Paul Gregory Alms on How Jesus Comes Amid Distractions
The gospel of Jesus Christ came to me wrapped up in my father’s aftershave, Bach preludes, and clip-on ties. I glimpsed the God of the Scriptures while wedged in the pew next to my older sister and my father. My memories of church are not those of fine theological distinctions, or the inspirational rhetoric of the sermon or the beautiful rhythm of the church year. Rather, I remember the feeling I got walking into church and hearing the pipe organ play that otherworldly music. I did not know that I was hearing Bach preludes; I just knew that church sounded like that. The gospel smelled a certain way to me, like my father’s aftershave and his musty suits marinated in cigarette smoke; it smelled like the closed-in, stained-glass smell of the sanctuary.
Jesus came to me in the scratchy uncomfortable clothes I had to wear, in the way my mother would wipe her extra hand lotion all over my face, and the cold car rides early in the morning. None of this seemingly has anything to do with the gospel, with the Scriptures, with the truth, with salvation or Jesus. But it is the way Christ made himself known to me, the skin he put on.
Like Fragments of Glass
It is easy to forget all of this now as a pastor. As a pastor with years of theological education and years of liturgical and sermonic experience, it is easy to forget what church is like in the pew. But every now and again, I am reminded. Occasionally I get the opportunity to sit with “the people,” and it is a startling experience.
What is startling is how much is going on that one never notices from the front when one is completely occupied being the celebrant. Down in the pew, the church service is a much more “multimedia” experience. So much competes (talking, whispering, shifting of seats, rustling of bulletins, children, the backs of others’ heads, digging through purses, and so on) with the “real stuff” going on up front.
Worship is often experienced like fragments of broken glass. If the sensory inputs from outside oneself are not enough to fracture the service, one’s own wandering inner concentration and thoughts will finish the job. One may be able to give attention to verse one of a hymn but verses two and three are swallowed by noticing the Jones lady and her new haircut and who is that new person sitting just over from her, and by the time you get back to the service, half of the confession of sins is done.
You catch a sentence or two of a prayer and then the new green banner jumps out at you and the green reminds you that you need to fertilize your lawn, and then you pop back into the service for the last half of the collect of the day which mentions something about the frailty of our nature which makes you remember the medical test you have scheduled for next week which causes the small balled-up mass of vague anxiety in your belly to open up into a full blossom of fear and now you really are ready to pray, but the prayer has come and gone and the first lesson is almost over.
So it goes through the service.
The fact that worship is often like this can be discouraging for clergy. As the presiding minister, one is in a liturgical bubble, a space of supreme concentration. The service proceeds exactly, texts are carefully read, rituals enacted, theological and pastoral messages are proclaimed.
Paul Gregory Alms (paulgregoryalms.blogspot.com) is pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Catawba, North Carolina. He is a graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana, with both MDiv and STM degrees. He has written extensively for journals such as First Things, Concordia Theological Journal, Lutheran Witness, Lutheran Forum, The Cresset, and others. He is married and the father of four girls.
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