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The Rev. Peter W. Marty The Rev. Peter Marty

The Rev. Peter Marty is senior pastor of St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Davenport, IA. He is the publisher of The Christian Century magazine.

Member of:

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Representative of:

St. Paul Lutheran Church, Davenport, IA


Dr. Peter Marty: Elements of the Lord's Day: Getting Situated

August 10, 2012

Entering church, finding your place are part of the wonder of worship

Entering a church for the umpteenth time, one knows the routine. Familiar faces abound. Navigating the space is as easy as walking around your own kitchen. Even the smell of the entryway lends its own cozy hello. 

Entering a church for the first time is a different story. One mostly wants to blend in. The air doesn't feel as fresh or inviting as it does to "a regular."

Seriously introverted guests know the best strategy of all. They show up as close to the start of worship as possible. This way the risk of social awkwardness drops off dramatically.

If you arrive too early, you have to try to look comfortable. Or you could poke around for the restroom. The restroom has always been a clever hangout for killing time, at least for those who discovered as much at their first homecoming dance in high school. 

Locating a seat inside the sanctuary is embarrassing for some people, yet entirely routine for others. You may have your own theory for why the seats in the back fill up first. My own sneaking suspicion is that people fear a shocking blast of holiness will overwhelm their circulatory system if they sit too far forward. Do you have an automated external defibrillator nearby? You should.

Regardless of what holiness does to heart rhythm, there is one thing every worshiper seems to contemplate, however subconsciously. It is seat comfort. You don't expect the luxury of a leather recliner. Yet you hope for something more than the wooden bench of the Little League dugout across the street.

In many sanctuaries, chairs seem to be the choice over pews these years, at least when it comes to flexibility. We all love a seat to call our own. I might cast a vote of compassion, however, for every custodian who has to mop around all those individual chair legs.

As for pews, they have their own goodness, reinforcing a kind of unavoidable community. Like sharing a picnic table bench with your second cousin at the family reunion this summer, you may not be close but you still have no choice than to sit beside someone very different from you. So goes the body of Christ.

Sizing up an actual worship space is something we all do. Our eyes absorb everything in sight. In readying ourselves for the glories of praise, we wonder when that fluorescent bulb on the left side of the backlit cross burned out. We try to picture the old guy who crafted the varnished oak hymn board. We marvel at the old stained glass, imagining who Alice Simmons was. Her name is at the bottom of the nearest window. We await the talent and tempo of the pianist. If there is a projection screen, we're curious if today's "techie" will be sharp with the cursor and mouse.

As a single mom three rows forward wrestles her body in between her two quarreling boys, you bury your head into the bulletin announcements. 

When the music begins, something beautiful happens inside your head. The clock that ordered your life so seriously for the last six days refuses to tick. The seat you are in feels like cool water in the desert. You don't have a perfect definition for peace, but this comes close.

Even if your life is something of a mess, you know you belong. You are home again. You get to relax into a community of people cobbled together by an oddity called grace and a power called the Spirit.

Even the wet hair on the woman in front of you is a sign. You know you are not alone in having scrambled to make it in the door.

Words of confession open this day's liturgy. You look down, ready to recite phrases that acknowledge your sin. That's when you notice a Cheerio on the pew. A twinge of guilt tugs on your throat muscles as you forget about your sins and start wondering what cute kid left that single Cheerio behind.

Suddenly it dawns on you that God must be open to even the most distracted worshiper. You relax back into the words. Worship is under way.

Taken by permission from the August issue of The Lutheran magazine. TheLutheran.org


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