For the past several years Embrace has hosted a Christmas party for our volunteers. We never really have much of a plan but somehow every year something amazing happens. As I shared in my book, Becky and Cynthia met at an Embrace Richmond Christmas party which ultimately led to Becky inviting Cynthia to live with her. This led to Cynthia ultimately getting her citizenship, escaping her abuser and now living independently with her beautiful children and her new husband. Last year, I shared the miracle of Yolanda’s gift of dance here on this blog.
This year it was Chinary whom God used to deliver a blessing. It has become our tradition that after we share a pot luck meal, we share how being a part of each other’s lives has blessed us over the past year. Debra shared that she now talks to her neighbors and has made many new friends. John shared how much he loves serving in the community. Mary and Dot shared how grateful they are to connect their church with the Hillside community. Everyone had shared when Chinary, one of our AmeriCorps members, timidly stood. She shared a bit of her story,
“I never sang in public until one Christmas I found myself locked up. Everyone on my cell block was so down and I wanted to cheer them up, so I just started singing. It felt so good to be used by God in that way. This week, I finally got my voting rights restored and to celebrate how far God has brought me, I would love to sing the song I sang to my incarcerated sisters that Christmas. I hope it is a blessing to you.”
Her beautiful voice then rang out, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” As she sang, the spirit of God descended upon that room with such power that everyone knew that moment was sacred. Though her song contained no spiritual language, no “Jesus is Lord,” no reference to God, all of us worshiped with Chinary in spirit. That windowless, drab, classroom was transformed into a beautiful sanctuary of the most high and we touched heaven as her voice lifted up to God.
When I think of the word sanctuary, I think of places where people worship. The simplest definition of worship that I have seen is, “an act of devotion directed toward God.” If I ever write another book, I think I will title it “Turning the Streets into the Sanctuary.” Cynthia’s testimony, Yolanda’s Dance, Chinary’s song were all moments of intense worship for me and others who experienced them. They were all unplanned, uncontrollable, and none of them could ever be replicated. They all reminded me that the Holy Spirit is a wild, untamable, uncontrollable force.
We often relegate worship to church buildings, with planned liturgies, worship songs and rituals. But if worship is an act of devotion toward God, then our spirit soaring in wonder at the sight of a sunset, or poem written as an act of praise toward the All Mighty, a dance passionately performed out of devotion toward the Devine, or a song of gratitude sung by one who has been restored, are all equally valid forms of worship. What if we went through life spontaneously worshiping God whenever and where ever we felt led? What if we lived every day as if it were Sunday morning and saw every street as a potential sanctuary? In the future when people ask me “Where do you worship?,” I am going to answer them honestly and say, “In the streets of Richmond.”
It is often difficult for us to accept this wild spirit of God that shows up so unexpectedly in our midst. We want to plan it, produce it, capture it, control it, market it, and harness its power. We want to create structures around it and develop a process by which it can be guaranteed. We know that at the crucifixion of Christ, the veil separating the Holy of Holies was torn, a tangible sign that God’s spirit does not dwell in man made structures. Yet, we continue to try to capture and control that spirit.
Do we make space for this wild, un-tamed side of God in our lives and in our churches?
I am so thankful that Chinary reminded me what real worship is. This advent season, I continue to pray “Come Lord Jesus come, invade our lives with your wild and mysterious Holy Spirit.” Can’t wait to see what God does next!