On a recent Sunday I was doing pulpit supply at one of our many mildly historic Reformed churches (RCA) in upstate New York. This one, typically, is at the center of its village, and it has a large and handsome sanctuary, with the usual two centuries’ worth of accretions: electricity, carpeting, flags, and stained glass windows. Not to my liking, it also has an overly lavish sound system with many microphones and speakers, but this did prove useful for broadcasting during Covid.
During Covid the congregation suspended children’s sermons. But on this Sunday I was wishing I had prepared one, because there was a lively bunch of kids in church. I tried to think of one, quick. As the lector read the lessons I studied the windows — large ones, quite well done, with two of Jesus and two of angels. I thought about gathering the kids in front of that Behold I Stand at the Door and Knock window and seeing what developed. Then I noticed that both angels and both of the Jesuses had bare feet. Aha! Start from that! But too late, the Gospel lesson was done, and it was time to preach.
Driving home I wished that I had brought the children forward, observed the four windows, taken off our shoes and socks, and then walked barefoot up onto the chancel and the pulpit. I would have had them wonder why the angels and Jesus were barefoot. I’d have left it at that. No moral, no other “lesson,” because I don’t know why they are barefoot, and that’s the doorway. I could have told them that Muslims take off their shoes and wash their feet before they enter the mosque, but that would have been a distraction. Let them imagine with bare feet.
At home I remembered Thomas Boogaart’s comment on this blog that morning, May 9, responding to Katie Alley’s post, God in our Senses: Touch. He suggested why Moses had to go barefoot before the Lord God in Exodus 3. Was that in the back of my mind when I noticed the figures in the glass?
I really had no larger awareness of what Boogaart raised, however. I was thinking more that children enjoy the feeling of bare feet in church — a little exposed, less guarded, less protected, physically connected. They’d feel for the first time the texture of that churchly carpeting, and then the old bare planking under their pews. They’d feel their tippy-toes as I’d let them peer out over the pulpit rail. What else might they feel, unshod in the House of God? If it were my preference, our sanctuaries would have no carpeting at all, but old wood and hard tile and cool stone beneath our feet, echoing joyfully whenever a kid dropped a pencil from the pew.
Of course, I would not have done this without checking with their parents first, and been prepared to scrap it. But at the same time I regret how rarely our children experience the world beneath their feet — the softness of grass, the hardness of rock, the dirtiness of dirt. We serve the gods of safety and hygiene. I remember a Brooklyn Parent magazine in which a doctor advised never letting your children go outside without shoes on.
When you do children’s sermons, don’t always do “object lessons,” but rather help the children enjoy some actual objects. Let them feel the weight of the silver Communion pitcher and pass it around like the Stanley Cup. Make a Montessori-style children’s sermon of them setting the Communion Table. Bring in the Baptismal Register and let them find their names. Have them pour water into the font and splash their fingers in it, and let them get wet. Let them practice baptizing themselves, repeating the Name of the Holy Trinity. Show them how you mix the fragrance into the anointing oil, and, starting with yourself, anoint them all. Don’t be stingy with the oil. Have them anoint themselves. Teach them how to kneel. Have them raise their hands and give benedictions. Let them race down the aisle and back. You can find scripture quotations to go with all of these actions. Have them pass out peppermints from the offering plates. (You can buy Wilhelminas individually wrapped.) For the sake of the children, do all these seriously and even solemnly, resisting the expectation to be funny, although if something funny happens, do enjoy it.
From kindergarten to sixth grade I attended Lutheran school, where we had chapel twice a week. I got imprinted like a baby duck. Monday morning Matins and Friday afternoon Vespers were in the church next door, which smelled of incense. We marched in, bowed to the altar one by one, slid into our pews, and lowered our wooden kneelers for prayer. Eventually I learned to cross myself at the Name of the Holy Trinity (which apparently did not bother my parents). I still prefer to do these things in church, and include my body when I pray. I admire how physical is Muslim prayer. I find it very spiritual. What is the special set of physical expressions appropriate to Christian worship?
In my Brooklyn congregation we tested the hypothesis that the more physical the worship, the more spiritual it feels. I cannot prove the hypothesis, but we got plenty of positive comments to confirm it, especially from visitors. The foundation was simply weekly Eucharist, and how it’s done: real bread, a single loaf fully broken, common cups, the people always up front, usually in a circle, although from Lent to Pentecost walking to stations with an optional kneeling station (which the kids always chose), and giving out blessings, especially to children.
