Last week I attended The Festival of Homiletics in Atlanta, an annual national preaching conference. There were 2,000 people in attendance, many (if not most) of them pastors. It was an incredible and inspiring event. I heard nationally-known pastors, preachers, homiletics teachers, civil rights leaders and musicians. I felt as if a long-dry cup was finally getting filled with rich wine–and it never overflowed. I had no idea how much I needed people to lead me in worship. As I sat in the Ebenezer Baptist Church–where Martin Luther King, Jr. preached–or heard the pipes of the organ at Peachtree United Methodist Church open up, I felt beyond blessed.
Whenever I get a chance to worship, I am reminded of what a transforming experience it can be. I also recognize a deep need within myself to worship. Sometimes I feel as if I am clinging to the words of the sermon or the liturgy like my kids clung to me the first time I took them into a pool. The hymns connect me to strangers as we stand side-by-side and sing with the abandon only pastors who are temporarily released from leading worship can display.
A lie we pastors tell ourselves is, “I’ll still be able to worship while I lead worship.” Not true. I go into a zone while I lead worship–it’s a fog I don’t leave until I leave the sanctuary. The one moment that breaks me out of it is when the lay assisting ministers look me in the eye after we’ve served communion and give me the bread and wine, declaring them Christ’s body and blood. I hear the words, “for you,” and I’m able to step back for a moment and remember this worship is about God and not me.
When I go too long without worshiping myself, I lose track of the purpose of worship. I start to worry about it getting boring and stale. I see it as a reflection of me and my abilities and I forget there are others in this church who can plan, lead and create worship just as well (if not better) than me. I forget it is an act of God and we are participants. I forget how much people need it. I also forget how much people are desperate to hear a sermon preached for them.
It was beyond wonderful to hear so many inspiring preachers last week. They challenged me to look more closely at justice, community and acts of faith. Their preaching made me want to better my own preaching. But they couldn’t replicate the honor I have–the privilege of preaching to the same congregation week after week. I get to preach to people I know and love, people I see day in and day out. I get to interpret the Scriptures for them. My sermons are not academic essays. They live within a community.
I may not be able to worship as much as I’d like, but I have the great opportunity to create and carry out worship week after week. I get to provide liturgies and sermons people need. I’m not doing it alone, for God is present whenever two or more are gathered. And I need to remember to let myself sit in the pews too, for I need it as much–if not more–than those who get to sit in them regularly.