Take Me to Church 5/12/19: Setting the Table

Photo: pepe nero on Unsplash

I was at church for five-and-a-half hours today, the kind of numbers a congregant usually puts up in a tradition pretty different from that of Judson.  But there was a lot going on today, and as the ancient testimonies reminded me this morning, I’ve become a bit of a Martha at church after spending my first few years as a Mary.  There’s nothing wrong with taking either position—in one of my favorite sermons of Donna’s, she invited us to consider the ways in which we both “host” and “guest” at church.  I came back to church in my late twenties after a lot of “hosting” in my everyday life, and I was relieved to have a space in which I was free to be a “guest.”  These days I’m a lot more of a “host”—hence five-and-a-half hours at church.

I showed up just after nine to rehearse a song with Henco, Jeff Tweedy’s “You Are Not Alone” as performed by Mavis Staples (the show was pretty fresh in my mind when Henco asked me for song ideas, obviously).  I’m always happy to sing songs I really love, but then there’s always the crippling doubt when you love something too much: can I do it justice, can I reach people with it the same way the original can?  I want to give the people something, and I know how much music means to people at Judson, how much it shapes their experience and invites them to come back.  Here is my Martha coming out: how can I set a table, especially when I’m singing for the prelude that asks folks to settle in, enter an attitude of prayer or worship or mindfulness or equanimity, at which the people can bring themselves to partake of what’s on offer?

Then, multiply that concern by a dozen or so on any given Sunday, and you get our choir, musicians parting with a precious hour of sleep on Sunday mornings to roll up by nine-thirty, travel mugs and on-the-go mini-quiches in hand, and rehearse a repertoire that’s grown by leaps and bounds since Henco joined us.  More Marthas: brewing the coffee, marking up the scores, stressing the right consonants at the right times so the lyrics of the songs don’t get swallowed up in the cavernous Meeting Room.

A Mary moment: I left my breakfast at home in my haste to get out the door, and Dakota fetched me a bacon-egg-and-cheese from the bodega down the street (not, it should be noted, from Irving Farm, which is closer but sells its breakfast sandwiches for NINE DOLLARS).  In the half-hour between choir and the beginning of the service, in which I was convinced I was going to murder such a beautiful song, I nevertheless got to sit still and enjoy a delicious sandwich and the fact that I have a husband who goes on food runs for me.

The heart of the day was still the service itself: the singing (because it’s Judson, that means both “Now Thank We All Our God” and “I Just Called to Say I Love You”); the testimonies from both the Gospel of Luke and Adrienne Rich; the sermon, in which we reflected on our Mary and Martha natures; the prayers, in which we remembered our harm reduction ministry and prayed for our ordinands and sent good energy to Mary for her biopsy this week.  And during the sermon, no matter what else is happening that day, I accepted, as I always do, the invitation to be a Mary: to sit at the feet of the texts and the inspirations for them and just think, wonder, take the occasional note.  I thought today about Jesus’s own Mary and Martha natures, about the wedding at Cana when he surely wanted to be a Mary but was called on to be a Martha.  And how he responded, with both strength and generosity.

And then it was time for Judson Discovery, in which we invite those curious about membership to learn more about Judson and reflect on their spiritual journeys.  Dakota and I have been members for a long time now, but we’re there to represent the Membership Committee, and it’s been wonderful to get to know the prospective members better and also think about my own spiritual journey and where I am in it these days.  I showed up to these sessions and shared what I can about Judson and my own journey, and I was a Martha; I listened to everyone else’s stories, and to Hastings’s funny and frank and insightful retellings of Judson lore, and I was a Mary again.  And then it was two-thirty again, and it was five-and-a-half hours at church, and it was time to go.

In thinking about how to end this piece, I thought again of weddings, of how one can be too concerned about setting the table. Setting a beautiful table is a beautiful thing.  And it’s important to note that Jesus doesn’t scold or shame Martha for wanting a beautiful table; he only invites her to see what else is on offer, to keep things in perspective, to not fail to notice the different example Mary sets.  I don’t want folks to come to a table that doesn’t feel composed or welcoming; I don’t want to set a table for everyone else and forget to eat myself.  The flourishing space and self allows room for both.  I’m grateful to have that space in my life in the form of Judson and the community I have there; the work that remains is to create more of those spaces, both within and without.







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