"Would you like to join the altar guild?"
In her most recent book, Christianity after Religion, Diana Butler Bass tells about a conversation with a woman in her Episcopal (we’d call it Anglican) Congregation:
"Would you like to join the altar guild?" asked an older woman, a member of a church where I was a member. After all, you like to arrange flowers.
She was a nice person, diligent in her service to the church. Most every week, she showed up early on Sunday morning to set up the altar. She ironed the altar cloths, shined the silver chalices, and laid everything out. Sounded like holy housework to me.
Instead of saving yes or no, I responded, “Why?”
“Because I’ve been doing it for thirty-five years,” she said impatiently, and I’m really tired. It is time for someone else to do it instead.”
Not exactly an appealing invitation. I turned the offer down. I suspect that the woman had a rich faith life. I always wondered what might have happened if she had answered the question this way:
You know, I’ve been serving on the altar guild for thirty-five years. Every Sunday, I awake before dawn and come down here to the church. It is so quiet. I come into the building and unlock the sacristy. I open the drawers and take out the altar cloths and laces, so beautifully embroidered with all the colors of the seasons. I unfold them, iron them, and drape them on the altar. Then I go to the closet and take out the silver, making sure it is cleaned and polished. I pour water and wine. While I set the table for the Lord’s Supper, I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to set the table for Jesus and his friends. I’ve meditated on what it must have been like to be there with him. I’ve considered what it will be like when we eat with him in heaven. And I’ve learned a thing or two about service and beauty and community. You know, I’d like to share that with you. I’d like you to learn that too.
I know how I would have responded: “Sign me up.”
I was struck by how much that interchange reminds be about how we do so much in the church. Whenever we talk about the things that we do in the life of the church we speak of them as duties – as things that need to be done. When we recruit new people to take on somebody’s old job, we talk about how it is somebody else’s turn. We rarely talk about why we do things beyond the simple assumption that they just need to be done. We don’t talk about the things that we do as spiritual practices and disciplines that bring meaning in and of themselves.
We really need to start asking the why question – why do I sing in the choir, why do I teach Sunday School, why am I an elder – with a willingness to go deeper into the meaning of it all. The answer that it just needs to be done is no longer good enough.
Tonight many leaders in the congregation will gather to look at our long-range plan – to renew our objectives and think about how they will work out practically. This reminds me that we cannot do any of that without a willingness to talk about the why questions – about what our purpose really is and how we can all get meaning out of what we do.