Tuesday night I gave my first sermon in my home church. It’s a hard place to try and be a pastor. Too many people remember me as a very young, very foolish, wounded woman. Too many are not really ready to give me the benefit of the doubt. Too many remember that lowest year of my life, in 1996 and too many remember how I did not carry that burden with grace.
However, it is my home. It is where I have chosen to do my internship. I choose to serve here, knowing that in ways it would be more difficult than an ordinary internship. I choose to serve under one of my best friends, knowing that it may transform and morph our friendship into something different, perhaps less. And it has been difficult. I know too much. I know who is sleeping with whom and I know too many of the sins that they would hide. It’s been difficult because people I have known for a long time, instead of including me in the small chit-chat suddenly become silent when I enter a room.
But it is home. And I was nervous. More nervous that I think I have ever been before a sermon. I knew there would not be very many people in the congregation. It was our Longest Night service – a service of hope and healing. I planned the service around the communion and healing services in the Book of Worship, with additional music, responsive readings and scripture. I played with the themes of light and dark, and the song “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” pointing out that Advent is a dark and lonely time for many. And yet the Light shines through the darkness and there is hope, if not joy.
The sermon went very well – only one small slip of the tongue, due to my natural stutter. I felt good about the service, the music was beautiful, the flow was fabulous. I had our senior pastor sing a solo – a treat for our congregation, seeing he doesn’t believe that it is appropriate for him to sing and preach during the same service. As we moved into the Communion service, I had anticipated holding the cup, as my usual practice. However, the senior pastor passed the bread to the retired minister in our congregation and the cup to our visiting pastor, so that he and I would be available to anoint with oil and pray over those who knelt at the altar.
I suppose in retrospect, it was the most expedient thing to do, but it was certainly out of my comfort zone. I have done it many times before – and never really been comfortable. It is hard and exhausting work. I never feel sufficient to the task. I feel a charlatan, an imposter to stand in front of someone, lay hands on them and pray when I cannot pray for myself – or even worse, to pray to God when I don’t know that I even believe in God. These moments of agnosticism come and go and I know that they are tied up in the image I have of God being father and conflating my earthly father with my heavenly father. Yet, these moments during the healing service seem to be potent moments.
I had prepared the oil the night before, infusing it with frankincense and myrrh and adding a generous amount of cosmetic gold glitter. The smell of frankincense and myrrh stir powerful emotions in me, as I had smoothed a lotion of gold, frankincense and myrrh on my mother’s skin just a few hours before she died. My senior pastor handed me a small goblet that glittered in the candlelight and I mentally prepared myself for the task at hand.
For the next ten minutes, people that I know and love come to the rail after they receive communion. I dip my finger into the oil and bring it forth, glittering with oil and gold. I raise the hair in their forehead and trace a cross with my index finger. I hold their head between my hands and put my forehead on theirs and we pray. Most of the time they cry. Most of the time, I cry. I know these people and I know their pain. It resonates in me and my soul vibrates with it. I pray in short sentences, never seeming to get enough air. Even though I have composed prayers in the past, and have read the service of healing just in the last day, the prayers slip from my conscious mind and I hope what is said and prayed is useful. After a couple of minutes, I don’t hear the music, I lose track of time and I become warm. In fact, it is the one thing that I remember the most vividly – this encompassing warmth and the gold glow from the candles. After the music ends and the last person has returned to their pew, I feel weak and washed out and I return to my chair as well.
I wonder why I cannot embrace this task with the same vigor I embrace my other tasks. Why is this so uncomfortable for me? Why is there no comfort in it for me?