Holy Things for Holy People

Emily M.D. Scott

A few years ago, I was out on a date with an avowed agnostic. He was in medical school and I was in the ordination process, and we met for drinks at a sidewalk cafe on the Upper West Side. Our conversation bounced from subject to subject, until at last we arrived at the conversation point I had perhaps been avoiding all along: the small, progressive church I’d founded called St. Lydia’s.

“So it’s a Dinner Church?” he asked me. “What does that mean?”

I explained that the worship at St. Lydia’s was patterned after an early church practice of sharing a common meal. In the first few centuries of the Christian church, worship took place around the table.

“We sing a song,” I told him, “and light candles on the table. Then I bless the bread, and we share it. Then we eat for a while, and when people are about done, we read a scripture passage, and talk about it, and share our stories. And then we hold hands and pray, and then read a poem, and then clean up together, and then sing a song and get a blessing and go home.”

He was silent for a time. Then he said,

“That sounds … really nice. It sounds like some of the evenings I spend with good friends. Really good friends. When the food is really good and the conversation is really good. Those nights feel sacred to me.”

“Those nights are sacred,” I told him. “Those nights with your friends are just as sacred as what I do in church on Sunday night.”

A Postmodern Quest

The church of the 21st century is ridden with anxiety that we are dying. This fear seems to stem from an assumption that, as modern becomes postmodern, young people have no need for God. I think the changes we’re seeing in the landscape of the church, however, have less to do with people’s need for God, and more to do with their need (or lack of need) for the church as they find it. People still crave connection to the holy and always will, I believe. The church too often simply fails to show up at the intersection of the holy and our lives.

The conversation with my date on the Upper West Side reassured me, as I’ve been reassured throughout my time in New York, that our craving for connection, our longing for the eternal, will never fade away. We will not evolve away from our desire for the divine. But we may not always seek God in the temple.

St. Lydia’s was founded a little over four years ago in an effort to create a community of practice for the folks I was meeting in the city who felt this hunger for connection with something they often didn’t have a name for. The meal became our central practice of hospitality as we began to set a table each Sunday night for whoever showed up at our door. Four years in, we’re an eclectic gathering of strangers and friends.

Last spring we launched a Monday Dinner service in addition to our Sunday service. Between the two, we’re currently feeding more than 40 people each week. Now a Mission Development of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, we plan to add services on different weeknights as we grow, building a large, sustainable congregation without letting go of the intimacy so coveted by residents of an anonymous city. Various lay-led endeavors have sprung up from the community: Bible Study and a Theology Circle, a community garden and a movie club.

Sunday Best

Throughout the four years I and others have spent getting St. Lydia’s off the ground, I’ve made a careful study of the relationship between what we might term the sacred and the ordinary, especially as it plays out in our liturgy. Since I was a child growing up in the Episcopal Church, I’ve observed that mainline Protestant liturgies spend time and energy setting things apart. The church itself is set apart from other neighborhood buildings with a steeple and an imposing set of doors. By virtue of entering the sanctuary, congregants are set apart from neighbors. We wear dress-up clothes and generally attempt to be kinder or more polite than we might be during the work week. We have a set-apart meal on a set-apart table: a fragment of a meal that is set apart from our other meals with a wafer, a silver chalice, a set of words. Is the conclusion we might reach not that Jesus, too, is set apart? That he comes to us only when we’re in our dress-up clothes and on our best behavior?

My love of the tradition I grew up in runs deep. But I have also felt a craving, throughout my life, for an acknowledgment of God’s presence in the ordinary, or even the profane places of my existence – the places that are not set apart with silver or lace, but instead feel raw and raggedy. Does God not find me there too? It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that the Latin root for “profane,” profanus, means “outside the temple.”

At St. Lydia’s, the transgression of the boundaries between the sacred and profane is an integrated part of our weekly liturgical practice. What does this look like?

We might begin first with the bread, a loaf that is hearty and warm, not set apart on a special table but laid out on a quite ordinary one. After the Eucharistic Prayer has been sung and the bread has been shared around the circle, we dip it in our soup or use it to mop up sauce. Christ shows up when we break the bread, and in the sharing of it, but this meal feels like so many other ordinary meals we have shared. Around the table, there is lively conversation, sometimes disagreement or an awkward moment. Children run around and dismiss their vegetables, and some of us (mainly me) wish that we had remembered to ask for nuts on the side.

We wear our ordinary clothes for this meal, because we’ve just come from work or from a Sunday afternoon in the park. This is perhaps more important than it seems. If we’re in our regular clothes, we don’t feel that we need to dress up in front of God, like Victorian children being presented to a set of intimidating and distant parents at tea time.

Then there are the words that are spoken as a part of this meal. These are mostly stories. In my preaching, I tell a lot of stories drawn straight from my life. The stories are nothing groundbreaking – just little tidbits of wonderings or memories. After the sermon, the congregation is invited to “share a story that was sparked by the text.” And one begins to get the sense that, not only does each person in the room have something to say, something to claim about the movement of God in their lives, but that God stubbornly refuses to be resolved. The stories shared don’t have neat endings. Sometimes they’re tinged with anger or anxiety or regret. The words aren’t set apart but are drawn from the deep well of an ordinary, human moment.

Ordinary, But Not Casual

Our worship is rooted in the ordinary, but I would not call it casual. The liturgy at St. Lydia’s extends from the everyday, but that does not mean there is nothing special or reverent about it. Like the meals that Christ shared with his disciples both before and after his death and resurrection, though the material of the meal is ordinary – just bread and wine – those ordinary things manage to cradle God. This is the perplexing truth of transcendence: that God erupts through ordinary things, not in spite of their ordinariness but because of it.

Ours is a God who comes to us in perhaps the most worldly way imaginable: a teenage girl who finds herself pregnant and unmarried. Ours is a God who is born in blood and water and dies in blood and water too, who spits in mud to make a blind man see, who eats and drinks with sinners and prostitutes, who touches the diseased. If we think we will find this God set apart and stowed away within the walls of the temple, we are wrong.

Wholly Holy

Every week at church I break the bread and say, “Holy things for holy people.” The phrase used to bother me a little bit, because it sounded so prissy. Holy people, as if we were better, more pure, more chaste, than everyone outside the temple. As if we were set apart. Recently I learned that “holy” is from the old English word hālig, which simply means “whole.” “Whole things for whole people.” Perhaps that changes everything. That the church might be less about setting certain things apart as holy, and more about marking what is rare, what is beautiful, what is lovely, as whole. My agnostic date might have used this word in describing his dinners with friends to me, “Those nights seem whole to me.”

Is it not the case that something that is whole can be both of heaven and of earth? That we need not divide the sacred and the profane with such rigor, as if fearing contamination from one to the other? Perhaps the profane – all that lies outside the temple – has something to teach those who live within its walls about where wholeness, where holiness lives. And perhaps if our liturgies contain a little more of the world, we might find the sacred, cradled within.

The Rev. Emily Scott ’06 M.Div. trained as a liturgist and musician at Yale Divinity School and the Institute of Sacred Music. She was ordained as a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 2012.