Monday, July 13, 2015

The Dance with Church: Forward, and Back

I've been dancing with church, and this particular move involves taking a step back.

Regular Sunday worship isn't doing it for me lately, and I can't say why. I got peeved when I'd planned to go to two services last Sunday--one Episcopal, the other, Congregationalist. To "compare notes," I told a friend. "No!" she said, "that's not what we're there for! We'll be present to each and enjoy the moment!"

Easy for her to say.

Sometimes, for me, worship is more about taking notes than about letting oneself be changed. Of course the Spirit shows up. But for the last few months, I've barely been giving It a chance.

Until I met the Rev. Robert H. Thompson, chaplain at Philip's Exeter School. Pastor Robert was a guest preacher at the local church on a small enclave in the Long Island Sound.

I was a few minutes late to the service, in its white clapboard chapel with the vibrant tiger lillies lining the neat brick walk around the building.

I heard him before I saw him: a baritone belting out the hymn. There's something about a preacher who can carry a tune.

When I entered the sanctuary, I saw the church's pastor on the left up in the narthex, the guest pastor on the right. One had on white robes, called an alb, the other, black, in the style of Calvin. One had mocha skin and the other, brown. Both were well over six feet tall. M., the host pastor, led us through the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer. "Knowledge puffs up, but love lifts up," was one of his favorite chants, borrowed from the Apostle Paul.

When his guest got up to the pulpit, he started to speak about how today's scripture--the story of Herodias dancing before the king and, later, beheading St. John the Baptist--was not a text that spoke to him at all. Rather, his mind and heart were in Columbia, South Carolina, where the flag had recently been removed from the State House.

Pastor Robert said he had watched the ceremony and been moved by the sight of two white State Troopers furling that flag and handing it to a State Trooper who was African American. Tears smarted to my eyes. I can't tell you what the rest of the words were in this sermon, they were eloquent, amazing, perfect.

I can report that Reverend Thompson came down from his perch above the pews and got in people's faces. He said the reason why such a symbol of hate had come down was connection--between people who were different. That was the change that was making it possible. And connection was what he longed to build with all-white communities like ours. He reached out and gently touched the shoulder of a man in a navy blazer. He complemented a woman: "pretty dress!"but what he was asking was: who are we, in these clothes, in this faith? What is our spiritual identity in this new longing for connection? How can we deepen our ties with one another, and not just with people who are like us?

I grew up watching such preachers as James Forbes and Sloane Coffin hold forth from the lofty heights of the pulpit at Riverside Church, NY, never dreaming in a million years that I, too, would be called to a life of faith. But in all those years, I don't think I'd ever seen something like this. The guest preacher was inhabiting the words, making them sing, saying that he offered his own life as "stuff" for use to illustrate his points, because "maybe you can make something of it." What he had endured. The times he'd fallen short. "And oh, LORD! There have been aplenty," he moaned, as he held his head in his hands, his inky robes flying behind his towering frame as he swept down the aisle, colors ablaze on his sleeves.

I cried because I wanted connection, too-- with the world outside my privileged life, and with God.

The school chaplain modeled a vital approach to faith by being vulnerable, and real, mopping his brown with a handkerchief folded neatly into a square. He did so by bringing the very world of hate and destruction--as evidenced by the Charleston civilian and clergy murders of black men and women at the hands of a white man just a few months before--right into our daily lives.

This is why I won't give up on church any time soon. Not while there are folks like Pastors M. and R., handing me the silver chalice as they held my gaze, the closets thing I'll ever get to an embodied form of God, saying: "my sister, the cup of blessing, poured out for you."

Sunday, June 2, 2013

"A Gesture of Love That Outlasts Death"

It was not a great day for church, never mind that "church" is my business. I was too hot, tired, and disconnected from God to think it was worthwhile. I spent the first groggy half-hour of the morning sitting in my yard with a cup of coffee, staring at the daisies. (This, too, could be church, I tried to convince myself.) What, in any case, would real church give me that I didn't already have?

A vague blend of guilt, duty, and a false sense of my own piety sent me back, finally, into the house to dress, and then gruffly walk out the door past my bewildered family members, blissfully unaware of the battle that sometimes raged within me.  What did church--or being Christian--matter? Who could prove it was essential to believe?

