As a young pastor, one of my favorite aspects of the week was preparing for worship. This took the form of reading and studying God’s word and preparing a sermon. It also took collaborating with our music team to choose hymns and songs that would bring God’s people to a place of reflection and engagement. But there was another aspect of preparing for the physical place of worship that became a part of my week.
Since I was raised Southern Baptist, I was never introduced to paraments and the liturgical seasons in their fullness until I became a pastor. Preparing for worship often was changing out paraments on the pulpit and altar table, finding the same colored stole to drape over my robe in preparation for Sunday worship, and walking the sanctuary looking for spare coffee cups, Bibles or pens that had been accidentally left behind. All of this was preparing the physical space as well as preparing myself by praying for those who would enter and what they would bring with them: their concerns, their joys, and their griefs. As I moved around the sanctuary I learned I was actually preparing the space to hold sanctuary for all that would enter in on Sunday morning. In each of the churches I’ve served, I’ve had some form of this practice as part of my preparation for Sunday worship. It’s something I’ve done since my first days of teaching where I would do the same straightening the desks and recentering the reading rug. Preparing the physical space often opened room in my heart and mind for whatever came that day.
I can remember in my first official church job when I was a new preacher, I would sneak into the sanctuary in the dark and quiet to practice my sermon. I would walk up the stairs and into the holy desk trying to overcome all the voices in my head that told me I didn’t belong there, that this wasn’t a space as a woman I was supposed to take up. I needed this time to stand and be in the space of the pulpit. I needed to look up and look out. I needed to read the words the Spirit and I had prepared and feel how those words felt in the space. This preparation allowed me time to reflect and ponder whether the words were my own or were a message from God for God’s people.
This behind the scenes preparation was one of the aspects of being called that I fell in love with. There was something so sacred and so mystical about the experience that whispered to deep really important work. I knew in those first few days that this work of preparing space would be one of the most important things I did as a minister.
In the course of my ministry, I have preached, taught, and been present in so many different places: hospital rooms, apartments, houses, churches, churches that don’t look like churches, a salon that is slowly being renovated to be a church, retreat centers, beaches, mountains, porches, pool decks, docks, grocery stores, coffee shops, fellowship halls, and every week in the homeless shelter here in Columbia, SC. I don’t always get to do a walkthrough of the space. I don’t always get a week of preparation or any preparation before I am called on to be God’s presence to one of God’s people.
Whatever space I find myself in I know that part of my calling is preparing the place where God will encounter God’s people. Perhaps this groundwork is the most important work we do as ministers and pastors. In the midst of all that is going on in our culture and in the lives of God’s people, perhaps this preparation in silence and solitude is the work God’s people need the most. Perhaps the message that God’s people are craving is not the answers to theological conundrums or political debates, but rather that there is a place and space for you to come and be with God.