As I mentioned yesterday, I was 30 when I first started dipping my toes back in the church-going water after more than a decade of abstaining from all church-related stuff except special occasions. Being a preacher’s kid can do that to you. The only reason I felt a sudden need to go back to church was because I missed the phenomenon that is congregational hymn singing and choral singing in the context of worship. Being a preacher’s kid can do THAT to you, too.
I had been at First Church UCC in Washington, DC for not even a year when the pastor John Mack came to me to ask if I’d lead the “front end” of the service. This was always led by a lay person, and involved providing the Call to Worship, introducing the first hymn, praying the Invocation, introducing the Prayer of Confession, leading the Prayer of Confession, and offering the Words of Assurance after the confession. In true Joysian fashion, I agreed and then a week before it was time for me to take my turn, I called John in a panic. I had no idea what to do or say. Did I have to invent everything on my own? Was there a collection of materials I could look through? Could I really use ANYTHING? I didn’t know liturgy from a hole in the ground, and in addition to being somewhat baffled by the terms themselves, I had no grip on the purpose of the whole structure.
John laughed and walked me through it, using small words and little Fisher Price people to illustrate. Okay, he didn’t really use the Fisher Price people, but that’s probably only because we were talking on the phone and not in his office. John said, “The Call to Worship is where you are inviting people to the party. Then we sing a hymn to celebrate that we’re all together. Then the Invocation is where you invite God to the party. So for those first two parts, think about how you would like to be invited, and then how you would like to invite God to join us, and just say those things.”
Easy peasy! As it turned out, in the 10 years I was at First Church, taking on this task was rarely easy, but it was always a lot of fun for me. Often my brain would jolt me at 2 or 3 a.m. in the week before it was my turn, rattling me awake with all sorts of brilliant ideas (I don’t know about you, but many of the ideas I have at 2 and 3 a.m. seem to border on sheer genius.) I’d write stuff down in the dark, and then wake up in the morning and have a good laugh at my own expense. Either I couldn’t read what I’d written, or I could and I couldn’t fathom, in the light of day, how my brilliant 2 a.m. insight had anything to do with the task at hand.
One Saturday night before my turn, I had everything but the Invocation. None of the stuff in John’s collection was clicking with me, none of my usual suspects of spiritual inspiration were clicking with wherever I was (Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, Denise Levertov, William Stafford, Marge Piercy, Robert Frost, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, e.e. cummings, etc.) So I decided to write my own Invocation. I ended up with a sort of word casserole that reflected my sensory experiences of going back to church after many years away. It’s a series of snapshots of the different things I focused on to keep myself from running right out of the sanctuary at different times during any given service. In those first few years (yes, years), I struggled so intensely to figure out — in between hymns — what the hell I was doing there when I didn’t believe in a singular, or even Triune, God, and I sure as hell didn’t think that God was some sort of hard-working, authoritarian single father who had only one son.
Loving maker of our days, hold us now in your heart.
For those of us with sorrows too deep for words, come as the piercing music of birdsong.
For those of us with pains too sharp for silence, come as the gentle quiet of a deep breath.
For those of us who are in several places at once, come as the singular, insistent glow of candleflame.
For those of us who float in dreams, come as the reliably solid bench of a pew.
For those of us eclipsed by darkness, come as a festival of colored glass.
You find us when we are most lost, love us when we are most afraid, and hear us when we are most silent. To you who are ever at work in our lives, we give thanks — for life, for love, and for the daily opportunity to be at work in your life. Amen.
When I called my mom for Mother’s Day this past Sunday, she told me that she has been reading this prayer at least once a week for years. And, because she’s my mother, she also apparently shares it with just about everyone she meets. For all I know, everyone who reads this blog has already received this prayer from my mom. If that’s the case, well, just think of it as a re-run now available on a different channel.
There’s no point in having a prayer without wings, at least that’s what my buzzy brain tells me. Maybe that’s because I think prayers, like poems, are words with wings. As the songwriter says, why walk when you can fly?