Ushers have long occupied a place of solemn glory in the church—and by “usher,” I don’t simply mean “door greeter” (though these men and women are valuable servants as well). I’m talking about the old-school troop of reverend men who show up in suits every Sunday, keep watch at the sanctuary doors, and—in hushed tones and with sure gestures—direct you to your seat in the house of the Lord.
I suppose part of the reason for my sense of awe at ushers is that my dad was one when I was a little kid—head usher, in fact. On Sundays, he and his fellows directed the seating, the offering collection, and the administration of the Lord’s Supper. In his charcoal grey three-piece, he used to diagram the other ushers’ respective territories and movement patterns with a geometer’s precision (he’s an engineer, so naturally he diagrammed everything).
In my childhood eyes, ushers seemed like the most important people in the service, rivalled only by the pastor. I could not name it as such back then, but their presence to me felt like what I imagine the glory of the Old Testament priests and Levites felt like to Israel.
Like ushers, those men of old had a number of tasks around the temple courts. Worship was serious work, and it needed to run smoothly. The heart of their work, though, was to bring the people into God’s presence while still maintaining the holiness of the Lord’s worship. Indeed, the two tasks went together—they were called to guard the house of the Lord from any defiling impurity precisely so the community could experience the blessing of his company. Priests had a unique privilege and solemn glory: that of mediating the joyous, holy presence of God.
In many churches, ushers still capture the Levitical priests’ sense of solemn glory. As we enter our churches, many of us are greeted by their gracious, restrained smiles, inviting us in to enjoy the hospitality of the Lord’s house. Even when people rush in late, filled with haste, anxiety, and (possibly) anger over the Sunday morning rush, a good usher will assure, with an air of self-effacing competence, that they will not be without a seat for long. Much as our welcoming Lord makes space within his family for the broken, the hasty, and the sinful, a good usher will make space in the pews for all.
Hospitality in the house of the Lord has an order to it, though. Ushers don’t leave you to wander about, disruptive—the holy one of Israel is in attendance, after all. The courts into which we are welcomed belong to the great king. Though God is everywhere, ushers remind us that we are entering a set-apart place for this hour a week—in these pews, with these people, at this table—so we can meet with the Lord. They ensure that we don’t rob ourselves of the majestic holiness of God through distraction, that we are free to feel his glory outshining all the petty cares with which we are burdened day in and day out.
This, I think, is the source of the usher’s solemn glory: that they reinforce the utter graciousness of the Lord’s marvelous and boundless welcome.
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