For the rest of the service we stood much more than Protestants are used to. We anointed with oil for confirmations, membership transfers, consistory ordinations, blessings, prayer requests, farewells (we served a high turnover neighborhood), and at healing stations during the Easter Season. Our choreographer, an elder, taught us a simple upper-body dance for the Lord’s Prayer. She led us in processions on holidays.
We were no high church Anglicans — we were looser and even modest in our physicality, and yet we had some Quakers who demurred, and some Presbyterians who hesitated before joining in. It’s asking a lot of people who are trained a certain way. But our young families and spiritual seekers had no doubts, and our homeless members were all in.
The more physical the worship, the more spiritual it feels (not the more spiritual it “is,” which is a different issue). It is no news to you that far too long we have equated “spiritual” with “non-physical,” and we Calvinists are the worst offenders, not least from opposition to Roman Catholic idolatry.
Now it must be said that the Belgic Confession has a higher view of the sacraments than people expect. What I mean by “higher” is more miraculous, that an actual “wonder” takes place in the “sign”. But even the Belgic Confession, following Calvin, teaches that the sacraments are given to us by God because of “our infirmity and weakness” (Article 33). As if, ideally, we shouldn’t need them. As if they are medicinal, to be dispensed with minimal physical expression, and no enjoyment.
Immersed in our Western approach to spirituality, we read the Belgic to confirm that the real work of salvation takes place in our heads. And for other historical reasons (the legacy of the Roman Mass) we missed understanding the Supper as first and foremost Eucharist. We missed that it is Thanksgiving before the other valid meanings taught by Calvin and our Confessions. Without denying those meanings (“On the night he was betrayed”), a prior emphasis on Thanksgiving opens up the Supper to enjoyment and embodiment. And to children, by the way.
Now I am the first to admit the virtues of a sunlit Puritan meeting-house or a classic Dutch church interior. They can be as spiritual as Zen gardens. I recognize the profound spiritual movement that a Pietist sermon can direct within the mind while the body sits unmoved. But this requires, like Zen, some amount of training, discipline, and enculturation. So for the purposes of mission I have no doubt that our worship needs to be more embodied (and I do not mean electronically). We need to welcome more use of what my friend Josh calls our “meat-bodies” in church.
Of course we can’t not be embodied, even when we sit still. The question is how much we enjoy and express our bodies, and find ways to do that naturally, organically, and biblically. Like in how we use the water, wine, and bread. Like kneeling. Like being barefoot. Like incense. Like having our music come directly from raw instruments of wood and string and metal pipes, instead of speakers—and that for human voices too, raw and breathy and unamplified. Maybe less thrilling but more spiritual. Honest.
St. Paul writes in Romans 12: “I entreat you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, that you offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Or should those last two words be “reasonable service”? How do we translate “tén logikén latreian”? The unruly connection between bodies, worship, spirit, and reason is at play here, and it’s hard to stuff into words. But apparently it’s reasonable and spiritual to offer your bodies in worship. Your meat-bodies. Your feet and toes.
This is not only for mission’s sake. This is fully to honor the Holy Trinity. (Here I must reference Eugene F. Rogers Jr., After the Spirit: A Constructive Pneumatology from Resources outside the Modern West). The Holy Spirit inhabits bodies, the Holy Spirit loves bodies. The Holy Spirit loves oil, and the Holy Spirit does water. The Holy Spirit descends on the water of Mary’s womb to conceive a child. The Spirit is “the Lord and giver of life.” Not just “spiritual life,” but all of life, organic life, bacterial life, plant life, reptile life, bloody life, bread life, wine life. The Holy Spirit takes residence in our souls precisely to inhabit our bodies and help us offer our bodies in our flesh and bloodiness to God for worship and service. The more physical the worship, the more spiritual it feels.
Earlier that Sunday, as I was getting my robe, I was handed a prayer list. It ran to three pages, which I think is very good. Every prayer request, bar two, was for someone ailing or sick or in hospital. Precisely here was a witness to our spiritual embodiment, that the Kingdom of God should be expressed in terms of our bodily health.
It’s Our Lord’s fault, with all his miracles of healing. He made our physical bodies the demonstration of his spiritual power, the power of his Holy Spirit. What we ask for in sickrooms, when we must, we should do no less in church, when we can. The more physical the worship, the more spiritual it feels.