Wicked and Ungrateful
Because of the way that our vacation travel plans have panned out this past month, it had been a while since I had been able to attend a Sunday worship service. This past weekend saw us able to take a true family Sabbath. We looked up the Anglican church closest to where we were staying, gathered up and drove in for the morning service. I was eager to feel that sense of reconnection with the prayers and people of my faith tradition.
Instead, I succumbed to one of the more annoying side effects of working in the church. When you’re leading worship, you have to be constantly attentive to the many details of coordinating the leadership so that things run smoothly. And when you’re not leading worship, you’re comparing and contrasting and critiquing. (I have heard people in a range of other professions — teachers, doctors, bus drivers, musicians, waiters — describe it as similarly difficult to receive the offerings of someone else within their own field of expertise).
On this morning, my inner critic was in overdrive and my complaints were legion. The style of liturgy was not to my preference. The choice of translation for the Scripture readings was unnecessarily musty. I perceived the welcome we received at the door as cold and quiet. I was dying for a couple of great hymns to sink my teeth in (after all, where but in church do you get to open up and sing out, no matter your musical skill level?), but the music selected was hard to follow. Even for someone who leads Anglican worship routinely, this particular service was difficult to navigate, and I struggled to find the right prayers at the right times in order to assist my children with participating. At the sermon, the priest informed us that we are all “wicked and ungrateful.” I looked over worriedly to see how the kids were taking this news. “Wicked” doesn’t tend to be a word that we use to describe our characters in this era of positive affirmation.
“If you know that you are wicked and ungrateful,” the priest went on, “then I have Good News for you: God makes His sun rise on the wicked and on the good, and makes the rain fall upon the upright and the wrongdoers alike (Matthew 5:45).” Admittedly, I did know what he was driving at. When we think that we generate our own wealth, health and happiness, it can make it very difficult to notice the hand of help and healing being extended to us. It is in surrendering to the reality of my own need, the truth that I can’t and don’t go it alone, that I can receive that help (that life, love, health, strength) on offer. I longed for him to personalize his words, to be willing to model for our flock how these statements might actually become enfleshed in a human life, where he himself may have experienced them as hopeful or transformative. I found my mind drifting toward what we might plan to have for supper that night.
As it turns out, I didn’t need him to personalize his words. The nattering in my head didn’t quiet down at any point in the hour-and-a-half worship slot. My heart was hard and unyielding throughout. And yet, when it came time to receive Communion, I too was graciously invited to come up with my hands open to receive the taste of God’s promise. There were at least three points in worship where the poetry of the language I had assessed as “musty” pierced through the chinks in my armour to momentarily thrill me with their truth and beauty. There was one hymn that I knew well and got to sing out loudly, and there was another hymn I found myself humming through the rest of the day. At the door on our way out, we were greeted with the warm smiles and friendly words I had thought absent when we came in. Our kids were pleased to share in cold drinks, sweet cookies, and to be talked to as human beings by people genuinely interested in meeting and welcoming them.
Of course, everything the priest had said was true, and the words were for me too. I might have chosen a different word than “wicked,” but in hindsight it was a fair description of the state of the heart and mind I brought to worship that morning.
I was showered with God’s blessings nonetheless.