Late for church, I grab my umbrella from the passenger seat and run up the steps to the sanctuary, and just as I suspected, Dan is ushering. He comes to church only when it is too rainy to sail.
“My girl!” he tries to maintain a whisper, but I haven’t seen him in a month of sunny Sundays. The congregation is in the middle of the first hymn, eyes to the front, so Dan throws his arms open for an embrace. When I whisper, “I miss you!” he lifts me up off my feet and shakes me. I worry when he picks me up off the ground—Dan is eighty this year, and I may actually weigh more than him. I step back and scruff up his beard, then mosey on over to the very back pew.
I haven’t sat in the back since last summer—I’m normally in the second pew on the right, where my children can see the organist and I can enjoy the breeze from the little window, where Scott is usually waiting for me. But summer is different. With no children’s programs, Scott and I each attend a worship service solo: he takes the eight a.m. and I take the ten a.m. The children enjoy the break, and they’ll be begging for church by September.
My priest told me once that my face looks different when I come to worship alone, and this doesn’t surprise me. “Reverie” is the word that comes to mind: my spirit ranges far and wide, and I can sing happily, unencumbered. It’s not like I don’t pay attention: I pay attention to what I need. I listen carefully to the sermon, while knitting a new pair of socks for my son. I listen better with my hands engaged, ears and heart flying. I curl up in the pew and lose myself.
I first attended Episcopal worship in a cathedral, and one day a friend visited with me. The place was big enough that one wrong turn after communion sent her wandering all over the building, trying to find her way back. When the dean of the cathedral asked her what she thought of the service, shaking hands at the door, she replied, sheepishly, “I got lost!”
“That’s the beauty of worship with the prayer book,” he said. “When you come back, you’ll know where to find us.” He was speaking profoundly. She nodded and didn’t have the heart to tell him she was not speaking metaphorically, but was actually physically lost. Nonetheless, the most refreshing way for me to approach worship, these days, is to lose myself. When I come back, I know where to find myself, it’s just as true as he said.
I realize, these summer Sundays, how much I anticipate and fill my family’s needs, how I am always fending off the next disaster with an activity, a hankie, a snack, a stick of gum—any preventative measure that might allow me quiet in my pew. Worship in summer, in contrast, is like breathing, like yoga, like a good walk, clearing all the clutter for one hour of listening, singing, prayer.
With the next hymn, I stand up and walk over to sing with Dan—his eyesight is dwindling. He can no longer read the hymnal, and it frustrates him. I know I remember words better with someone singing next to me. It's not mere generosity: he has a beautiful baritone, and he sings harmony. He chuckles at my dancing lilt—I can hardly stand still singing my favorites.
“Can you help me?” he asks.
“Just name it.” I say.
“Usher with me? It’s a two person job.”
Now, I teach church school, and I occasionally read scriptures in the service. I have sung solos, played guitar in worship. I have made truly obnoxious announcements. One day ten years ago, I arrived to serve as a reader and chalice bearer, and ended up carrying the processional cross, too—I joked that I would not give the sermon without prior notice, though I have done that, too. But I have never, ever been a church usher.
I think briefly of the huge Presbyterian church I once attended, with its phalanx of ushers in matching suits and ties, a precision drill team of ushers, and I swallow nervously. But this is just our little Episcopal church in a sleepy tourist town, on a rainy day. “Okay,” I answer. “You got it. Just tell me what to do.”
I see my mistake accepting this role when Dan tugs on my sleeve to pass the offering plates—wait, where is my mind? If I’m going to be an usher, I will have to switch on that sense of what-comes-next, that need-o-meter. Minutes later, we walk up the aisle with the bread and wine, and I slow when he slows—then I realize he is slowing to allow me to pass through the handrails first, rather than to squeeze us both awkwardly through. So I have to start up again. Do I reverence the altar, or not? I am watching, watching. This is no fun.
And then comes the next blow: I realize that the usher’s job is to be unobtrusive, to allow others to remain quietly attentive to God’s voice. But wait! Obtrusive affection is practically my job at this church! Unobtrusive means I can’t wink at the teenagers from my Sunday school class, or thread my arm through the arm of my octogenarian friends. I can’t reach over and mess up Lourdes’ choir music, as I’ve probably done every Sunday for a year. “Watch for trippers,” says Dan as I stand at the bottom of the steps, and I’m watching. Olive smiles at me when I climb up and help her, but everyone else avoids eye contact as if I might label them as “tottering.” Decorum, phooey!
I survive until the end of the service and then go douse my frustration in two cups of coffee and one three-month-old baby, borrowed from a young woman who needs to give her arms a break. The baby boy’s head is tucked under my chin, where I can’t see him, and everyone tells me he is smiling. I walk him around to show my octogenarians, one by one, to kiss them on the cheeks lest they think I’ve turned cold. I go flirt with Dan and harass my teenagers, and introduce a two-year-old named Noah to every adult in the room, merely so he will stop removing all the bibles from the bookshelves. I stay for an hour to talk with Althea—she came back from brunch just to catch up with me. My priest reminds me that we all speak very loudly after a conversation with Althea, whose hearing is a challenge. I confess to her, quietly this time, that I will never be an usher again. She just smiles and nods, “I was a little surprised to see you back there. I guess that means I don’t have to scold you and tell you and Dan to be a little quieter next time.”
I guess I’m not so good at being unobtrusive, which is fine with me: who wants unobtrusive? There are so many good ways to be involved in the church, but for me, ushering is definitely off the list. I make a plan for next Sunday: I will come early, sit in a place where no one expects or needs me, and be a different kind of unobtrusive, a disappearing kind of unobtrusive, until all the volunteer roles are filled. Then I'm going to get really, really lost.