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Careening Carrots and Welcoming Worship

by Carla Waterman, Ph.D.

There was no doubt that I was somewhere completely “other” from the moment I got off the plane. It wasn’t just the endless sun that never seemed to set as I continued to fly west and west and more west.  It was the spicy air and the curved bent of an alphabet that had as many rounded flourishes as the architecture. It was filing through Customs behindthe wizened Buddhist monk with bare feet and a brown mustard colored robe. The word “Orient” wafted to the top of my sleep-deprived brain. I was in Bangkok.

As I looked toward the greeters’ area I scanned the crowd for Sue, a British missionary to Thailand whom I had met briefly at a conference in London a couple of years prior.  She had invited me to Thailand to teach on hope, and with my church covering my expenses, showering me with prayer and my guys with meals, I found myself free to travel across the world, a stranger in an exotic space.

Yet in the midst of a world that could not have been more different, I was almost immediately and completely at home.  I encountered the delightful juxtaposition of easy, deep conversations with my hostess who did not cook.  She amply demonstrated her facility in the kitchen one evening when she attempted to cut up a carrot (which, in all fairness, was the diameter of a coaster. Things grow over there.) The carrot went flying across the floor, and Sue and I dissolved into peals of laughter.  Instead of entrusting ourselves to her culinary efforts, we ate a great deal of take-out Thai food from the open-air vendors, and I had the new experience of having someone pray that the Lord would “bless and cleanse” the food before meals.

Sue’s apartment was an extension of her hospitality, but it wasn’t the source of it.  She, herself, being deeply at home in Jesus, was naturally home for me.  She had made a space for my presence with her and her Lord, and I was securely, delightfully at home.  When the time came for the actual conference to begin we cancelled the more convenient hotel reservation.   I preferred to carry on from “home” with Sue.

Over the last decade my teaching vocation has morphed into an extended reflection on the nexus between worship, spiritual formation and everyday life.  And it seems appropriate to begin my contribution to this blog with some thoughts on church as home.  Church leaders in every denomination desire to create “home” for those who join us in worship—whatever shape our welcome takes—the liturgical forms we choose, the music we select, the way we configure our worship space.

But I wonder if these efforts are not, in the end, a bit like the furnishings in Sue’s house—a necessary contribution to a sense of home, but not the heart of worship hospitality itself.

Here is my thesis—people will feel “at home” in our churches when we as leaders rest “at home” with our God.  We need to know that we are known and loved by the God who makes his home with and in us. Until we live within this foundational spiritual reality our efforts to create accessible and welcoming space will lack the one thing that strikes the match to the carefully laid fire, the single ingredient that causes participants to relax and relish what is being offered instead of tentatively sipping from our services with one eye searching for the nearest exit.

I can give no recipe for this deep, abiding knowledge that we are home with our God other than what Jesus himself gives, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home in him.” (John 14:23 ESV)  I do know this—when the church in her feminine posture as nurturing mother and betrothed bride knows herself at home with her God, she is given a renewed capacity, born of the Spirit, to welcome those who are tentatively standing at her edges.

No worship song, no architectural arrangement, no ancient or contemporary liturgy can substitute for the welcoming presence of the Spirit in the hearts of those who host.  When we know ourselves profoundly at home with Christ in God, we cannot help but invite others to join us here. And, in the midst of this kind of holy hospitality, no one will care when a carrot occasionally careens across our carefully polished floors.

Carla Waterman has a Ph.D. from Cornell University, taught in the Christian Education Department at Wheaton College in the mid 90’s, and been teaching Spiritual Formation at the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies and Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL for the past decade. She is the author of Songs of Assent  and an Anglican laywoman who seeks to live and help others live near to the altar and close to the ground (
http://carlawaterman.blogspot.com).