There are days when I feel absolutely certain I have the weirdest job on the planet.
I know that is probably not technically true, but I do have some pretty strange experiences at work.
Sunday before last was no exception.
I was preaching, as I usually do on Sunday mornings. This was one sermon I really liked. I had really wrestled with the text, and it spoke to me in a fresh and illuminating way. (Note to non-clergy: this does not happen every week.)
The text was about healing, but not so much like healing in the dramatic, miraculous sense of the word. It was about wanting to be healed. That’s very different than waiting for God to serve up whatever it is we want on a silver platter.
So engaging was my experience with the text during the week that I decided (hoped, actually) that the congregation might also find the text engaging and desire an actual, physical way to respond to the message. So I planned an anointing–with oil–for any moved to respond at the end of the service.
Those in professional ministry understand what this means. When you plan a strange ritual in worship you need a few “plants”–people who have been tipped off about what you are going to do and are eager to participate so that others will know how to respond.
Being a worry-wart, I told a few reliable folks in worship I had something special planned for end of the sermon and asked them go ahead and participate in the ritual so others would know what to do.
I assured them I would give clear instructions at the appropriate time.
So worship began. The music was beautiful, the Scripture inspiring, the prayers deeply heartfelt. I was really feeling it during the sermon. I felt like the congregation was engaged. The text was speaking.
I felt like, as a group, we could respond to the call of God for our community. At the end of the day, isn’t that an essential part of genuine worship?
Right toward the end of the sermon–I preach from a manuscript, so I know when the end is imminent, even if the listening congregation doesn’t–just as I said the word, “Jesus….”
The fire alarm went off. In our 150-year-old sanctuary, the fire alarm is loud. Really, really loud.
I really didn’t know what to do. With the experience I’ve had I’ve learned about such things as: leaking baptisteries, arrests in worship and broken copiers, but this was my first fire drill–during worship at least.
As we gathered outside on the sidewalk in front of the church waiting for the fire department, I became “alarmed” by so many who said things like, “We never know WHAT you’re going to do, so we weren’t sure at first if you had planned this.”
I joked that it was a way to keep people from falling asleep during my sermons.
We never got to finish worship, at least not in the sanctuary.
The grace of last Sunday was:
–Everyone got out safely. There was no fire after all (just some of our kids who pulled the fire alarm).
–The weather was heart-achingly beautiful (70s and bright sun.)
When we all finally got outside it seemed like a party. We spent at least 30 minutes milling around on the sidewalk, letting our neighborhood know that this big, stately old church IS alive, and we got some great time to chat with our visitors.
All in all, it was the essence of healing–healing of community. It seemed to me that everyone left buoyed by the experience.
Everyone, that is, except me.
Instead, I was alarmed–deeply alarmed–at the prospect of explaining to our church administrator why I never got around to collecting the offering!
Amy Butler is senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. This column appeared previously on her blog.
Founder of Invested Faith, she previously served as pastor of several churches, including as the seventh senior minister and first woman at the helm of The Riverside Church in the City of New York. Butler holds degrees from Baylor University, the International Baptist Theological Seminary and Wesley Theological Seminary. She is a contributing correspondent at Good Faith Media.