Of Rice Cakes and Worship

This article is going in the local newspaper this week. So I thought I’d share it here as well.

Christmas this year gave me an amazing gift: The chance to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

As a pastor, I’m never in a congregation without a pastor. Vacant congregations only happen when I’m not there. Each week I can receive the sacrament, can pray, sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, with gratitude in my heart toward God.

In the past, even when I was sick, I would show up for church. I was many feet away from everyone. In seminary we learned, “You only skip a preaching assignment if you are in the hospital or dead.” It was the rule. If you were sick in seminary on a day you were scheduled to preach, you brought your manuscript and a bucket. But you showed up. So also in my first 22 years.

COVID changed that. Locked into my own house, I was unable to attend Christmas Eve, or Christmas Day, or even the Sundays after Christmas. Instead, I went online and watched services on my computer. For years, shut ins have been telling me, “Pastor I miss going to church. I wish I could be there.” I feel a bit of that pain now. I always misunderstood what they meant when they said “I listen to the Lutheran Hour.” or “I watch worship for shut-ins on TV.” I thought they were letting me know how faithful they were trying to be. Having watched online church the last two weeks – including all the special services for Christmas, I know better. They weren’t talking about themselves. They were talking about rice cakes. Let me explain.

Plain rice cakes are for people who want to lose weight, who are trying to literally have less of themselves. They provide a sort of sustenance, but not an enjoyable one. They are basically starvation rations. No one wants them, they have little substance, they are not real food in any meaningful way. Rice cakes = suffering for the eater. (If you like rice cakes, I intend nothing personal. Enjoy them! But most people don’t find them pleasurable.)

I watched some fantastic services with great sermons. These are men I’ve respected for a lot of years. In some cases, I’ve been to their churches, communed at their altars, enjoyed the fellowship of the saints with them and their people. They are excellent preachers, and they preached excellent sermons.

But watching them on the computer is like eating a rice cake version of the Divine Service. Oh, it will do in a pinch, if that’s all that’s on the shelf. But video services are starvation rations for the Christian. The substance of gathering together to hear and learn the Word, to proclaim the death of the Lord by receiving the sacrament: It’s all missing. The flavor is not there, the enjoyment is not there, the fellowship, the sense of being a part of something greater is all missing.

Since then, I’ve been blessed to be back at work, back at the pulpit and altar, once again serving as a steward of the mysteries of God among Christ’s flock. But I’m a little more aware of those who aren’t in attendance. I’ll pray a little more fervently for them. And when I visit them, I do it with a little more empathy.

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