So I drove into Boston, rewarding myself with treats for the road: a tall iced coffee and a banana. As I poured the milk into the clear plastic coffee cup, it made swirling patterns as it curled into the black depths. Instantly this small task evoked a memory. My late father--who shunned church after his ten years' forced enrollment in Jesuit boarding school--always liked watching the milk dance in his own iced coffee. So much of the past was gone--my father, and much of his family during the war. But now, as the two liquids combined in their flight of fancy, I, too, paused in this small moment of joy, and death separated us a little bit less.

I must've inherited the man's volatile moods, which might explain why I was unusually railing at the very institution I had spent seven years studying in Divinity School. Still, I parked in the secret spot that other church members had suggested over five years ago when I first visited this church. I walked into the sanctuary, as briskly as I'd walked out of my house--eyes down, heading for the pews. I picked a spot I liked with a good, close-up view of the organist, a world-class musician who'd never let me down yet; I knew that if all else failed, there would be some musical magic that the service would provide.

The introit happened. The call to worship was said. I barely heard any of its wise words--because I was still stuck in my own skull ("If you open your eyes but do not recognize the Holy One, come here!") Hymns, greetings, Scripture, the sermon. ("The Spirit is leading a dance of joy.") These prayers, with the ultimate power to heal and to transform, scrolled over me like a gelatinous film   spools around its reels. As if I were still living in my own silent movie.

And then there was this chunky cube of bread in my hand. Communion.

I stared at it, a modern version of the white Pepperidge Farm sandwich bread we used to consume in the 70s.  When you molded it with your tongue, madeleine-shaped wedges would stick to the roof of your mouth. You could roll it into little balls and blow it through a straw--I had friends who did. A spongy slice would go well with melted muenster cheese and Campbell's tomato soup while lying on your stomach and soaking up a new episode of the original Let's Make a Deal.

But this grown-up bread had a new life. It sat there, explaining. And all at once a torrent of thoughts poured forth. It has to matter. This bread--for the past, the present, and a future I will not know. It has to mean something that Christ was, is, and will be. And if Christ is to live in me, I have to matter, too.

The Gospel lesson had been taken from Matthew's mention of the Great Commandment: love God with your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. What, even after so much study, did this mean? I felt I was seeing it for the first time. Did it mean: God before all else? Don't distract yourself with "clouds in your coffee?"

Our pastor began to pray over the elements. Despite the 90 degree heat and the sure weight of his robe, he was saying that the Son of God, in blessing, breaking, and sharing bread and wine on the night he was betrayed: "made a gesture of love that outlasts death."

I looked at the bread in my palm, and it seemed to try to get through to me again: this is the bread of life, and that means, you matter. I am the bread of life. Now, take some bread that I might live in you.

Well, this was a revelation: tears of joy on a chunk of Pepperidge Farm. It felt like the heavens had opened up and a chorus of angels was singing this fresh, re-formed faith into life. That's how the church choir made it sound--their deeply mournful harmonies rising up high into the gilt vault of the church's dome.

And now we were singing, the vibration of our voices changing us. For the beauty of each hour of the day and of the night. The beauty of this hour had made us new.

The cup, when passed following the bread, for its part, was not filled with mere wine.

It was sherry, a taste that shot me back again, forty-five years to a time when my teacher parents would hold "sherry parties" in our Danish modern-furnished flat, first in Upper Manhattan, then here in Cambridge, on Langdon Street, off Massachusetts Avenue. The liquor (which they rarely drank otherwise) now sent a silent stream of comfort and calm down my throat, as if salvation were something like that black iced coffee being brought to life by a shot of cream. For all its darkness,  life is a privilege, I now remembered, and I was to live it ... With all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." With all of you. It was almost as if a voice whispered: This is the cup of blessing. Now it is yours to know what to do with it.

A liminal space had been explored, a jaunt into the holy. As quickly as it had opened up to me, though, it disappeared. Not every moment can be full of enlightenment. But that does not mean we can give up the quest.

Weary at my own ignorance, I looked up. Of the four maroon leather-covered hymnals lined up side by side in the pew pockets in front of me, only one had a word scrawled in big, carefully pencilled letters across the top edge of its stacked pages, perhaps by some bored teen many Sundays before. It was a sign, as if God had to repeat himself to be heard.

In capital letters, it read: LOVE.