I attend worship services alone every week, sometimes more than once a week. My family attends our Sunday service and most of our special services, and yet I still feel alone each Sunday because they do not sit with me. Most Sundays I do not talk to my family members until we are walking home after all the Sunday tasks are finished. I am no different than clergy all over the world. In fact, a whole lot of people who are single, widowed, or are the lone person in their family who attends religious services attend services alone. It is because I attend services alone that the act of sitting next to someone during a worship service is such a profound experience.
Rarely do I get to enjoy the restlessness of a child in a pew, or feel another person lean into me to reach a hymnal. Almost never do I have someone reach for my hand when a prayer, hymn, reading, or sermon moves them. I do not share whispered words, elbows in the side, or pieces of hard candy with my spouse or children. I do not know what my children’s singing voices sound like when blended with the voices in front or behind me, and I have no idea when my oldest child stopped singing in worship.
I am a leader of worship which means I sit alone, sing alone, and never feel the comfort of an arm around me on the back of a pew. I get to watch the people in worship to make sure the details are happening as they need to, but I do not have the privilege of holding the hand of someone as they sit beside me.
Worship is a communal experience, which means we gather together, we sit together, and we learn together. Worship as a communal experience means you know what the sigh from the person behind you means, or when the person in front of you is praying or nodding off. Worship as a communal experience means there is joy in sharing space with others as you build memories and habits.
I rarely get to share space with my family in worship. I have only a few memories of sitting with my children as they have grown up in the church. I do not know which hymns make them tremble with emotion. I do not know what their hands feel like clasped in mine. I do not know what it feels like to have them squashed between my husband and I in a pew where people know to look for us.
But today was one of those rare occasions when I did not sit alone. Though we were not all together in the pew, three of us were, much like a typical Sunday. On my left was my oldest, on my right my husband. At one point he sighed, leaned into me, shifted and put his arm around me on the back of the pew and my tears were instantly at the surface.
I was not alone in worship. I was between my child who no longer sings and my husband who sings with a confidence grown over years of communal worship. For me today, this was an illustration of joy and goodness, the themes for this third week of Advent. I hope as you share space in this world, whether it is in worship spaces or other places, you take a moment to appreciate the people surrounding you. Pay attention to their sighs, their voices, their whispered words, and how it feels to have them lean into you.
Pay attention and give thanks.