Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Good Night, Jesus

I've never been much for ritual in my faith. I grew up in a country Baptist church where we called Communion the "Lord's Supper" and observed it quarterly, on special holidays or fifth Sundays, which didn't come around often. When they did, boy were they a treat: cardboard crackers and grape juice in morning service and an assortment of potluck dishes including Miss Evelyn's infamous tire-textured cubed steak in the Fellowship Hall after "Singspiration" (an all-singin' service) that night.

Those were good times, and that was a good church. I was taught the foundations of the Bible there. VBS, Bible drills, Sunday School and memory verses got me to the point where I could recite the books of the Bible backwards, a useless skill that I retain to this day. But outside of the rare observance of the sacred meal and the occasional convert getting dunked in the baptismal pool, rite was nowhere to be found.

I remember going a few times to my friend's Lutheran church. It felt stuffy. Robed acolytes carried a flame down the aisle and lit the fuse for a less-than-dynamite performance by men in funny outfits who droned on with collective chants and readings I couldn't really understand. Maybe I was projecting my state of mind, but the people seemed to drool with boredom. In my view, there was no pep, and I couldn't wait to wake up from the liturgical nightmare I'd fallen into. Rituals made no sense. They were mindless gestures by sad people steeped in lame traditions. And grape juice tasted much better than wine.

It's possible that I was right about the collective attitude of that church, but I was definitely off about the idea that structured, metered worship is useless and irredeemable. Because I hadn't seen it modeled in a constructive way, I assumed rite was wrong. In the past few years, worshiping in different churches and cultures, I've adjusted that view. I maintain that recitations and protocols without the flair of heartfelt spontaneity can lead to spiritual malaise. But now I realize ritual's potential to regularly revive hearts that are constantly being pulled down by the weight of our sin nature and the cares of the world. Predictable actions as symbols, the sacraments, give us an anchor with the saints of old and help us to - like Paul said - proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

On the first night of our recent trip to Savannah, Katy and I wandered the rain-slicked streets looking for something to do. It was a Sunday night, so the old city's restaurants were closing down even earlier than usual. Driving through one of the town's scenic squares, we noticed an old church with a new banner inviting everyone to "Come say good night to God." Sounded pretty awesome to me, even though I had never heard of a "compline," which I later found out is a night prayer that draws on 1,500 years of monastic tradition.

We returned to Christ Church Savannah that night for the event, which the sign promised would involve some sort of Gregorian chant. This Anglican church, established in 1733, is as old as the city and the Georgia colony. That became evident as choir members entered the sanctuary, breaking the subdued silence with steps that creaked the floorboards. Four candles stood at the front of the sanctuary, casting a soft glow on the stained-glass Jesus, who stood with arms outstretched as if to bless the gathered worshippers.

The robed singers disappeared into the balcony and proceeded to bathe the sanctuary in their chanting voices, singing in unison, not harmony, presumably to help focus participants on words and not the music. It worked, and voices that would have grated on my Baptist nerves in the past gave rise to a flow of meditation. Capped off with the Apostle's Creed, a poignant Father's Day sermon and a classical guitar number accompanied by an unseen booming voice from the balcony, I can't think of any better way to say, Good night, Jesus.

For another out-of-the-box worship experience, read about my first Mass, spent with reclusive Irish Travelers in Edgefield, S.C. here.

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