A few years ago, I answered a knock early on a Saturday morning to find a family of three at my apartment door. The husband was dressed in a severe-looking, high-collared suit. His wife stood to his left and a half-step behind, with eyes cast toward the ground. A little girl hid behind her mother’s floor-length skirt, her hair pulled back in a tight bun exactly like her mother’s.
The man introduced himself as a local pastor.
He handed me a pile of homemade brochures covered in King James Bible verses and cryptic diagrams and invited me to a special evening program at his church. Then he looked me up and down (clad as I was in the not-entirely-proper pajamas I tend to wear early on Saturdays) and said in a somber tone, “We have a lot of experience at our church with turning young women like you into good wives and mothers.”
I thanked him for the invitation and, after shutting the door, spent several minutes smiling over the thought of what he might have said if I’d admitted to being the pastor of a Mennonite church just a few miles away.
But then I sat down and read the brochures he’d handed me, cringing, snorting and occasionally scratching my head in bewilderment. I thought about the silent wife, standing meekly behind her husband’s shoulder. I thought of the precious girl-child they were forming and of the mysterious other “young women” being shaped by this church into—what? Soon my unease had ripened to disgust and a growing outrage. Who did these “foreigners” think they were, claiming to represent my Christian faith?!
Just one week later, I was at a community fundraising dinner for a local nonprofit when a family was invited onstage.
And there they were, the same couple that had come to my door, now with four older children in tow. They lined up across the platform, a parent on each end, the entire family dressed in coordinated clothes, and they sang.
My mind took up its familiar, bristling litany of outrage. But partway through the fourth song or so, a small movement caught my eye. The mother had shut her eyes and tipped her face slightly toward the sky. Then I saw her right hand lift a few inches off her skirt and her right palm open upward in a gesture of worship familiar to me.
I can’t explain what happened next, but I felt a jolt travel through my body. In a second of pure, wide-eyed clarity I recognized this woman–but not as the unsettling, vaguely offending stranger who’d stood on my doormat the week before. It was the kind of recognition you feel looking in the mirror: She was me; I was her.
How many times have I stood, I wondered, in exactly that same posture?
Too many times to count—probably even singing that same song. For a moment, I saw us as God saw us, stripped to the soul in worship. And darned if she and I didn’t look so much alike we could have been sisters—more than that, identical twins birthed from one sacred womb. I was simultaneously flooded with awe and stricken with grief and guilt—My sister, my holy, God-born sister, how is it I didn’t know you when you stood right there at my door?
I’ve spent a lot of time in recent weeks reflecting on the divisions and polarization across the Christian church.
We American Christians are collectively having a moment much like my infamous Saturday encounter. We are standing on either side of an open doorway, staring at each other. The one on the other side of the frame is inexplicable to us. Their dress is strange. Their posture is alienating. Their words and practices are foreign. We might be able to overlook it, simply shrug it off, except they are claiming some bond to our sacred story (and by extension to us and our God). It’s that uneasy realization that sits like a ball in the pit of our stomach and makes their foreignness not just an oddity but an outrage.
How do we get beyond this moment? Where do we go from here, sitting on the floor with a handful of competing pamphlets, eying each other’s “statements of faith” uncomprehendingly? What do we do when we seem to be stuck on opposite sides of the frame, with no common meeting place? It seems to me there is only one hope for the reconciliation of the church—we must return to worship.
True worship does something for us that the best conversation cannot, subject as it is to barriers of language and the limits of human perception. Worship strips us of our affectations and false identifying markers. It draws us beyond our clashing speech and our competing narratives. It is, of all human acts, the most profoundly decentering, and therein lies its liberating power. Worship helps us find our proper place at the feet of a story that none of us can own. It calls forth a vision so much larger than us and our definitions. All we can do is drop to our knees and cry out in wordless wonder.
Where we cannot see our unity, in worship we begin to touch it.
The act of worship casts us forward into our future before the throne of God. We become, if only for a moment, what we will one day be—a choir dressed in matching robes, singing the same chorus, swaying to the same Breeze, praising the same Shepherd (see Revelation 7:9-17).
It is only in the act of worship that the “tongue” of the other becomes comprehensible, because in the deepest place of worship, the language barrier is broken. We are transported, for a time, to a place where that barrier does not exist. In the presence of the Pentecost Spirit, we begin to recognize each other’s songs. In the rare air of the throne room, our ears grow sensitive enough to hear the subtle, complex harmonies being woven between us. We catch a glimpse of each other uncovered, transfigured by the light of God. And we are startled to see in the other a sliver of our own reflection—the same hunger, the same longing, the same awe and praise and hope.
Some of the Christian saints of earlier ages have spoken of a “cloud of unknowing” where all our words and concepts fail and we are left simply to behold God’s bright darkness. Those who look deeply, they tell us, will never see in the same way.
I am convinced that what our reconciliation as a church requires is not (at least, at first) more studies, meetings or councils. What we need is to spend some time together blinded by God’s radiance, lost in the cloud of worshipful unknowing.
Only then may we emerge to find we finally recognize the one we’ve been singing with. We are they, and they are we—and have been all along.
Meghan L. Good is the pastor of Albany Mennonite Church (Albany, OR) and a DMin student in “Preaching as Story” at George Fox Seminary. She blogs at mudpiegod.com.