Sunday, October 17, 2010

Empty Church

I had the joy of worshipping this week in one of my favorite places. Duke Chapel is the place where I have experienced some of the most memorable preaching. It is a space where my heart has soared as I have listened to their choir. It is a space where I preached on the Sunday after my ordination. It is also the place where I was married. I love Duke Chapel.

On Monday evening, I gathered in Duke Chapel for worship along with some 500 or 600 other pastors attending Pastor's School and Fall Convocation. We gathered at the end of a day filled with wonderful lectures. We gathered to hear an inspired, renowned preacher. We gathered to worship. But, as hard as I tried, I had a hard time settling my mind and my spirit. I could not worship.

The space that is filled with so many memories did not speak to me. I was surrounded by hundreds of people, more people than I have worshipped with in a long time, but it seemed so empty. I stayed for the sermon and then quickly snuck out before the prayers. And, in full disclosure, I was checking status updates on Facebook during the sermon. I just could not make myself be present.

I've been thinking a lot about my reaction this week. How is it that the place that once spoke to me the moment I walked in the doors seemed so empty on Monday? Why is it that the preacher who has so much to say to millions of people could not get past the doors of my ears? Why is it that I could hardly wait to get out of the space instead of journey closer to the altar?

As I have wrestled with my emotions, I have realized that worship is so much more than the liturgy, the preaching and the music. These three things are vitally important - they are what mold us and shape us, drawing us into the presence of God and allowing us to see the beauty of God in different ways. However, I realized this week that I am unable to worship God without somehow being connected to a community of people who are worshipping with me and who will continue to keep me accountable during the week. I am not able to worship God on Sundays without knowing that our worshipful work will continue at different points during the week.

I had the opportunity to visit different churches this summer. One church sat on a beautiful spot in the middle of an incredible oasis. The worship was quaint and lovely. The congregation was diverse. However, there was nothing happening in the life of the church other than worship - the people were only coming together for an hour each Sunday before dispersing until the next Sunday. I kept hearing my mentor Peter Storey saying over and over again, "These people are just playing church."

Monday's service was designed to touch my soul, penetrate my heart and replenish me as a preacher. Yet, I could not get there. I wanted to escape - I wanted to run home fast to the community that is my church.

I might not ever see this community contain 600 people. It might be years before there are even 200 people in the pews of my church home. I have never had my spirit soar because of music in the way that my spirit has soared at other places of worship. Yet, there is something about this community that I would not trade for anything.

We worshipped together today for an hour and a half but I could have easily stayed another hour. I could have stayed until each person had an opportunity to share - until each person had spoken and been listened to. We gave thanks for a new baby today and prayed for a couple struggling with infertility. We gave thanks for a new job and prayed for someone who is grateful to go through another day without drinking. We gave thanks for for someone who is home from visiting family in the Sierra Leone and prayed for people whose temporary storage site went away when bulldozers tore down a fence across the street yesterday. We came together - this beautiful, diverse group of people - and when I witnessed our community again, I was able to worship.

I would not trade this community for anything.

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