Experiencing the sacred

Our congregation has the practice of having children volunteer to be acolytes. The acolytes’ jobs are to process during the opening hymn and light the candles and to come forward during the closing hymn to extinguish the candles. Our church uses oil lamps for candles, so they light and extinguish easily. The candle lighting devices also have small oil lamps in them, so they need to be carried in the right direction to keep the flames burning. The ones we have have very long handles. They even extend to make them even longer, but I can’t imagine a scenario where we would use them in the extended position. Serving as an acolyte is something that younger children really like doing and older children don’t enjoy as much. Yesterday morning, we had a younger acolyte who was lighting the candles for the first time. He was excited about the job and had studied the way other children had done it. He knew what was expected of him. And he was paired with an older and more experienced acolyte who could help him if there was trouble. I get to follow the acolytes down the aisle for both the processional and the recessional. As we were standing at the doorway, I noticed that while most of the acolytes hold the candle lighters with the long handle extending alongside their body, he had the extra length between his legs. It reminded me of a child riding a hobby horse made out of a broomstick. The woman who recruits and supervises acolytes was trying to get him to hold the candle lighter the way that other children do, but I thought it was just fine for him to hold it the way he wanted. His mother was standing there to provide encouragement and support, so I made a gesture to her like I was throwing a lasso and mouthed “Yee-haw” That made both of us giggle.

I’ve know this boy since his birth. He is the oldest of three children in their family and he has always been an absolutely delightful child. I can remember holding him as a baby and his baptism and the baptisms of his brother and sister. When he was a toddler, he came to church wearing a John Deere t-shirt. He wanted to come down to my office to say hello to me and his mother let him while she was talking to someone in the hallway. He returned wearing a John Deere cap that I had. He had told me that his grandpa has a John Deere tractor and that he had gotten a ride on it. I thought the cap, though a bit big for his head, complimented his outfit nicely. A few minutes later his mother poked her head into my office to make sure that the gift was authorized. Then a few minutes later he came running into my office, gave me a big hug and said “thank you!” That week I got a very nice hand made thank you card from him.

So I was delighted that he was being an acolyte. As we walked down the aisle, I couldn’t help but think how much I like this particular part of my job. The children with whom we are allowed to work are incredible. The trust their parents place in the church and its leaders is indeed a very sacred relationship. It breaks my heart and angers me deeply that some clergy have so terribly broken that trust in ways that have caused permanent injury to children. We have done everything we can think of to make sure that our church is a safe place for children, carefully screening every adult who has contact with children and creating programs where activities are all witnessed.

We are, after all, in the business of the sacred. There are many sacred elements and moments in worship. In seminary, we spent hours and hours discussing the elements of worship. The prayer of consecration for the elements of communion have been considered for generations to be sacred. Any change in those words must be carefully considered. So, too, the baptismal prayer is sacred, forged through millennia and rich in layered meaning. Our hymns are genuinely sacred music, made so by the occasions at which we have sing them. They have been the accompaniment of the funerals and weddings and other moments in the lives of generations of our people.

One of the roles of a pastor is to be a steward of the sacredness of our traditions. It is a responsibility that I do not take lightly. But all of the sacred words and sacred songs and sacred ceremonies are small things, really. The deepest responsibilities of a pastor have to do with sacred relationships. Those relationship are built one at a time, person by person, trust honored by trust honored.

Following an acolyte down the aisle might be a memory of a lifetime for me. It is also a memory for the mother of the child. And for the young man who is walking down the aisle as an acolyte for the first time in his life, the quality of his memory is sacred. Will he think of the church as a place that is home? Will it be for him a place that nurtures his spirit? Will he one day come to a point in his life where he is willing to make a commitment to this community? Will the faith of our ancestors burn with holy fire in his soul? These are questions whose answers are unknown to me. What I do know is that it is a sacred trust to be allowed to be a part of his life - and of the lives of the other children who come to our church. It is a privilege and I am overwhelmed with joy that this privilege has been afforded to me.

Yee-haw! Ride that candle lighter! Fell the joy that you have brought to our church! And know that I’m right behind you, cheering you on.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!