This past Saturday evening, I went to mass at the local Catholic church. I am not in the habit of attending mass (or any other church’s services for that matter), but Saturday was special: There was a baptism. A little girl connected to the St. Paul family of faith was getting baptized, and I didn’t want to miss the chance to be a part of speaking faithful promises over her and her family.
So I went–to a building I’ve never been in, with many people I’ve never met, to pray prayers I don’t usually pray, and sing songs I don’t usually sing, and hear a message from a priest whom, until that night, I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to meet. Some of it felt familiar, like the Psalm chanting and the call and response rhythm that comes with rote prayers. While other parts felt disorienting, like navigating the missal in the pews, when to sit, when to stand, when some people were going to kneel, and what the appropriate response was to be.
Perhaps most disorienting of all was attending a service that I wasn’t leading. There was no one looking to me for a message, or for guidance. I wouldn’t be receiving communion, let alone presiding over it. My participation in all of it was voluntary–a constant invitation to be present and to choose how (or if) I would enter each moment.
And yet, even in my disorientation, God showed up…and in powerful ways. God showed up in the baby girl who was filled with such joy upon her baptism that she giggled, chattered, kicked her legs, and smiled all the way down and up the center aisle of the sanctuary held up high by the priest. God showed up in the cantor who led the psalm chant, raising her hand every time we were to offer our sung response. God showed up in the woman in the pew behind me, who noticed me struggling to find my way through the missal to participate in as much of the liturgy as I could, and offered me guidance over my left shoulder. God showed up during communion as I remained in my pew and watched others partake in a meal I could not. God showed up in my fumbles through responses that were worded just a little differently than I’m used to, and God showed up as I entered the songs.
The truth is, when I was lost, God showed up. And when I knew exactly where I was, God showed up. And the only real difference for me on Saturday night was that I noticed. I noticed all of the ways that God is so close and so familiar and so constant that I so often miss it. Which leads me to believe that I didn’t necessarily need to be somewhere new to notice God’s nearness, but I did need to see in a new way.
Marcel Proust once wrote, "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes." Perhaps our journey toward God is marked not by looking “out there somewhere” for what is Divine, perhaps our journey toward God is marked by noticing the Divine in what is already happening around us, in us, and through us.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes new landscapes are our pathways toward seeing with new eyes. And yet, constantly seeking new landscapes can keep us from noticing what is right before us–How God is showing up for us right where we are, just as we are. So, if you’re disoriented in your life right now, be encouraged. And if you know exactly where you are in your life right now, be encouraged. God is present. God is showing up. In a baby’s chatter, in familiar rhythms, in a stranger’s guidance, and at tables that weren’t set for you. God is present. God is showing up. God notices…do you?
Learning to see with new eyes with you,
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen was called as the pastor of St. Paul Congregational UCC in June of 2020. Prior to her call to St. Paul, Pr. Melissa worked as a hospice chaplain in the Ames, IA area, following pastorates at rural churches in Central Iowa and Southern Illinois. Pr. Melissa is a second-career pastor with a background in agribusiness and production & supply operations. She received her M.Div. from Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, and holds a MA Ed. in Adult Education and Training, and a BA in Organizational Communications.