[Note: this was originally written in January 2018]

I am off TV (no cable, no dish, just NetFlix and Sling on my TV.) But the other day I bumped into the old Clint Eastwood movie, Pale Rider. I had not seen it in decades. (I am not a Clint Eastwood fan.) But I had watched it once, after an experience at New Horizons, the drop-in center for the teen prostitutes in Seattle where I worked before joining the Navy. We had only four paid staff, and worked out of a condemned building. Ron, one of the staff, took some of the street kids to see the movie. Afterwards he marveled that besides enjoying it, they had all caught a single line in the movie, and talked about it afterwards. In the movie, a teenage girl offers herself to Eastwood’s character the Preacher (who is also a gunman assassin.) Instead of accepting her offer, the Preacher says “You need to know how to love, before you make love.” Our teen prostitutes totally agreed. If life was as it should be, there should be love before “making love.”

Bumping into the movie again, and watching it (albeit fast-forwarding in parts), I marveled once again at the wisdom of that one line. It has made me think of how many areas where a variant of that truth could be applied. Such as, “One should know they are coming into the presence of God before taking part in a worship service.”

Once while deployed a fellow chaplain priest and I went from ship to ship in the Middle East to offer worship services on the small boats that had no chaplain. Lez, my fellow chaplain, had the heavy Polish accent of his parents. He was possibly the worst singer I have ever had the misfortune to stand next to during a song. He struggled with understanding jokes and humor. Yet if ever there was a man who could transmit coming into the presence of God, it was him. We were on a small Cutter (even smaller than a Destroyer), which was patrolling the area. Small crew of under 100, small spaces for everything. We held our worship services in the galley, the dining area for the crew, which consisted of six booths, and the kitchen immediately behind us. Our services were just before lunch, so the meal was being prepared in the background. (To give the cooks credit, they were as silent as they could be.) My turnout was decent: they filled the six booths. Throughout the services those on duty had to respond to calls and leave then return, but all was taken in stride.

Lez’s turnout was standing-room only, truly packed. Unlike me, who had simply brought my stole, he had packed his robes in a duffel bag, along with all of the implements for Mass. Gravely as the crew gathered, he donned his robes. Since there was no alter/ communion table, he put an intricately embroidered cloth over an emergency box on the wall, then placed the chalice and hosts on that. (I have a picture of that scene, which I treasure. His eyes are serious, inward. Behind him, the box has been transformed.) For the next 45 minutes, that galley area became sacred space. One sailor had been an alter boy, and volunteered to assist. Together with the crew they offered up the Mass.

Looking around at the faces, I was struck by how serious and focused all were. They were using their limited free time not to sleep, not to do laundry, not to write home or work out, but to come to Mass. They were there to worship God. It was not a church sanctuary, but if ever there was now a holy space, this was it.

As the mass went on, other crew members had to pass through the area, potentially interrupting.. (The open area to pass through to get through to another section of the ship was only a person wide.) But Lez, would simply step forward without missing a beat, so they could pass behind him. All went without a hitch. They truly took part in a Mass. I was in awe. I had just witnessed what is hard to explain or describe: true worship on holy ground.

“You need to know how to love before you make love.” “You need to be aware of coming into the presence of God before you worship.” We have much to rediscover as Protestants, about coming into the presence of God when we worship, Are our worship services sacred time, a time of love and devotion, or simply “making love” without the needed prerequisite?