I just got back from our community Thanksgiving service. It was held this year at the African Methodist Episcopal Church. I always enjoy being together with the community, being able to worship without having any real responsibility for what happens. And I always feel vaguely like an imposter among my “amen-ing” “thank you Jesus-ing” black colleagues. Coming from a catholic, liturgical tradition, we speak a different language. Or at the very least, a different dialect.
Everyone there tonight was black, except for me, and I was glad that I was there, my whiteness exaggerated by my white alb and stole. It was a reminder of how deeply segregated our religious life is, and I felt my being there was a sign of hope. And, I think the worshippers appreciated my being there too, for the same reason.
The worship was right out of the AME order, I suppose. I don’t want to criticize. I was more grateful to be able to worship tonight than ever. And there was a sense of warmth there tonight that I appreciated. It helped me ease some of the heaviness of spirit I came there with tonight.
But I felt like the proverbial Martian, seeing practices for the first time and trying to make sense of them. For instance, the point in the service where everyone was invited to come to the altar and leave their worries with God.
“The altar is now open,” the presiding minister declared, and two ushers promptly closed the rail around it. Then people came up and knelt at the altar rail, where pumpkins and squash, and apples, and bananas from last Sunday’s harvest Sunday, (for us Christ the King) were still lined up and people came and knelt at the rail with the pumpkins and the fruit and scrunched up their faces because they were at the altar and thus where praying harder.
I wonder, what was here at the altar that was not there in their seat? Is God MORE present here than there? The practice seemed to mimic the Eucharist, yet it was all up to me. Meaning that I had to come forward and FEEL something. Something only I could feel, and in that it was very private. No wonder there was all that scrunching of faces.
In the Eucharist, you come and gather around the table of the Lord for the sacramental meal. You receive the bread and the wine. The experience is outside of me. Sure it means something different at different times. Sometimes it is deeply moving and sometimes your mind is thinking of other things. But the point is, the experience of taking and eating, taking and drinking, is not a private emotional concoction. It comes from outside of me, and in that sense I can only receive it. I can't control it. Which to me, says something very important about God.
God is intimate, as near as my own heart beat, my own breathing, and still God is other than me. I come into the presence of God, and am fed by God in the process. God is not my thoughts, my emotions, my feelings. God is a piece of bread placed in my hand, a cup lifted to my lips received in the context of faith.