A friend and her husband visited a small Episcopal Church in California.
Since she is a pastor herself, visiting a church came with all kinds of baggage. So when the service appeared a bit chaotic she wasn’t sure what to think. I know this struggle firsthand. Being a pastor who visits other churches is like being a backseat driver in every single worship service. When things go well your brain is busy taking notes of parts to imitate later. When things go wrong you can’t help but mentally correct them. It takes a lot of mental energy just to turn off your “leader-brain” and become a participant in the pew.
As my friend sat out in the pew willing herself just to listen and sing and absorb this particular day of worship, the priest lost his place in the sermon. This happens to all of us from time to time, and we’re all sympathetic. But it happened more than once. Then, in the liturgy of Holy Communion the priest lost his place again and again. He stopped and started at the wrong spot, and it was such a mess that the congregation actually began reading the parts meant for the leader out loud just to keep the service going.
As the service ended and she and her husband collected themselves to leave, a woman from the congregation approached them with words of welcome. Then she added: “Our service isn’t usually this disjointed, but our priest has early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. When he forgets his part we read for him until he can join in again.”
My friend was stunned. This church didn’t expect perfection of their pastor. They were loving him through his deepest weakness and struggle, strengthening their voices as his declined. The flock was leading the shepherd, walking alongside him and helping him stay on course, even when his own mind betrayed him.
When I think about her story of that service, tears come to my eyes. What would I have thought if I had been visiting that day? Would I have been critical, judgmental, left in a cloud of disappointment? Would I have even stuck around long enough to realize that what might have seemed to an outsider to be a failure at “doing church” was actually the Church at its best.
I’m so used to being the one who helps, who steps up, who raises her voice when others falter. But what’s hardest is when I need the body around me to speak when I lose my voice. God give me grace to let others carry me when I fall.
That’s the Church. The Body of Christ. When we forget our parts, others join in, until we can lift our voices again.
What’s easier for you? To be the one carrying or the one being carried? When have you had to let go and let others help?