My knees knock together when I step out of the pew and walk forward. I’ve read in church before, but I clutch the printout tightly, creasing it in my hands before I bow at the altar, in the way I’ve been trying to show the youngest among us, – we bow because this is a holy place – and I step up to the lectern.
“A reading from the Book of Genesis, chapter 18.” This is the story of Abraham, who dares to stand before the Lord Almighty, who speaks – Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just? – and whom God answers – if I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake. This is the story of Abraham, who dares again and again to stand and draw near, and whom God answers, again and again revealing His justice, so wildly compassionate – that even for the sake of forty-five, of forty, thirty, twenty, ten, He will not destroy it.
It is Fr. Patrick’s ordination to the priesthood in Boston – I’m not quite a teenager, I think, but he has asked me to read the Old Testament lesson, to speak it out into the crowds gathered in clean whites and blues. I’m scared to move in the space, because the holiness of the incense and the quiet as we wait for the processional is too much for my still-young heart. I’m scared to read, scared to hear my voice carrying out His message. I’m not quite a teenager, but I know I’m not a vessel worthy of this Word.
“A reading from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 6.” I take deep breaths, and I close my eyes. Dad taught me to speak in church, slow, looking out over the lectern into the faces of those who receive these words, because these are the people hungry for the Word. This is the vision where the seraphim call to one another – holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory! – and as I peer out, my hands white at the knuckles against the sides of the carefully carved lectern, I see that I am not alone in the rapture of this moment, not alone, after all, because we all together must be whispering what I say next – I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips, for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!.
And then, just as I realize that I am not alone – Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said, Behold, this has touched your lips, your guilt is taken away, and your sin is atoned for.” I tell out that promise to the crowds of faces, these words that we too, who are a people of unclean lips, we too can be touched.
I wear the dress on purpose in case he’d be there – one shoulder, black, and I wear the leopard printed flats that I always think make my feet look smaller, more delicate. I straightened my hair and circled eyeshadow across my eyelids in my parent’s mirror. I’m reading the Fourth Lesson tonight, and I pray suddenly, in my pew, that somehow, the words will sound new to me, too.
“The peace that Christ will bring is foreshown.” I close my eyes. When I open them again, I hear a voice, which must be mine, but it’s stronger and it’s richer and it is saying words of living water. There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him. the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
I forget the boy I dressed for, though I see him in the back of the church, though our eyes pass each other, because when I hear that voice, which must be mine, reading these, the better words of living water, I am returned back into the mystery of these words who bear to us the Word, this mystery that by our sounding out the words to each other –
we meet the Lord, the King, the Judge of all the Earth who does what is just, the shoot from the stump of Jesse whose delight is in the fear of the Lord.
I still knock my knees together every time I walk up the aisle to read. I still feel the twelve year old worried that everyone will see that I am still too young to stand before the congregation. I still take deep breaths to steady myself –
and ever, always, I drink the living water of the Word.