I wrote this February 20, 2009 at the age of 49 when I was in my final year at Yale Divinity School.
I tried very hard to fail Yale Divinity School’s daily chapel service and you can too. I chatted and walked in like I would to any other chapel service, but this one was different. My name was in the bulletin and I had other duties than just being present. I sat on the front row so I would not need to climb over any one when I made my way to the lectern. Don’t make a scene I told myself! I glanced at the order of worship and saw “Prelude” and “Introit.” I did not know the difference between a Prelude and an Introit because I was musically and liturgically challenged. I thought that the song the chapel minister taught us was the Introit, because I didn’t look at the words clearly printed on the bulletin. Had I been sitting on any other row and had no worship responsibilities, I would have realized what was going on but…
I marched right up to the podium and with my best church voice I confidently read the Leader portion and the People portion of the Call to Worship as if I knew exactly what I was doing. I was feeling pretty cocky and confident when I finished, because I hadn’t mangled a word or lost my place. My way over 40 year old eyes had worked pretty well without reading glasses. Good job! I said to myself. WRONG! WRONG! WRONG! WRONG! I was out of order, not the legal ‘out of order,’ but out of liturgical order which was much worse in my mind. I had done this in a room full of my friends…
The Introit was supposed to be sung BEFORE I read the Call to Worship. The Marquand Chapel Director and Choir had to patiently sit and wonder what exactly I was doing, as did the rest of the students and professors. Then the chapel minister smoothed over my poor timing with some sort of direction to the congregation that the Introit would be next and the strangest thing happened: no one was looking at me during the Introit. The service was not about me and my faux pas. People had their eyes closed or their heads bowed and the worship proceeded. I was not capable of keeping God out of the chapel!
Now I’m much too evangelical and washed in the blood of guilt to let myself off the hook that easily. I knew that I could still turn the whole service into a disaster by saying or doing something wrong during the Lord’s Supper/Holy Communion/Eucharist (Christians use different terms) at which I was serving for the first time in my life. I had gone through about a 15-minute explanation the previous day but this wasn’t the service I was use to. I had numerous questions because I am a low church, evangelical Baptist in a high church, tradition-packed divinity school. Baptists consume the elements at the same time but most other denominations do not and the pastor reads either Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:17-20 and, Matthew 14:22-24 and the process goes something like this. Deacons (usually men chosen by a small group of men) pass silver plates of unleavened wafers as you would pass an offering plate through the congregation. Each congregant holds the wafer in her hand and waits for the whole congregation to receive their bread. Then the pastor reads:
22 While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Mark 14:22
Then we all eat the wafer at the same time. Deacons return to the Lord’s Table, to receive a large silver tray filled with small pre-poured plastic cups filled with grape juice. Always grape juice! The same process is followed in distributing and consuming the juice. Then the pastor says:
23Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. 24 He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Mark 14:23-24
There is an sound specific to empty, plastic communion cups being put in the wood cup holders in the backs of each pew that I’ve never heard in any other environment. It echoes.
So you can see I was not working from muscle memory during the chapel service. As we prepared for Communion I was cemented to my seat. I wasn’t making a move until I saw the other servers coming to the front. I was going to do this right! I walked forward, didn’t trip, and received my basket of bread without dropping it. So far so good.
I still hadn’t settled on the right words to use as I served each person. My mind was flooded with possible words. As I stood with my basket of bread I heard myself speaking as I looked into the first person’s eyes, “The body of Christ broken for you.” Each time that I said those words, “The body of Christ broken for you,” I felt like a gift was given to me, the gift of service. I felt my very Italian eyes start to well-up, but I kept it together.
Serving others is all about you and not about you at all…. I not only heard, but I also felt the power and the presence of those words. I held my basket filled with Christ’s symbolic body and waited for the other servers to finish…and then the singing began. I was present as the servers served each other.
All was well with my soul!
Executive Director of Grant Me The Wisdom Foundation
Partner, Mcleod Sears LLC