Like many young adults, I had left the church of my youth by the time I entered college. When I was in my early 20’s and Rachel and I recognized that our relationship was headed towards marriage, I began to find my way back to church. Both Rachel and I were raised in the Catholic church and we realized that it would be important to our families – specifically our grandmothers – for us to be married in the Catholic church. I returned to the church a few years before we were married and became more involved in participating in the liturgy and began re-discovering my relationship with God.
About six months before our wedding, a storm cloud came over my life in the form of a dark spot my father’s chest x-ray. I hadn’t told anyone besides Rachel. My family was still waiting on some more test results and I wasn’t talking about it because – I don’t know – I felt that talking about it would jinx the test results…or maybe I was just worried that saying it out loud would make it real.
The following Saturday evening, as we often did, Rachel and I went to Mass with her parents. I don’t recall exactly what the priest spoke about in his homily but I remember that some of it had to do with heaven. It caught me by surprise and started to rock my nerves but I didn’t let the waves move me, at least not on the outside. I stayed calm. Well, I looked calm. I did a good job of pretending that nothing was going on.
At least, I thought I did. After the Mass, my soon-to-be in-laws noticed that something was off and asked what was wrong. I still couldn’t find the words but as Rachel told them what was going on with my father, I was free to express my emotions. All of the fear and sadness and grief burst forth and I was able to gain some solace in my tears and their embrace.
We all face storms in our lives – times when everything seems out of our control; when we feel like the wind and rain and lightning are tossing around the too-frail boat of our emotions; times when the waves seem too powerful and we feel like we’re being pulled out to sea in the riptide.
Because I had made the decision to return to church to prepare for my marriage, I was able to find a little bit of refuge when my father got sick. It may not have been directly connected to the worship service, the music, or the scripture but I was able to experience God’s hand reaching out for me in the form of loving support from my in-laws.
I don’t believe that church is the only place that we experience God but when we gather together in worship we have the opportunity to recognize and talk about those holy moments. Cathy and Sandra and I try to design services that provide everyone with times to connect with the divine in music, prayer, scripture and conversation. Do you have those moments? Times when you become lost in prayer or when the music takes you to a special place or when you can hear God’s call for you in a meditation or a children’s moment?
When we do experience God, how do we respond? Have you ever shared your story of a holy moment with someone else? What would it feel like to tell another person about a time when you experienced God?
I think there are times when we find ourselves moved by the Spirit but we don’t know what to do about it. As good New Englanders, good Congregationalists, we may be shy about talking about our faith or our emotions to others. There are other faith traditions that have no problem acting out their joy in church, jumping up and shouting “Hallelujah,” or talking back to the preacher or dancing in the aisles. Do you want to hear a little secret? Do you know what churches like that sometimes call churches like us? “The frozen chosen.” They don’t quite understand how we can be experiencing God if we’re just sitting quietly in the pews.
Now, I’m not asking you to start dancing in the aisles, don’t worry. I know that’s not who we are – and that’s okay. But I wonder about how we can let each other know, during a worship service, that the Spirit is upon us.
I have sometimes sensed some confusion and controversy over the question of applause in church. Music often has an almost indescribable effect on us. A powerful piece on the organ or from the choir can carry us away. It brings us great joy to see our children grow up through our youth choirs and develop as musicians and as Christians. And we want to share that joy. We want to show our appreciation and acknowledge that God is speaking to us through music. Outside of worship services we would have no hesitation to applause, but when we’re in church we often waver. Applause may make it seem too much like a performance than a spiritual practice.
We may not be comfortable with dancing in the aisle but maybe we could try a simple “amen.” If you have felt the hand of God touching your heart when the one of our choirs or musicians worship through song, try responding with an “amen.” Acknowledge that you are experiencing a holy moment and respond accordingly.
I’d also like to invite you to do that same during any of my meditations. I know that we often consider it rude to interrupt – that it seems weird to speak aloud when someone else is talking – but I’m giving you permission. In fact, I’m asking you to do it. Not because I’m looking for your adoration but because I want to know if something I’ve said has struck a chord with you. Feel free to give me an “amen” at any time during the service when you know that God is with us.
When we can recognize and mark these holy moments, we can use them as a foundation for our faith. As a church we can practice our faith and become more comfortable talking about the times when we know God is with us.
And then, when the inevitable rains and winds and lightning strikes of life come, we can remember those moments and use them as protection from the storm. When life seems out of control, we can find safe harbor in the memories of songs and prayers and worship services that lifted us up.
Church won’t solve all of our problems. Worship services won’t make our troubles go away. But every moment that we can spend together opening our eyes and hearts to experiencing the divine; and as we get more comfortable opening our mouths and talking about those times, we can begin to shore up the walls of our faith in preparation for the storms. We can grow stronger so that the riptides of doubt can’t carry us away.
Unfortunately, the dark cloud on my father’s x-ray was an inoperable tumor. He made it to our wedding by died shortly after. I had a hard time throughout his illness and I mourned his passing but as I began remembering divine moments throughout my life, I was able to find little islands of peace. Somehow, I was able to see God at work even throughout that time of struggle.
What are the holy moments of your life? The next time you are aware of God at work, what will you do with that knowledge? Who will you share your story with? Will you write down your experience; put together a “life preserver” journal for those moments of doubt?
May God continue to be known to us as we come together as a community sharing gifts of prayer, of music, and of each other’s presence. And may we continue to have the courage to talk about our experiences of God so that we can build a strong foundation of faith to provide shelter from the storms of life. Can I get an amen?