About twenty years ago I preached my first sermon. It was senior Sunday. I was 17 years old. I stood up in the sanctuary with brick walls that were somehow very warm and inviting. I stood in front of people who were my family – people who loved and supported me, people who welcomed me in despite my rough beginning. Just two years before that I was in this space for the first time, resenting a new church, wishing I was back in the small, round, safe sanctuary where I had been for many years before my dad’s new appointment. When I was first in this sanctuary I judged it and the people. I judged the big space and the swarms of people. I judged the pastor and (sorry Bill) the youth minister. I didn’t want to be there. But, something happened, and in just two short years this place was my home, another safe place.
So there I was, a young 17-year-old girl, standing in this huge brick pulpit with the choir loft to the left and the altar to the right. I wish I still had the manuscript of that sermon. Although I’ve matured and learned a lot in twenty years, I suspect that the core of that message still reflects the core of me today. Despite a few extra pounds and a few more wrinkles, that 17-year-old girl and I aren’t that much different. I haven’t preached many sermons since that first one – not many formal sermons anyway, but, that pulpit and that sanctuary still holds the space where I shared my faith in a public way for the first time.
I haven’t thought about that Sunday in many, many years. Today, however, it all came rushing back as I went back to that same space for worship. But, it’s not the same. As I was standing there singing along with the band, I started noticing a few things. Wait, the brick pulpit is gone – it’s smaller, something looks different. The large altar table is gone and in its place is a large wooden backdrop. The brick altar area and surrounding steps were replaced with a stage with microphones and keyboards. There are moving lights, mason jars with candles and the choir loft is filled with a band, not an organ or a choir. It’s the same space, and yet it’s not.
Familiar and unknown. Same and different. Comfort and unease. The juxtapositions I felt in worship this morning remind me of the past six weeks. I’ve been here before and yet it doesn’t feel the same. I’m walking in the same places but things look different. Familiar and so, so unfamiliar. I was in a space in which at one time in my life almost everyone recognized my face and most knew my name. I saw a few familiar faces today, but they didn’t recognize mine. Only one person knew me by name. Known and unknown. It was unsettling and freeing.
After I graduated college I went back to this church and worked there for five years. In addition to being shepherded as a young person in this place, I was also taught and guided into my ministry in this place. I am who I am today, in part, because of this space and the people who filled it. As I sang along with the music, as I listened to the prayers and scripture and sermon, as I reflected on what was then and what is now, I thought about the inevitability of change. It’s around us everyday here in the Midwest. It’s clear that life is about change – the changing leaves, the changing temperatures. Things change. And yet, the change is beautiful. New seasons offer new lessons and new opportunities. I missed seeing Kent and Brian and Carolyn in that space today. I missed seeing Andy and Nate and Kelly and Amanda. I missed the old altar area and the big pulpit. I missed being known. But, I still felt God there. I still heard a message that was relevant to my life.
Twenty-two years later, there I was again in this unknown space, unknown to those around me. Thankfully I’m a little less judgmental, a lot more open. A place where I’m known and unknown. It’s not the same, but it is.