Sundays find me now in front of the pulpit whereas once I was behind one. And life, in my best Judy Garland voice, somewhere over the pulpit is altogether unsettling. I presided for so long, formally and informally, in professional and lay capacities, that I don’t know what to do with myself most Sundays. The appointed hour use to arrive quickly as I was distracted by a hectic pre-service routine of greeting people, going over my sermon one last time, and gathering every jot-and-tittle worth of announcements. Now, my routine begins with a careful reading of that Sunday’s bulletin. I debate what hymns I might have chosen to accompany the day’s liturgical setting. I look-up the appointed lectionary readings. I think…what would I go with? Hmmm…Hebrew Scriptures? Maybe a psalm? The gospel reading? Do I dare take on an epistle? Or, do I say, “Lectionary be damned!” and go rogue just this once? Nowadays, I am also made acutely aware of my tactile defensiveness when the pastor invites the congregation to pass the peace. The invitation leaves me a stranger in a strange land. I hate hugs and handshakes. Channeling my inner-Melville, “Call me Gershom,” but the service is as familiar as ever. Hymns are sung. Confessions are given. Prayers are said. Creeds are recited. My life of reverent repetition has endowed me with liturgical muscle memory. Sit. Stand. Kneel. Habit. I have anticipated the sermon since the usher handed me that bulletin I’d poured over until interrupted by the Call to Worship. And when the pastor begins to offer the word proclaimed, I now have time not only to consider what he/she is saying, but also his/her approach and technique. Of all my experiences since taking a seat in the pews, how people receive the benediction is most puzzling.
The pastor asks, “Would you receive the benediction?” Everyone bows his/her head and are respectfully quiet. The pastor speaks, ”May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.” (Numbers 6: 24-26) I cannot recall ever being told in any church that I have ever worshipped in to look at the floor when the benediction was being offered. While a bowed head is appropriate if the presider gives a closing prayer, but a benediction is a blessing we are invited to receive. A benediction is, therefore, a gift. I don’t tend to look at the floor as someone gives me a gift. I fix my eyes on the giver. But, not all bowed heads are acts of reverence.
Depression is an experience of psychological bondage forcing submissiveness by bowing one’s head most-decidedly down. While there is no relief to be found on the floor, the will to look up is entirely absent. My persistent floor-gazing necessarily distorted my view. While counting the tiles in the floor along an X axis to then multiply that sum with that of the tiles along the Y axis—this is what one does to pass the time in a behavioral health unit—trying to determine the size of my confinement, with this distraction I didn’t take notice of those who visited me while inpatient. I couldn’t be bothered to stop my ciphering. Each evening, I could be found looking down memorizing the contours of my sheet and blanket while in bed certain there must be no one in heaven looking down on me. The height of my bowed head might as well of marked the apex of all vantage points. Well-meaning visitors were a welcome disruption of hospital routine. Though the arrival of family, friends, and fellow-ministers was, for me, as routine as taking vital signs each morning and dispensing meds each evening. Depression contorted my neck. My mother visited every other day eager to see some sign of life in me. A will to fight this damned disease. Yet, I couldn’t look at her, not in the eyes, the shame of my wanting to forfeit the life she gave me bent me to the floor. My wife would visit the days opposite my mother. I couldn’t look at her either as I did another persistent calculation of how much more of my depression can she take before filing for divorce. Friends, all fellow ministers, would visit most weekdays around lunch. I couldn’t look them in the eyes either. The weight on my neck was palpable and painful. I thought, “I’m supposed to be on the other side of this table. I should be wearing preacher-drag, all polo shirts, khaki pants and sensible shoes. I should be offering pithy platitudes disguised thinly as sage wisdom. I shouldn’t be on this side of the table in pajamas-with-no-drawstring, laceless shoes, and two-week o’clock shadow.” (To be honest, while these absolutely wonderful colleagues were guilty of a fashion-sense decidedly clergy, they offered me only presence and never platitudes.) Each day I grew tense with anticipation dreading visiting hours. I am Pavlov’s dog. I cringed visibly every time the buzzer went off signaling an arrival. Relief, if it was environmental services or an attending physician. But, dread if it was a visitor. Visitors were reminders of life as it was and, I feared, would never be again. My ever having been a son, brother, husband, father, or minister dissipated like dreams do after alarm clocks sound. Life was now floor-gazing and I was determined to excel at my new occupation.
Christianity understands G-d to be something of a contortionist. G-d bends and stoops. G-d kneels even lays down on tile floors interrupting my ciphering of X and Y. G-d is not G-d if G-d is not on my metaphoric floor. G-d refuses to be known only as a being of transcendence. G-d is peculiarly and wonderfully immanent. Divinity knows humanity. Far from anthropomorphizing, it is nothing less than the great exchange of Christmas. “Let earth and Heaven combine, angels and men agree, to praise in songs divine the incarnate deity, our G-d contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.” (Charles Wesley, “Let Earth and Heaven Combine.” Emphasis mine.) Every visitor embodied G-d, thus challenging my cynicism now and my assurance then that heaven, if there is such a place, is decidedly empty.
I have digressed, so back to benedictions and looking up. The greatest benediction I ever received was delivered in broken English with a heavy Vietnamese accent. The presider spoke four words, “This is your daughter.” In that moment, I assure you I was not looking at the ground, as ”Children are a blessing and a gift from the Lord.” (Psalm 127:3). Benediction, indeed. G-d in an act worthy of Cirque Du Soleil. Far from Atlas, I perceived my depression lifting; its weight carried by the littlest of hands and the thinest of arms. “[G-d] beside me, [G-d] before me, [G-d] behind me, [G-d] within me, [G-d] beneath me, [G-d] above me.” (Prayer attributed to St. Patrick) G-d on the floor staring up at me with almond eyes.