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Belief Matters: All things happen at once

Depending upon whom you ask, either the author Ray Cummings or physicist Albert Einstein said, "Time is what happens so that everything doesn't happen at once." It's a great theory, regardless of who said it, and catchy too. Still, I don't know about you, but as for me, on many days, it really feels just that: a theory.

Often enough to notice, it seems as everything is actually happening at once: work expectations, family commitments, illnesses, appliances failing and laundry that seems to multiply in a way that impresses even the rabbits. I've had a string of about four weeks like that now. All things happened, both good and not-so-good things, and all at once.

Happy Protestant though I am, you know what has helped me to offer myself some welcome grace when I want to hide from time? The Greek Orthodox.

The first and most wonderful Orthodox worship service I attended about 15 years ago has given me breath and grace. It took a nanosecond, after I entered the sanctuary, for this Lutheran to realize that we weren't in Kansas anymore.

Every single sense was engaged: smells, by way of incense and holy oils; touch, by way of people kissing icons, vestments, and each other; taste, by way of bread and wine; sound, by way of bells, chanting, and singing; and sight, by way of icons, candles, and the painted dome above us. But the lasting impression was of the constant movement of the people who had come to worship. Nobody sat still. There was nothing but bustle. It seemed as if everyone were walking into worship whenever they pleased, and leaving whenever they decided it was time to go. This modest (and relatively punctual) Lutheran could not make sense of it. We don't like to slide into even the back pew late, not to mention sit quietly in the front pew, let alone walk all around the sanctuary for all to see.

So I had to ask: what was possibly going on? And here is what I was told: The Orthodox understands that all of creation is called to worship God. While that is true, they also understand that all of creation cannot be in worship all of the time. And so people come and go in worship, trusting that when they are not there, others are worshipping on their behalf.

It's a beautiful notion, for it both recognizes our own finitude, but also rests in an understanding of the wideness of the Communion of the Saints, the collective body of the people of God who, among other things, can worship on our behalf when we (for any number of reasons) can't.

The point, by the way, is not that since others are getting up to go to church, we can snuggle under the covers instead.

No, the Orthodox sees worship as the joyous central participation in the reign of God, the most sacred moment when the people of God come nearest to God. It is an occasion for communion and for community, both of those immediately gathered in that exact space and time, and those who came before, and those who will come later, and those who, for whatever reason, just can't be in that space at that time for any reason.

These last few weeks, I've been wanting to snuggle under those covers to hide from time, I confess.

Instead, thanks to the reminders of the Orthodox, I will throw them off, do what I can do in the time I have, and trust that both God and the people of God will understand when all things, contrary to the laws of physics, do indeed all happen at once.

Anna Madsen is a "freelance theologian," living with her two children in Two Harbors. Through OMG: Center for Theological Conversation, she offers a place for individuals and groups, laity and clergy, to come for questions, conversation, and study, and she also regularly presents, blogs, and writes.