Hearing the Liturgy With Unchurched Ears

God gave me a wonderful gift recently, a gift wrapped in a joke.

I was invited to give the eulogy for a friend’s funeral at some distance from my home. It was a very, very hot day and I think maybe my brain was a little bit overheated after a long drive. I arrived at the church after getting a little bit lost and was grateful to have arrived in time for the service (thanks to the devoted presence of someone assisting me via cell phone- – sometimes the GPS takes you to weird places).

I sat up on the chancel with the minister and entered into the spirit of the service. This isn’t something I do consciously, it’s just a natural transition into a sacred space of mourning and celebration. I am in that space frequently enough that I know its invisible contours very well. I know them in my heart, my mind and my soul. I know the language and the rituals, and I know the body energy that goes with each liturgical element in the service. I need no preparation to become fully present to what God and the community are doing in that moment.

This time, though, something slipped within me, and I found myself blinking in total astonishment at the words I was hearing. It was as though God took all my years of Christian life away and I was hearing the promises made by Scripture for the first time. We heard the “comfortable” words of John (you know them – “in my Father’s house are many mansions,” etc.) and the stirring passages from Romans 9: “For I am persuaded that neither life, nor death, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the Love of God, which is in Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Not only do I know that passage well, I know it by heart. I have an intimate relationship with it. And also this one,

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

But there I was, listening and stunned by the mystical wondrousness of it all. Well, that, and just the total weirdness. As I say, maybe it was the heat (the church was not air-conditioned), but I found myself leaning forward and straining to understand the meaning of the outrageous claims being made by the minister in the pulpit. They are claims I have read and heard dozens of times before, claims that I have studied from a theological, cultural and historical perspective, interpreted for myself, and have come to embrace, believe and cherish.

Yet there I was, thinking, “What? WHAT? What is this about a Comforter, and where is this guy going? What are ‘principalities,’ and am I to surmise that this man died and came back to life? And this somehow means that we’re all going to come back to life? Well, how? How does that work? Why would you even want to? Is this comforting? Is it mostly comforting because we’ve all heard it so many times? I wish she was here to talk to. We would have such a great talk about this. Oh, my gosh.”

I realized that heaven for me will be a place where we sit around illuminating Scripture all day. Someone once told me that I have the heart of a rabbi and I didn’t know what they meant. Now I think I do. It would give me great pleasure to spend eternity in an all-world yeshiva.

As disorienting as it was, those minutes I spent trying to wrap my brain around Scripture as though I was hearing it for the first time was a pastoral gift. I could see with startling clarity how traditional worship looks and sounds to the unchurched or to the one who has left church behind. We often say that the gospel is outrageous, but those of us who have studied it and integrated it into our bones too easily forget how much.

This stuff is outrageous! God is outrageous! The whole POINT of Christian life is to live in the in the realm of outrageous possibility, of miracle, of resurrection! It’s not supposed to make logical sense. I am so grateful to have the reminder, and delivered in such a dramatic fashion.

Listening to the minister and grabbing onto the bits I could remember and connect with like a swimmer grabs hold of an inner tube while being swept down a white water river, I realized how much my theological education and years of study have contributed to my sense of peace, strength and joy as a human being. That river is rushing something crazy. God knows we feel it if we let ourselves. There are a lot of flotation devices available out there, but the only ones that help me survive the rapids with my head above water are the ones in which I have invested years of devoted academic and spiritual attention. Sitting there in that church, remembering and celebrating the life of a beautiful human being and giving God thanks for her life and everlasting care of her spirit, I was buoyed by faith. Even though comprehension and intellectual understanding of my religion were temporarily absent, I was faithfully present as I prayed,

Thank you God, for renewing my heart in your outrageousness.

Thank you for pulling my mind out from under me like a rug that needs a good beating to clear it of dust and dog fur.

Thank you for those who have companioned me in illuminating your Word and your way.  May I abundantly return the gift and pass it along to others.

Thank you for her, who was also a tireless seeker after spiritual wisdom and a student of your Word.

Holy Wisdom, may I never forget that you are unruly and outrageous, and that it is God’s will that you are ever out of my intellectual grasp and control.

Thanks be to God.




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