This essay was featured on the Episcopal Divinity School blog established for progressive theology and critical thinking to transform the world.
You speak in my heart and say, “Seek my face.”
Your face, Lord, will I seek
You have been my helper;
Cast me not away; do not forsake me,
O God of my salvation.
Though my father and mother forsake me,
The Lord will sustain me.
I open myself to wherever I am taken in this hour that I do not clock, and do not care if it becomes 80 minutes or more. I’m out of chronos time for a little while.
The entrance hymn begins. I turn and watch the approach of the acolytes carrying the cross, the candles, and waving banners. I hear the strong voices of choir members passing by and see and hear our pastoral leaders singing their way into the sanctuary. My whole self is caught up in the symbolic drama enacted down that aisle every Sunday. I often cannot sing the entire hymn because of tears.
During my first year at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, I took the Collect for Purity home and memorized it. I felt there was something in it that I needed.
“Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord.”
When my husband Cecil and I had moved to Pasadena in 2008 we were familiar with All Saints Church and I was drawn to join this church by the uniquely inclusive congregation and by the worship, which moved me in ways I did not understand. I only knew it met a deep inner need. On Sunday mornings at All Saints I experienced resting in God, who saw my open heart and the secret desires held there; who knew them in a way I did not yet know them. My heart told me I needed this place where I could relinquish control and let myself be carried into sacred space.
On a recent Sunday, speaking with Cecil about my experience over three years now at the church, I heard myself saying that during worship I was able to feel vulnerable. Vulnerable. It was as though God had let me know the secret God had seen in my heart all along: my deep longing to be able to trust others, and to trust that God was there, and would be there in the multitude of ways God becomes present.
Family dysfunctions during childhood can rob us of the gift of vulnerability, the gift that we can trust others to care for us as children, and that we can trust that the grown-ups will take care of themselves. Growing up trusting grown-ups is a way we learn to trust God. I missed that.
By the age of ten, it was fixed in my mind that I should trust only myself. Others might help, but I couldn’t depend on them. These childhood ways of coping get set and years later, when all the people those coping strategies were about are gone, the strategies may continue.
God heard as I prayed the Collect each Sunday and God knew I desired to let go of the anxiety of trying to cover all the bases and plan ahead for every exigency.
I love kneeling at the rail, holding out my hands to receive the bread. It is a bodily act of vulnerability. Every week I get to practice trust before God and others. Kneeling, I hold out my hands and the portion I need is given to me. And during this act, hundreds of voices carry my spirit, just as my voice helps carry the spirit of others as they go to the rail.
God meets us as we are, complicated human beings with complex brains. I may need to kneel with hands out and receive the bread a thousand times before all those old brain connections turn off and new ones are made. I may need a thousand times of passing the peace before my whole self knows that when all those pew-mates turn to take my hand or give me an embrace I’m truly offered God’s peace in their presence. My practice is to receive it. Every future exigency is not in my hands alone.
Sometimes tears fill my eyes as we pray the post-communion prayer: “…you have fed us with spiritual food…Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage…through Christ our Lord.” I feel fed and cared for and, with Christ’s help, prepared to take the shelter of the sanctuary with me in my heart for another week of seeking God’s presence in the world, and bringing it.
* Pat Hoffman has written books and articles on the church's need to be with the marginalized in movements toward justice. For permission to reprint, contact her at pathoffman.com.