In the St. Michael School chapel this year, I’ve been telling lots of Bible stories. The windows in St. George’s Chapel, where we meet, provide vivid images and reminders of God’s history with his people, and I’m grateful for the cheat-sheet!
On our first day back after Christmas break, I was inspired to tell the story of Moses and the burning bush. I’d been trying to think of a gentle way to talk about reverent behavior during chapel time. You see, I don’t have any children of my own yet, so I’m still under the false impression that anyone under the age of 15 can sit still and listen for a full five or ten minutes together. So, I hoped that telling them about the way that God told Moses how to behave around him might stick in their brains the idea that they should behave differently around God’s house, too.
I told them about how God called Moses by name, and how he told Moses to take off his shoes. To really drag the point home, I tore my heels off in front of them, right in the middle of the chapel. We talked about what it might be like for us to take off our shoes—not literally, the older children realized, but what a sort of analogous thing might be in our culture and in our way of worshiping.
I asked them what it might mean to take off our sandals. One child, who has clearly heard the story before, quickly raised his hand and said, “it means respect!” …As he realized the import of his answer, he sheepishly took off his baseball cap. Further, he suggested that perhaps we shouldn’t run or yell in the chapel. Another child said, “Well, the bush told him to!” She hit on an important point—sometimes we don’t know why we’re asked to do what God says, but being faced with a burning bush, being faced with God’s presence, we can sense it’s something we shouldn’t question. Like when our parents told us as young children to get down in the basement because of a tornado warning—we may have questioned them about what to wear to school in the morning, but in a moment we know is danger, we simply trust.
I closed by asking them to imagine whenever they came into chapel that there was a burning ball of fire right over the altar—a frightening image that I hoped might help them remember that God’s presence was in chapel with them, and though God’s presence is exciting and wonderful, there are also ways we should honor the place we worship God.
Judging from the running and yelling that went on this week after so many days off of school for snow, I think we still have a ways to go in teaching the children what it’s like to be in God’s presence.
Telling the kids the story of Moses and the burning bush made me think closely and seriously about the ways that we figuratively “take off our shoes” when we come near to God, and what it means for us to “take off our shoes” or to be changed when we enter into God’s presence. We have to learn how to behave, of course, we don’t do it instinctively, just as was revealed by the children’s responses to my questions.
When I visited our newest parishioner a few weeks ago as a one-day-old baby in the hospital, I quietly knocked on the hospital room door, I slowly and calmly opened the door, I tiptoed toward the new family, and gently asked after their health. When the moment came, I very carefully took the little baby boy in my arms and spoke to him quietly and soothingly. This picture is very different from the first time I met my baby brother when I was two and a half years old—my parents had to tell me, “Emily! Don’t poke his eye out… Please be gentle! Don’t scream, speak softly!” I had to be taught how to behave around a little baby, just as Moses had to be told by God how to behave in his presence, “Moses, take off your sandals.”
We “take off our sandals” by standing when we hear the Gospel proclaimed to us, by kneeling to pray—in a few moments, we will stand together as the celebrant invites us to “lift up [our] hearts unto the Lord” as we begin the Great Thanksgiving and enjoy Communion together.
The game changes when we get close to God—our lives are changed. This is a strange, unnatural, uncomfortable thing, just like it was unnatural for me as a toddler to be quiet and calm and gentle to my baby brother. It’s become a natural way to behave around little babies, but it wasn’t, at first. Of course, we’ve learned from the Bible that God isn’t particularly concerned with comfort, he made Moses take off sandals in the middle of the wilderness, for heaven’s sake!
At my last church, in Cooperstown, New York, I met with a parishioner in the local coffeeshop one afternoon. He was a doctor by trade, but had been very active in the local theater company for decades. We started talking about all these various actions we take during church services and all the prayers we say every week. Most of the language is the same week in and week out—how did it help us at all to say the same things over and over? Drawing in his experience with preparing to play a part in a production, this parishioner wondered if our worship on Sunday mornings was sort of like rehearsing for a play. He said, “During the last weeks right before performing, you’re practicing your part so often and so fully that the line between your identity and part you’re playing starts to blur. You take on this person’s mannerisms, attitude, and perspective, you start to become that person.” The process is uncomfortable at first, it’s not natural, because it’s not who you are, but soon enough, you become comfortable with that character, and it becomes very easy to join in the play. The result is that when you know the character so well, if something goes wrong on opening night, you can still stay in character because you’ve become that person, and that’s when the fun begins. When you have practiced so long and so hard, you have become what you’ve practiced being, and you’re able to play.