A bit of back story here:
This blog began as a detailed, provocative response to the question “Where are you going to church now?” The conceit, if I can stretch the definition of that word, is walking the reader through a typical Episcopal Church service through the eyes of one of the de-churched.
So, if you’re new to this blog, you may want to scroll down and begin reading chronologically. We’re only up to the processional.
I’m off schedule because last week I actually had to be in church. It was Good Shepherd Sunday.
There is nothing more direct or guilelessly reverent set in words than Psalm 23. No bit of scripture more popular and beloved. The prayer is known, and maybe even used, by the unreligious, and it is a recommended text for contemplation in a book on meditation written by an observant Hindu.
The messages contained there may be simple, but they have resonated with seekers throughout history. Listen for God’s voice. You are loved. You are cared for. Feel no shame, no fear. Lead a balanced life. All will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well.
So imagine my surprise when I walked into the well-heeled Episcopal Church with the expectation of entering in to the simplicity this psalm and the message of the Good Shepherd and got handed a 10-page service leaflet on high quality, bleached stock 11 x 14 inch folded paper, fruit of forests and former home of spotted owls.
Can’t make it through the Good Shepherd Sunday without a playbook. He maketh me to lie in green pastures because the trees are gone.
The identical service probably took place in hundreds of Episcopal Churches all over America. Someone opened The Episcopal Musicians’ Handbook to the appropriate day, choosing personal favorite hymns, ignoring more evangelical or emotional pieces that related to the lectionary readings. The choirs sang anthems selected by choir directors who asked themselves “What is the most sophisticated piece we can learn by May 1st?”
Remember in The Flintstones when one of animal tools would turn to the fourth wall and in a nasal tone say “It’s a living.” I can’t help but imagine that’s what’s going on for so many staff members in so many churches. Liturgy is plug-and-play. I first heard that expression from a High Church organist/choir director. That was his goal: plug-and-play.
In the service I attended, the opening hymn was to the tune of Old 100th (listed as “song of praise”…apparently we must praise with a limit on joy) accompanied by the organ. Did anyone think to invite the pastoral sound of the oboe, bagpipes, a volunteer cantor shepherding us in song, a simple Iona or Taize congregational chant alternating with readings or poetry? Did anyone ask the congregants if there was something meaningful to them that they would like to share? Heck – invite a farmer in to talk about sheep. Or did the resident “expert” clergy serve as an interpreter of this most personal of texts?
I remember when my Uncle Carlo died; the viewing was at a home specializing in Roman Catholic funerals. His widow, Aunt Rita, had chosen the Good Shepherd prayer cards to be distributed that day. She had prayed it from the moment he had died of a heart attack while taking a nap in the back yard. When we spoke on the phone, I could hear the quickening in her voice as she told me about the Holy Card. It gave her surety about Carlo’s life after death, and surety about her own life until she could join him.
The plastic laminated prayer card with the kitschy Northern European Jesus was pressed into our hands by her as we left the funeral home. I have mine still not only because it reminds me of that memorial and the passing of someone in the family, but because there is a kind of lateral charism there. The Holy Scripture, the reality of it healing in someone’s life, the treasure that I need to hold on to in case I need it in mine some day.
How many millions have stories about this psalm? Think of how fast, strong , and deep these words have traveled. Like spiritual DNA. And we go to a worship service to ignore the inner voice of the shepherd, the One who knows us by name, who has knit us together in our mothers’ wombs and knows our stories better than we know them ourselves.
The Episcopal Church worship experience is a little bit like hospital food. The industrial kitchen will whip up a meal for you and even if you don’t enjoy it, have faith that it’s nourishing and healing.
What can I say about the rest of the service? Dull, robotic worship skirting the most tenderly deep concept in the walk of the faithful: This is a God who cares and with whom you can have a relationship.
David and Jesus had real sheep in mind when they communicated, not sheeple.
After the service, I took a walk with my Bible and prayed David’s psalm with joy, and reverence, and song. I found the still waters, thanking my Creator for every blessing I could, particularly the one of relationship. Then I went online to see what I missed from Meet the Press.
I won’t make the same mistake this week.
Until then, monika55