Wearing Crash Helmets to Church

Not long ago I broke my right hand and I was in a splint for weeks. This caused drama at worship time.

During the regular congregational “exchange of the peace,” we greet each other with a soulful handshake and hello. This presented a small personal ecclesiastical snafu. I couldn’t use that hand. (I had another hand, but forget it. It was in pain too: from overuse.) So I tried a fist bump, hoping people would catch on.

Results were mixed. One woman saw the gauze-wrapped fist and burst out laughing. There wasn’t time to ponder her cackle or explain my situation. There were other hands to encounter. Some people looked confused when, crustacean-like, I presented my traumatized claw. Others understood immediately and gently fist-bumped back. One man regarded my orthopedic mishap tenderly, asking if I’ll be okay soon. I love church. People are so nice.

The experience reminded me again how everyone brings such varied expectations, different temperaments, to the worship world. Some are stricken at the least unscripted liturgical detour. Others go with the flow and welcome spontaneity. All this is theological diversity in action.

Then there’s Annie Dillard.

Dillard is one of my early writer heroes, and I imagine she would nod at this little prehensile moment of truth in the pew. To her, the observed world is a place ablaze, where human beings poignantly, comically try to make spiritual sense of it all. A big theme for her is God’s presence, absence and fearful persistence. (Her 2016 book The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New gathers from various Dillard works over the years.)

She writes with affection and mischief about church. She looks askance at smooth-running worship services with their “unwarranted air of professionalism” as they call upon the inconceivable Creator of the cosmos.

“Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?” she asks.

We should approach infinite divine power not with complacency or perfectionism but with fear and trembling and crash helmets and signal flares, she advises.

“Week after week we witness the same miracle: that God is so mighty that he can stifle his own laughter,” she writes in Teaching a Stone to Talk.

“Week after week, we witness the same miracle: that God, for reasons unfathomable, refrains from blowing our dancing bear act to smithereens. Week after week Christ washes the disciples’ dirty feet, handles their very toes, and repeats, It is all right – believe it or not – to be people.”

Yes it is. I’m glad to connect with people who graciously stand with a rumpled fellow worshiper until his grasp could heal. But I hope to continue the fist bump during the peace, just to mess with them.