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An Altar Altering Bat:
making hospitality the priority at the Lord's table.
Many people would not equate church with hospitality, and with good reason. The history of the church is full of true-crime stories which do not describe love and hospitality. We need only look at the story of residential schools, or understand the Doctrine of Discovery to recognize that, indeed in many times and places, churches have served as the antithesis of hospitality.
In many mainline churches, the baptismal font and altar are identified as fixed pieces of hardware in the worship space. So I was particularly delighted when I began as a newly ordained minister at St Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Cambridge, that the altar was an old stained glass window, set atop two saw horses. I began there in the middle of Lent, and the interim minister who had started Lent that year had set this “makeshift” altar up. It demonstrated how God could take old, broken things and make them into something new and transformational.
A few people really liked the message of this altar. Others found it to be a waste when the church had such a beautifully carved altar that was designed for this purpose. What appealed to me about it was the message of hospitality it sent. It was not big and fancy. It didn’t say you needed to be clean and shiny to come and receive God’s grace. To me it sent a message: come just the way you are.
Every few seasons in the church year, I brought us back to the sawhorse altar as a means of reminding us of the humble nature of the hospitality of the table. But on one Sunday, when the high altar had been all set up for worship, and we were singing the hymn after the sermon, a bat that had been sighted earlier in the morning made its way to the high altar. It swooped around, and landed on the floor under the credence table (the little table with the offering plate on it, to the left of the altar). There it proceeded to crawl around, like it was hunting for something on the ground.
There would usually be prayers, sharing of the peace and offering hymn before myself and the other worship leaders would make our way up to the altar, to prepare to serve communion. Needless to say, I was utterly mortified. How in God’s good and holy name was I going to go up there and lead the communion portion of worship while a flying, possibly-disease-ridden, mammal lay lurking less than a few feet away? I tried to push my fears aside, and focus on saying those words in an appropriately convincing way:
“The peace of Christ be with you.”
I’m quite sure I must have said it with a considerably less than peace-filled expression on my face. At that church, in that blessed pre-pandemic time which feels like a lifetime away now, we all physically went around and shared the peace with each other. There was hand-shaking, hugging, generally a free-for-all peace-sharing party. This special day, with a visiting bat, and a congregation who mostly by now, knew of my bat-terrors, there were also many jokes.
Pastor, maybe you should confirm the bat. Then it won’t ever come back. (Ha ha, everyone’s a joker until someone gets rabies).
Pastor, you know that the bat is more afraid of you than you are of it (I doubted that very much).
Pastor, they are dying off you know. It is a good sign to have one here. (Really? Did you ever think maybe God realized what a bad idea bats were, and was removing them as a corrective measure?)
Pastor, they are so helpful in keeping the insect population down (So too is Raid!)
As usually happened on Sundays, Brad, our music director extraordinaire, launched into the offertory hymn as a way of getting us back to our seats so we could continue with the service. (Darn it Brad, why’d you have to go start playing? Now I cannot delay the horror of approaching the altar anymore).
When I turned to head back towards the dreaded, beast-afflicted altar, lo and behold, the miraculous work of hospitality had been accomplished. For the disciples, lead by Dave Berg, (the very same Dave Berg who had toured me for my interview and never once mentioned the scourge of bats in the building) these beautiful souls, demonstrated a hospitality which was the bees knees (bats knees? do bats have knees?) of grace.
They had taken one of the little folding tv-tables usually used to rest coffee cups at fellowship time. It had been set up near the piano, a good 20 feet away from the terrifying (to me), beastly, highly-likely rabies-ridden bat. Then they had brought the communion elements to the table and set everything up, so that I would not have to endure the trauma of drawing close to the bat.
Hospitality. Sometimes, it is recognizing another’s limitations with love, and changing your own norms to allow someone else to feel peace in the midst of fear.
Hospitality. Sometimes, it is laying your own knowledge and preferences aside, and privileging someone else’s fear and discomfort - making changes to welcome the one who is afraid or uncomfortable to the table.
In all kinds of ways aside from this bat-altar-altering incident, the disciples of this congregation extended the loving arms of hospitality to me. For extending such hospitality to me, for teaching me how a church can mean hospitality, I am deeply thankful.
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(photographs taken from St Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church Cambridge Facebook page, with permission from Lorre Calder).