Note: this is part of an ongoing series. Mystery Worship One is here; Mystery Worship Two is here; Mystery Worship Three is here. Four is here. Five is here. Six is here. Seven is here. Eight is here. Nine is here. Ten is here.
On my first Sunday back in Texas, I decided to attend an Orthodox Church for my Mystery Worship time.
With some research for preparation, I discovered that the Orthodox Church considers itself the only true church, and is not in communion with other Christian groups. Those who receive the sacrament of Holy Communion are expected to have made a confession in the presence of an Orthodox Priest within the last 24 hours and to come fasting to the service.
I read that worshippers stand throughout the entire, mostly sung, service (90 minutes to six hours in length), kiss icons (women do not wear lipstick), make multiple signs of the cross and engage in both bowing and acts of prostration.
Requested dress code: slacks, dress shoes, collared shirt for men—and absolutely no hats—and long skirt or pants, modest blouse, minimal makeup, and head covering for women.
I woke on that morning in some discomfort, physical and mental. First, I had worked in the garden for seven hours the day before and had suffered a bit of heat exhaustion. Second, during that sojourn in the garden, my unprotected feet disturbed a fire ant mound. Bites everywhere, still tender, and I dreaded the idea of even the lightest of shoes and a long time on my feet. Third, the thought of going to a worship service where I had little idea of what would happen suddenly seemed overwhelming to me. I feared standing out, looking like an idiot, disturbing the worship of others, and being physically miserable.
At the appointed time, I left the house, drove to the location I had pinpointed, looked at the people outside, and realized something: I had forgotten a head covering and had nothing in my car I could use.
The barriers to worship simply became too high for me. Discouraged, and feeling completely worn out, I headed home.
On that return trip, I began to think about what it is like for anyone to come into worship for the first time. The mysteries of worship services, language, customs and etiquette stay nearly indecipherable to many.
Traditional church bulletins are littered with headings like “prelude, doxology, Gloria Patri, benediction.” We toss around buzz words such as Sacrament, liturgy, soteriology, ecclesiology, sanctification, salvation, atonement, justification, pre-lapsarianism (OK, that one is just for show).
I thought about how much planning it took for me to attend worship during my weeks away. Most places meant either a long walk or a need to catch a train, underground and then more walking to get to the places I wanted to go.
I didn’t know anyone at any place I visited. I walked in and out a stranger, mostly by my own design.
While worship must not be about our own comfort, it also takes place within a community. Often, but not always, powerful worship takes place as part of a connection of people who know each other, care for each other, push one another to greater godliness, and actively work together to serve the world
I knew that, had I been walking into a known community that Sunday, I would have just laughed off my forgetfulness, ignored my bitten feet, borrowed what I needed, and freely headed in. But as a strange sojourner, I feared that I might be judged and found wanting, and so stayed away. It was my problem.
I’ve heard many people say, “I’ll go to church when I get my life together.” I believe it actually works just the opposite: the act of worship, of being willing to be touched by God, of engaging in the power of confession, forgiveness, reconciliation, thanksgiving—these are the very things that make it possible for us to get our lives together.
I know I missed something important that day.