Corporate worship isn’t the only thing people do “at church,” but it is what everyone thinks of as “going to church.” Many, maybe most, people think churches – that is, congregations – mainly are organized for the purpose of conducting regular corporate worship. If, that is, they think much about “the life of the church” at all. Many, maybe most, people don’t.
It takes a lot of getting involved with church, or Church, to begin to form the idea that corporate worship really isn’t the only, possibly not even be the main, thing “the church” is for. And anyone who has gotten involved with church to that extent will still perceive that a massive amount of spiritual formation happens in that week in – week out worship practice.
The Anglicans, and others, have prayers they call “collects.” These are short prayers that gather together all the disparate petitions of the assembled congregation into a single overarching petition, in light of the nature of God and the deeper need of the people. Corporate or gathered worship, and even more the conversation that happens before and after that worship, is also a kind of “collect,” an embodied collect. We bring what’s been happening with us, we hear what’s been happening with others, and in that coming together and sharing of our stories we interweave those stories. We become a part of one another’s stories. “Church” becomes one of the places our different stories come together and become one.
One we recognize as one, that is.
Because recent events have made something clear to me, and yesterday’s sermon on Ruth highlighted it even further: each of us, while unavoidably at the center of our own life story, is also unavoidably a character in others’ life stories as well. The part we play varies. For some we are “extras,” for others we show up in minor episodes, for still others we might figure in vital turning points, for yet others we are significant supporting cast. But whatever parts we play, our stories are forever intersecting, coming together, stretching back out, or taking off in new directions. We can’t help belonging to each other.
We usually think of the book of Ruth as “Ruth’s story.” But it is formally even more “Naomi’s story” – it begins with Naomi, ends with Naomi, and follows Naomi throughout. Reading the book of Ruth as Naomi’s story changes the reading. And once we see that, we might even begin to notice other readings of the book of Ruth, since the events narrated are part of still other stories. Many other stories.
The critical question of perspective, of point of view, presents itself to us at every moment. Whose story is this? The answer to that question affects almost everything we think about a narrative: what stands out, what recedes, what assumes significance, and what significance it assumes.
Something happens to us when we begin to notice ourselves as the supporting characters of others’ stories, not only the protagonists of our own. We have to abandon the idea of our individual life stories as neatly bounded, discrete narratives, with simple story lines, as if each one could fit inside a single tile in a giant mosaic. Our stories are more fluidly overlapping or interrelated than that, more like the constantly shifting patterns in a kaleidoscope, maybe, for lack of a better metaphor, still to present itself.
We can’t as easily avoid the fact that we truly are “all in this together,” whether we perceive it or not, when the “this” gets big enough: human life; life on this planet; the universe; God’s story …
We can’t go on imagining that how we live, even a small life, is a matter of no consequence, and nobody’s concern but our own.