Often times, we spend a great deal of time urging ourselves and others to attend worship and take part in a congregation of faith, but now it seems we are unable to do this. What do we do?
Last year, I chose to “de-center” in the words of Bishop Curry and embark on a spiritual journey to “re-enter” a congregation of faith and worship. Ultimately, I chose to take this journey in the Episcopal Church.
I should point out that organized religion is hardly new to me.
I came of age in the South—a place where religion is as sticky as the humidity. Religion is everywhere and it saturates your daily life. Growing up under the loving yet stern gaze of Presbyterian women further ensured that organized religion would somehow impact my life.
But, life happens and over time my connections to faith and worship became distant and very much centered on me. I went to college, then graduate school; I was blessed to be able to serve in the federal government; and even more blessed to marry the love of my life. It was my belief in pursuing something beyond myself that led me to government service.
I took seriously John F. Kennedy’s famous call to all Americans to think beyond themselves, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” However, when it came to religion and worship, I often flipped that famous charge on its head, asking not what I could do for my religion, but what my religion could do for me. This approach provided me with expedient excuses to avoid the requirements of actively engaging in worship. And so, while my professional career remained centered on the ideal of serving others, my religion conveniently remained centered on the ideal of serving me.
This is not to say I left the community of faith, but instead I chose to stand outside of a congregation of worship. I occasionally attended church services when visiting family back home, but this hardly made me an active worshiper. In fact, I was more of a spectator—passively observing, never fully engaging, too easily impatient and distracted by life’s anxieties, and well, to be honest, lunch. Nothing really stuck with me. In this context, it became easy for me to rationalize a church that served only me. A congregation of one.
In the late summer of 2019, my wife and I attended Emmanuel on a lark. We had just settled in Alexandria after being a part for nearly three years as she finished graduate school and I fulfilled my government service obligations. It was a painful time for us. Wanting to settle down and build a family, we discussed the possibility of finding a church. My wife—who grew up in the Episcopal Church—found Emmanuel after searching online. It was near our home, so we decided to put on our Sunday best and give it a shot. We went to worship and it stuck with us.
Participating in worship at Emmanuel has forced me to recognize that as members of a congregation, we are not the whole, but simply a part of something greater. I take comfort in the liturgy of the Episcopal Church, the costumes, if you will, the tradition, and most of all, the mystery. I’m drawn to it as the power of the past is so evident in the Episcopal worship service. I confess, that as a student of history, I find that the ability to worship as one among many evokes something ancient. In attending those services, I am able to de-center from myself and re-enter a world of faith. A world beyond my own.
In particular, the liturgy forces me to actively engage in worship. It offers an architectural blueprint of worship for a richer, more profound sense of spiritual development. These intricacies of worship give me spiritual strength. By taking part in something greater than myself, it constantly challenges me to become an active worshiper.
I strongly believe that worship points us toward reconciling our doubts and understanding those mysteries of faith. It forces us to think beyond ourselves and our daily lives. Furthermore, taking part in worship as a congregation requires us to bear witness with our fellow parishioners. I have found it to be a humbling experience that brings me closer to God’s presence. It deeply resonates and sticks to the soul.
So, after some soul searching, I decided to join the Episcopal Church.
Then, COVID-19 happened and church stopped. Lenten classes, Rabbi by Appointment, Bonhoeffer talks, all of these forms of worship and spiritual inquiry came to a screeching halt, at least temporarily as our clergy worked tirelessly to make them available again through Zoom.
For some of us, the pandemic—in addition to all the other terrible things it brings— threatens to revive the church of me. All our fears, doubts, and spiritual rationalizations slowly start to reappear. In addition, these times of crisis and isolation threaten to make us passive spectators to faith and worship. Even worse, we risk becoming too overwhelmed by fear and simply stop worshiping.
What do we do? How do we navigate a difficult time to remain de-centered and engage as active worshipers?
As is often the case, the answer is right in front of us. In fact, we can still embark on our spiritual journey—a journey defined by worship. Undoubtedly, this crisis has forced us to worship God in different ways, but the liturgy is here to guide us on that journey.
I like to have a plan. So in this difficult time, if it helps, here’s what I plan to do: I will continue to work hard to de-center myself. I will engage more directly with the liturgy, even though I now have to click to open it. I will also continue to ask God tough questions. And, I will accept that I may receive even tougher answers, but I will take solace in knowing that I possess the spiritual tools and fortitude to face these challenges. Doing all of these things will help me remain a vital part of a congregation of worship and faith.
My spiritual blueprint of Scripture, tradition, and reason—bolstered by the Book of Common Prayer— will put me in my place. It will constantly remind me that I can still worship and engage more directly with God. It will guide me in an uncertain time. I will carefully engage with Scripture, song, and the BCP, and then sit back quietly, even if alone, to reflect on those words.
Remember, the liturgy is still with us. Our clergy and congregation of worship are still with us. All of those things beyond us, are still here. They never left. That’s why they’re beyond us. Moreover, what’s beyond us still works to de-center each of us. The Word of God remains with us. It’s sticky to the soul.
So instead of letting the service pull me passively along—while being too easily distracted or overwhelmed—I will actively engage with the liturgy to de-center. I will rely on tools of scripture, tradition, and reason, to drive my own spiritual engine and re-enter Emmanuel’s congregation of worship and faith. Not completely shedding my Presbyterian upbringing, perhaps it can even help me find grace in these trying times. I’m trying to be an active worshiper. I’m learning to be an Episcopalian.
When we return to worship, I will have a new appreciation for the grace that accompanies our coming together as a congregation. By engaging in worship, I will remind myself that our congregation is still alive and in many ways is contingent upon our own personal worship and de-centering. I also look forward to raising our soon-to-be-born daughter in this congregation of worship and introducing her to the mysteries of faith guided by those tenets of scripture, tradition, and reason.
Thank you to the clergy and staff who provide us with our spiritual blueprint for worship and bring Emmanuel into our homes each week. Thank you to our parishioners who call to check in on others. Thank you to those who attend our Zoom coffee hour and thank you to those who continue to find creative and thoughtful ways for us to de-center and re-enter our virtual place of worship. We must always keep in mind that the sole responsibility of worship and a congregation of faith lies within each of us, individually.
Adversity will never change that. And COVID-19 will never change that, either. The liturgy is sticky to the soul.
— John D. Willingham, May 2020
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog