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All God’s Gifts

Reading from the Bible at her new church proved to be an inspiring experience.

All God's Gifts

People shifted in their seats as I walked toward the podium to read for the first time in my family’s new Florida church. It was much bigger than the Ohio church where I had grown up and studied to be a lector with Clarence Rivers, a well-known writer of liturgical music. When I signed up for his class, I’d never really spoken in public before, but I knew I wanted to play a more active role in  the church service.

Approaching the podium now I remembered those early Saturday classes in an old stone church building without any heat. Five of us shivered in our coats on winter mornings, but it was worth it. Father Rivers was a strict teacher—he expected a lot from us. But he was also inspiring.

“When you read Scripture, I want you to reach down inside yourselves,” he said. “You’re going to learn to find your untapped voice. That’s what you’ll use to bring God’s words to life.” He believed we could do it, and he made us believe we could do it too.

We worked on pronunciation, inflection, tone, pace and body language. He taught us the importance of making eye contact with the audience. Perhaps the most crucial thing he taught us was what we were doing when we were giving a reading. “When you participate in the church service, you are giving people a gift from God. That’s why we work so hard to open ourselves to the words on the page.”

Under Father Rivers’s guidance, I learned to stop thinking of myself as a woman speaking in public. I was the tool God used to share good news with others.

Now I was ready to share that gift with my new church. My husband, son, daughter and I had been attending for several weeks, but we still didn’t feel like we fit in. Our young family was very different from a lot of the other church members—many of them were senior citizens, most of them white. I’d hoped seeing me up at the podium now, where I’d always been back in Ohio, would help my family feel more at home.

I found the reading in the Bible and looked out at the audience, just as Father Rivers had taught me. Once again I was struck by how many people filled the church—and how few of those people looked like me. I took a breath to calm my nerves. “A reading from Psalm seventy-one…”

Momentarily I was distracted by a cold sensation on my right. Not a draft, exactly. It crossed in front of me and stopped to my left, like a presence. Despite the coolness, it seemed to radiate love, and it awakened in me an incredible joy. I’d never felt anything like it.

My voice rang out and filled the church. My gestures flowed smoothly from the meaning of what I was saying. My body, my voice, my mind—they all seemed to come into a perfect alignment. All Father Rivers’s lessons came alive as I spoke. “In you, Lord, I have taken refuge…”

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I looked out at the congregation. My husband and children gazed up at me, but few other people did. Some looked at the ceiling. Some at their feet. Some whispered to each other. The few whose faces were turned to me looked uncomfortable. But I wasn’t thrown off my reading. I didn’t stumble or lose my place. On this morning nothing could get in the way of the message.

This is what it feels like to share God’s gift, I thought. “My mouth is filled with your praise, and with your glory all the day…”

As I finished the reading I looked out once more on the congregation. The cold sensation crossed in front of me, back the way it came. Then it was gone. I returned to my seat beside my family, taking the peaceful feeling with me.

The church pastor stood up at his podium in front of the altar. Instead of beginning the Gospel reading, he made an announcement. “When someone volunteers to help out in the service, they are giving every one of you a gift,” he said sternly. “And you should receive that gift as if it comes from God—because that’s exactly who it comes from.”

The pastor had used almost the same words Father Rivers had used to teach me in Ohio all those years ago!

“That was the best reading you’ve ever done,” my husband said afterwards. He’d seen me give a lot of readings, and always gave me an honest critique. “You didn’t look nervous at all. I’ve never seen you that confident. I was proud of you!”

I realized, then, what that presence at my side had been.

My family didn’t stay long at that church. We moved on to an even bigger—and much friendlier—one. But months later I ran into one of the other parishioners there, one of the few black members of that church.

“We miss you all so much at church,” she said. “But you know, in your short time there, you made a big difference. There were a lot of us feeling isolated, not really part of the church, and people have made a real effort to change all of that. You were the start of the change, you know, that day you got up in front and read from the podium.”

Sometimes God puts us in a place for a purpose. And he puts an angel beside us to help us fulfill that purpose. What a wonderful gift.

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