Since retiring a year and a half ago, I am no longer leading worship every week. Nor am I worshiping in the same church every Sunday. I had thought that one of the blessings of retirement might be the opportunity to worship in a variety of sacred spaces, churches large and small, Reformed and not so reformed. My first few weeks of worship in new places brought some disappointment.

Things began well enough. I first went to a large downtown church where I was warmly welcomed by a few folks who recognized me from previous occasions. The preaching was solid that day, and the music soared. Magnificent new pipe organ. A large choir conducted by a professor of choral music at a fine local college. The flow of the service was almost straight from the denomination’s Book of Common Worship, but with enough slight departures to indicate that the church had made some thoughtful choices appropriate to its unique identity. All was well that Sunday, and I worshiped God comforted by wondrous music, and discomforted (enough) by a challenging sermon.

Things kind of fell apart after that. I next visited a church in a small village a few miles up the road from where we lived at the time. The service was allegedly “post-modern.” Sport-jacketed pastor emceeing. The call to worship reminded me of a weather report: “Well, good morning, everybody! Good weather today, huh? A little breezy, but still nice and warm out there. Welcome to our worship time. Do we have any birthdays to celebrate this week?” Or, something like that. And I referred to this next thing in a previous entry. The worship center was filled with technological artifacts scattered about. A projection screen thrown up there, amps and speakers piled there, and, for the praise choir,  mike stands erected like miniature radio towers in the choir loft.

Cartoon-ish graphics danced on the projection screen, even during the sermon. But I’ve sufficiently critiqued that service before. Suffice it to say that I worshiped notwithstanding the paraphernalia of post-modernism. I still caught a glimpse of the Spirit, but left let down. Different strokes, they say.

My next experience took me to another well-established larger church, a congregation that had years ago escaped an aging building downtown and built something modern in the well-to-do suburbs. As I expected, though the church was not of my denomination, the service was similar to those I was accustomed to. The musicianship of choir and accompaniment was outstanding, and the proclamation of the word showed evidence of prayerful study and thoughtful writing. The sermon was well-preached, I thought. And one could not miss the elements of social justice and loving compassion that were prompted by the ancient scriptures. But here’s the thing I remember most about that Sunday. No one spoke to me during my time there that morning. No one.

Now, I don’t go to worship in order to be greeted. My primary focus isn’t on quick chats or friendly conversation with the people with whom I worship. But one would think that some sign of hospitality and welcome would help prepare both the visitor and the host for worshiping the God who shows such welcome to us. An “official” greeter stationed at the front door would have helped, even if the rest of the congregation was too busy to catch one’s eye, to mutter or smile a hello, or to otherwise acknowledge the stranger entering the sanctuary, or leaving it. Maybe everyone thought I was a member who usually attended the early service. Oh, wait. There was no early service. (I wonder if God shrugs…?)

Now, I did go back there on another Sunday. And that week, the pastor greeted me and introduced me around to some other folk. People were friendlier. And my worship was a happier offering.

I could go on (as you know, if you are a regular reader here). But I want to write about where I am most at home with fellow worshipers. It is  where all the elements of true worship come together for me personally.  In many respects, Thomas Wolfe was right: you can’t go home again. But then again…

I have moved back to my hometown. Very close to it, anyway. And the church where I first worshiped, where I was nurtured in faith and led to ministry, is just a fifteen minute drive from my home. I had left that church for college in 1962, returning only infrequently until my ordination service there in 1969. I think I may have visited just two or three times in subsequent years, until I retired here in 2008. One Sunday I decided to “go home again.”

I parked my car in front of the big yellow house where I grew up. I walked across the street to my home church, and entered the front door. And I was at home, in worship, at home. Much had changed over the years, of course. A church that doesn’t change has died. There had been some alteration of the sanctuary: new pews, a 70s-style modification of the organ chamber design, and the choir was sitting in a “loft” on the right instead of the left hand side. Minor things.

But there, in a pew about half-way down the side aisle was Mrs. Bombard, one of the adult advisers to the senior high youth group when I was in school. She was quite frail in physique, but her wit was intact. I recognized a few other elderly folk there that morning, people who hadn’t been elderly when I had gone off to college, and then seminary in the 1960s. There were people from my childhood paper route, and some folks who still remembered my parents and some of my siblings. As I looked around, I saw that numbers were down, but there were new faces, too, and several children. The organ prelude began, and a lay person led the call to worship.

I remember being impressed by two things that first morning back: the music and the pastor. The choir was made up of veterans, that is, older folks. But their voices were strong, and harmonies on the mark. In subsequent months, I’ve come to appreciate the varied repertoire of this dedicated group and its talented director. The mix of traditional and more contemporary music is very appropriate for this older congregation and its newer, younger members.  Nothing rocks, exactly, except for some spirited spirituals. We’re not talking about music in the style of TV jingles, but some of the anthems have a modern, if tame, sound. The organist is very competent, and the choir director is a pro at both choosing and directing the music.

And the pastor. What a gem she is. Early on, I heard references to Iona resources in the liturgy, as well as preaching that showed sensitivity to both text and congregation. Her leadership in the pulpit is pastoral, caring, and for the most part gentle. And her sermons — well, they sound as if I had written them. Does that sound ego-centered on my part? Or, just appreciative of the homiletical content and  preaching style.  She writes. She writes well. About the second time I visited that home church of mine, I thought to myself, How do we get the word out to the whole neighborhood that this pastor is here, and here for them? And that they will find food for their souls in her ministry among them?

The recent Wednesday evening Lenten series is a shining example of honoring liturgical tradition while stretching the congregation into new experiences. Each week we worshiped with a different musical genre: music by the bell choir one week, the youth choir the next, and guitar-led praise another week. There was jazz by pianist Bill Carter (of the Presbybop Quartet) and sax-man Al Hamme. Another week the church’s adult choir sang, and the whole series had opened on Ash Wednesday with meditative music from Taize. Each week, the pastor spoke briefly about a particular form of prayer, such as the prayer of examen or using music as prayer. These evening services were held in candle light,  followed by a light supper which added to our sense of fellowship.

You see: at home, in worship, at home. I realize that this whole experience might have turned out to be quite disappointing. I might have gone home to that old church only to find that it bore no resemblance to the sacred place where my parents worshiped while dating, where they were married and where I was baptized, attended Sunday School, was confirmed, and ordained to ministry. The church and I might have chosen two very different paths, but here we were in convergence after decades apart. I am blessed.

I’m not there every week. I have invitations to lead worship in other places, and I like to honor my wife’s gifted ministry of music in her church family now and then, too. But my church home is where my heart is, where my worship is deepest, and where the child in me still finds nurture.

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