
She is singing this evening.
As the musicians begin their rehearsal, I settle into my typical pew: far left section, third pew from the front, second space in. Close enough to the front for my beloved, who must travel there several times during the service, and far enough from the front to be comfortable.
It is not uncommon for me to be at a church building in preparation for a worship service, however, right now I am not the one engaging in this act of preparation. In the service that follows, I will not stand before the congregation, I will not speak to the congregation. I will not preach a sermon, I will not pray out loud, I will not even read scripture. This is not the church that I pastor.
When I am able to come to Sunday evening services, I am not a leader, I am not a pastor, I am no one special in particular. This is what is so life-giving about it. I come simply as one of the faithful who desperately desires to meet God and experience grace.
This is a gift which reminds me of who I am. Strangely, this can so easily get lost in the shuffle of pastoral work. I so often feel as though Christianity is my job, not my identity; as though scripture is simply source text which I examine and exegete, rather than a living message pointing me toward God; as though Jesus is a product that I sell rather than the one whom I follow. But on Sundays like this one, I am relieved from seeing religion as an object, and I am afforded an opportunity for subjective experience.
This wonderful, welcoming, and loving congregation has been a deep conduit of grace for me in the midst of many desert-experiences, many of which I have shared with you here. My beloved and I never cease to be amazed at how we have been enfolded into their community, knowing full well that I shepherd another church and that I will likely not be a permanent part of their community and ministry because of my own ecclesiastical commitments.
The ability to be a part of a community, the ability to be able to, as a broken person, stand shoulder to shoulder with other broken people, the ability to seek grace and the Divine without having to possess all the answers — all of these things are things which I am immensely thankful for.
I am thankful for City Reformed Church in Milwaukee.
What, dear reader, are you thankful for?