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."