After receiving Communion my prayer partner and I stood at the foot of the altar, where rails might have been, had the building not been new and Protestant.
Facing the empty cross, we held hands gratefully, and I waited for the gluten-free rice cracker (jalapeno flavored, I think) to dissolve on my tongue. Silently I offered up the impossible situations in our lives—the loved ones suffering from cancers of the body and soul.
She rested her head against my shoulder and soon I could feel her shake. I hugged her and we held each other while the congregants filed past us back to their seats, bread and crackers dissolving on their tongues while the accompanist played “One Bread, One, Body.”
Soon, the new pastor, nine weeks on the job, joined us, slipping his arms over our shoulders, our hug becoming a team huddle, while he prayed for victory. His words—kind words, biblically sound words, spirit-inspired words, words directed at God and meant to uplift us—streamed forth in a strong Southern twang. The pastor prayed until he covered every possible angle and eventuality of my friend’s situation (he’d visited her ill husband the day before).
When he finally Amen-ed, and stepped back, sliding his hands to his sides as he made his way back to the lectern, my prayer partner and I opened our eyes, turned toward the pews, and blinked in surprise to find all the other congregants seated and looking at us. There was nothing to do but shrug, hold hands, and walk to our row, as if used to having all eyes on us in worship.
And we are—or were. At our old church in another state, she attended for 30 years and led praise music for a dozen of those. I was a member there for 25 years, and pastor the last 7 of those. I know what it’s like to place oneself in the position of spokesperson to God on behalf of the congregation.
I know what it’s like to take great care in designing an order of worship that leads people through song, Scripture, responsive readings, public and private prayer and an experience of the holy, while leaving room for spontaneity in response to the unexpected—two women hugging and crying at the front of the church, for example.
The spontaneity often manifests as pure verbosity: frenetic and boisterous greeting time (gone are the days when “Peace be with you,” and “Also with you,” sufficed), chatty announcements, liberal commentary on scripture, and sermons that follow the more-is-better maxim, I
It’s been six years since I pastored, and though God has been subject to my own abundance of words as a leader, the more I find myself in the pews as a worshipper, the more I tire of wordy worship.
My prayer partner and I haven’t lived in the same city since I left pastoral ministry. Since then, we’ve spent countless hours on the phone praying, much of it in increasing silence punctuated only by the buzzing of headsets and clicking of electronic relay signals. We speak, too, but it’s in the silence beyond our words, our hopes, and our fears, that we encounter the reassuring essence of God’s unconditional love. And unfailingly we emerge from that silence with gratitude and renewed inner peace.
When the caring new pastor encircled us with his arms and intoned his kind prayer, I found myself groaning inwardly at the blanket of words meant to comfort us. I lamented his current excess, and the many times I’d undoubtedly done the same. I wanted to say—as gently as possible—to him, to myself, to all of us who find ourselves reaching for words when we turn to prayer, “Please shut up…you’re interrupting God.”
I am a writer who, in December 2011, fortified by a new MFA, empty nest, and changes in my husband's employment, relocated from my native California to Washington state to see what would unfold next.