by the Rev. Mike Chalk
From “Spiritual Practices – Living the Gift,” the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of Reflections magazine. To read the entire issue, click here.
After nearly 40 years leading worship, I find myself in the pew on Sunday mornings. Even though I had worshiped in the pew on vacations, after I retired from St. Mark’s, San Antonio, a year ago, I began to look at worship in a new way.
Attending church on Sunday was now a choice! I wondered how I would respond to worship as another person in the pew rather than as celebrant and preacher. Could I overcome the natural tendency as a priest to evaluate the liturgy rather than to simply enter the worship experience?
I have found that my reaction to Sunday mornings is an intense call to be with the gathered community of faith. My spiritual disciplines during the week are vital, but the need for community is equally important. This call to be with others reminds me that I am essentially a relational being, and that the Christian faith is an incarnational, embodied faith.
My 40 years of leading worship had required a great deal of preparation. From planning the service to preparing the sermon, worship was related to preparing spiritually for the Sunday experience. One would think sitting in the pew would not require any preparation, and to some extent that is true. We can leave the worship service up to the priest in charge. But I find that if I read the appointed lessons for Sunday and practice my spiritual disciplines during the week, I am more alert to God in the worship experience.
A sense of expectancy is also an important ingredient for perceiving God in the Holy Eucharist. I picture two men on the front pew of a church – one with arms crossed, eyebrows knit together, with little or no sense of expectation that he will hear anything of importance. Next to him is a person sitting on the edge of his seat listening intently to the reading of scripture. After the reading, the man who is alert says to his companion, “Did you hear that! It was to me the very Word of God!” What made the difference? When I am attentive to the liturgy, words that I have heard many times can speak powerfully and meaningfully. Invariably a word or example from a sermon will speak to some aspect of my life.
In his book Prayer: Our Deepest Longing, Ronald Rolheiser provides a helpful reminder of the importance of corporate worship when one cannot bring adequate preparation or energy. “What clear rituals provide is prayer that depends precisely upon something beyond our own energy. The rituals carry us: our tiredness, our inattentiveness, our indifference . . . They keep us praying even when we are too tired to muster up our own energy” (p6). Richard Foster also reminds us that the path to spiritual growth includes the inward disciplines of contemplation and study as well as the corporate disciplines of worship and celebration (see Celebration of Discipline).
Left to my inward disciplines, I might believe prayer is all about me. Corporate disciplines remind me my prayers are to include the needs of the world. Authentic worship not only serves as a reminder to pray for the disenfranchised but to serve them as well. Worship has the power to change me and enable me to live more faithfully in the world.
Learning to worship from the pew is an adjustment, but one that has been very positive. I am grateful to the clergy who prepare so well and faithfully for the practice of worship and the hospitality of the community that reminds me of the love of God.
I cannot be Christian alone. The corporate and inward disciplines are interdependent. To neglect one discipline hampers the spiritual life. My view from the pew has been an adjustment that has served to remind me once again of the power of worship and the need for a community of faith.
The Rev. Mike Chalk retired as rector of St. Mark’s, San Antonio, in 2013 after serving there for 19 years. Reach him at
More links to worship resources:
At the Edge of the Enclosure offers a weekly self-guided retreat on the Gospel lesson for the coming Sunday. The site also has resources for sermon preparation, Bible Study, and personal reflection. Author is Suzanne Guthrie.
Christian Prayer Resources has articles about prayer, books on prayer, prayer organizations, prayer networks, prayer fellowships, prayer ministries, prayer mobilizers, online books on prayer, prayer guides, and more.
Oremus has daily prayer, liturgy, hymns, prayer resources. excellent Bible search tools. Morning and evening prayer are read by David Guthrie (with an English accent).
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