reaching for God

I know it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to pull out my iphone and start taking pictures every Sunday while I’m passing out Communion at the altar rail, but I admit to wanting to do it sometimes.

Yesterday was definitely one of those days.  I was the guest preacher at St. Luke’s Church in East Greenwich, which was one component of a full and incredible weekend of music, worship, and friendship that I was a part of while we welcomed Fran McKendree to RI for the weekend. Fran led a workshop at the church on Saturday, and then we went to see the Prism of Praise gospel choir perform on Saturday night. After such a wonderful Saturday by the time church rolled around on Sunday I was feeling particularly warm and happy and aware of God’s presence. Maybe that’s why church was so good yesterday. Maybe it was because Fran played his beautiful music again at church. Maybe it was because St. Luke’s is just a truly joyful place to worship.  Probably it was all of those factors, but I’m not even really worried about the reason. It was just really good church.

When it came time for the Eucharist, Tim Rich (the rector) asked me to help distribute Communion and I happily agreed.  I began to go through the motions but then – as often happens especially when I’m feeling as I described above – I found myself taken with the way all of the individuals and families came bounding forward to receive Communion.

The first Sunday I ever served as priest I remember being struck by the way people look when they reach out their hands for Communion. More often than not in the Episcopal Church people come forward and kneel on cushion around an altar rail.  As the priest I end up standing above them looking down at their outstretched hands.  What I noticed that very first time is that there is something about the position we take to receive that acts as a great neutralizer.  When kneeling and reaching forward for the bread, suddenly we all look child-like.  And I don’t mean that in a patronizing way.  I mean that regardless of the age and station and experience of a person coming forward to receive, I see nothing but a pure and innocent longing for God in the humble kneeling and outstretched hands.  A longing that I’m not always sure we even recognize or realize when we come forward to receive.  But from my vantage point, that longing is all I can see.

Yesterday in addition to watching countless adults come forward to receive there was also an abundance of children guided forward by their parents. I love watching the parents instruct the children as they receive, often whispering “say Amen” in the children’s ears after the bread is placed in their hands.  One family in particular came forward yesterday, and the dad positioned his toddler directly in front of him, his arms surrounding the child on both sides, so that when I looked down I saw the father’s adult hands cupped to receive, and just inside where his hands met, two little hands reached out – the child’s fingertips resting along the bottom of his father’s palms.  I placed bread in their hands and said the words I utter again and again “the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven” but I’ll admit that what I wanted to say was:

“Can you just hang here for a second while I run and get my phone to take a picture? Because this is about the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

Thankfully every once in a great while, my common sense prevails, so instead I took a mental snapshot and I plan to hold onto it for some time. Writing about it helps me to remember.

Here’s what I keep thinking though, as I revisit my snapshot of those two hands stretched out to receive: how is it that we teach our children (biological and in community) to reach for God?

For those of us who attend church regularly we have this very concrete way to instruct them to reach for God.  Kneel on the cushion, hold out your hands, say “Amen”.  But when we walk away from the communion rail, or if we don’t ever visit the communion rail – how is it that we instill in them a deep desire to reach for God, to seek out God’s love and will in their lives, and to share that love with others?

Yesterday afternoon we had our final event of the weekend, and Fran performed for a church surprisingly full of people (given a certain football game that happened at the same time).  Once again, all ages were present, and there was singing and dancing and laughter.  A handful of children gathered in the very front row and they listened and participated with everyone else, sometimes becoming distracted with one another or a ladybug that made a special appearance.  As we celebrated together I thought again of the hands – large and small – cupped at the communion rail that morning.  This is how we reach for God.  We gather, we sing, we dance.  We set time apart and away from the craziness of our lives to listen for God through songs and words and poetry and images and one another.  We spend time in community and we spend time alone.  We try to help and encourage and feed one another.  And as adults, we make sure that we are doing more than just instructing our children on how to do it – we need to make sure that we are reaching for God and offering a whispered (or shouted) “Amen” – we believe.

If you find yourself needing to reach for God (and for me that would be always) I encourage you to listen to Fran’s music. His music is on his website and on itunes.  He has an incredibly gentle and joyful way of bringing God to life through his music, and you will be blessed for having heard it.

If music isn’t your thing, I hope you’ll reach for God another way.  Go to the communion rail, or take some time for silence, or dance in your kitchen.  Read scripture or a blog you love or book of poems.  Or maybe just sit for a little while in the quiet of your room with your hands cupped in front of you, open to whatever it is that God might offer you.  It doesn’t matter how you reach for God, just put extend your hands and be prepared to receive.

Amen.

Here’s a little bit of Fran, and the children, and the ladybug:

 (ps. Just so I don’t get in trouble with my mom – and that’s a real thing, by the way – here’s a link to the St. Luke’s Facebook page where you can hear my sermon from yesterday.)

God with us

adventIt feels like Advent was a decade ago already, but before we stray too far from the holidays I wanted to share with you about the Advent Service that we held in the barn at ECC.

Back when I was in North Carolina I worked with a deacon who held an Advent service in a local barn every Advent season, and I always thought it was the sweetest service. When I became the director at ECC I started dreaming about having one of our own.  Admittedly it’s a little bit colder in Rhode Island in December, but we have this beautiful fireplace and a furnace that works just well enough to take the chill out of the air.  So we went for it, and invited people to join us for a short, quiet service, and for soup and a tour of the house – full of Joyce’s Christmas decorations – after the service.

I had high hopes for the service, mostly because I had such fond memories of the one I took part in down south.  By the time the fourth Sunday of Advent rolled around I was feeling pretty overwhelmed and exhausted by the holiday season. Advent is meant to be a quiet and reflective season of waiting for Christ’s coming, but for me it looked a lot more like a manic and crazy season trying to get ready for Christmas and an imminent move.  By the time I got to the Advent service I was practically crawling from fatigue.

Then something incredible happened: the service was exactly what I had hoped it would be. I couldn’t believe it – that hardly ever happens.  But it was beautiful and peaceful.  The weather cooperated and it wasn’t too cold.  Lance rigged up a beautiful hanging Advent wreath and the barn looked sweet with Christmas lights providing a soft glow.  The fire roared in the fireplace. One of my staff gently played the guitar while we sang “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”  And then two of my other staff members sang “I Wonder as I Wander”.

I had asked Faith the day before if she could learn “I Wonder as I Wander” and sing it at the service.  She has such a beautiful voice, and I knew it would be lovely.  She agreed and I was looking forward to hearing her.  The day of the service Kait showed up to help, and upon looking at her (and remembering what a lovely alto she is) I said “Hey Kait – maybe you could sing this song with Faith. It would make a nice duet.”  An hour later they were ready, and I am sure there was not a dry eye in the house when they were singing. They took our breath away.

Lucky for you, one of the folks in the congregation had the wherewith-all to record the song.  Hence this post, where I can share their lovely sound with you.

I hope you’ll enjoy hearing them. I hope even though Advent and Christmas are over that you might find a moment today of peace and quiet.  I hope that you remember that Emmanuel means “God with us”, and even though the season has ended where we sing out “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, we can still call out for God to be with us in every day, and in every season.

God be with you this day, and every day.