“Lead me, guide me, along the way,” begins the well known hymn. Last Wednesday Marilyn Robinson, a second year Master of Divinity student here at Wartburg Seminary, and I were privileged to lead the Wartburg community in the Wednesday morning communion service. Faculty take turns preaching and presiding at worship and students assist in planning and leading daily chapel. Nothing was unusual in that regard.
I frequently quote theologian Letty Russell, a mentor of mine and many others from Yale Divinity School, when she wrote, that Jesus did not say to the blind person, “You can walk,” nor to the person who could not walk, “You can see.” Jesus met people in their need and also cared about societal problems related to those human needs.
Letty's words remind me that each of us is unique in our need and that our ministry to people should to be specific to their individual needs.
Chapel with Marilyn last week bore that out and took me one step further. Marilyn has problems with sight and I, because I live with the chronic illness CFS, have difficulty standing. So together, and with the guidance of sacristan Gloria Stubitsch, we had to figure out how to lead that day in a way that would honor Wartburg's liturgical tradition, and be possible for each of us. We talked. Because we would be seated in the chancel and the lectern and communion table are down on the floor in the midst of the people, we wondered how Marilyn would move down the steps. I could guide her, walking with my cane, but she suggested putting blue tape on the edge of each of the three stairs so she could see them better. And she would need large print for the first biblical text and the parts of the liturgy she would lead.
I need to sit as much as I can. I could stand with assistance of my cane while she held the large worship book. She would guide the people as to the appropriate times to sit and stand; I said “Just don't watch me. I quietly sit at those times and no one seems to notice if you are guiding them clearly.” Likewise I need a stool upon which to sit to preach and hand out the communion bread. I have done that for years and while I at first thought it would be a distraction to the community, I have discovered, here at Wartburg and other places I preach, that it actually communicates hospitality to those with a variety of disabilities.
So, we were moving along well in our planning, becoming partners. So much so, that soon I almost forgot whose need was which. “Oh yes, I don't need the large print for the Gospel lesson...that's your need.” And Marilyn found that she could easily see the stool I needed at the lectern. “I don't need to sit on the stool but it won't be in my way.” As our needs intermingled, our help for each other intertwined. Soon we were all laughing together!
The day of worship came. With prayer, careful planning and in partnership we were able to lead together. While some may have thought (and think!) that we would have needed others to lead in our stead, the service moved along with grace and dignity. The assisting minister usually prepares the table and pours the wine into the chalice, but I did that since Marilyn was not sure she could see well enough to pour well. I stood while at the altar, but raised one hand in blessing while simply holding on to the table with my other hand. Another team member, a communion assistant, moved my stool from the lectern to the place for distribution while people shared the peace. Marilyn and I took one another's arm, as needed, she to steady my body and I to guide where she could not see. I sang the Eucharistic liturgy and Marilyn, with her rich voice, led from memory the hymns (including also, “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me) from her African-American heritage.
One could say, “No one noticed,” these small measures and be accurate. No one seemed to think the service any different than usual. On the other hand, perhaps it is good if some did notice so that they might conclude, “All the people of God can participate in and take their role in leading worship.” Gloria said afterward, I had tears in my eyes as we sang together, “Lead me, guide me along the way.” I felt Letty's presence too. Christ meets each of us where we are and asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” and then calls us to follow him as servant leaders.