The Journey of Lent

I have been ranting a bit about the word “journey.” Like so many words, if we use it too much, it loses meaning. Lately I’ve been hearing too much about the cancer journey. A friend now receives regular posts from a blog called “Your Young Adult Cancer Journey.”  We talk about our faith journey, our life journey, our vocational journey, our journey to adulthood. When someone is near death, we pray for their journey to the next chapter. I recently preached a sermon on the Transfiguration gospel that begged for the word, and I refused to use it–instead, I talked about the gospel being about movement, about Jesus’ trek to Jerusalem, about the mountain top as a way-station, and about our call to trudge on level ground.

(My sermon looked like this. This is a change for me in my homiletical journey…what do your sermons look like when you’re ready to move from preparation to delivery?)

All journey-bashing aside, those of us who follow Jesus are, in fact, embarking on what we often refer to as our Lenten journey which is, at least for me, very much like all of life. Lent is a time to look at what I let between me and God, a time to clean up and a time to pare down. It is a specific journey through the calendar toward Holy Week and Easter, and also a journey toward only God knows where. I came across a poem recently by Ellen Bass which might be my very favorite poem this week, “Asking Directions in Paris.” You can watch and listen to the poet read it here, and I hope you do. If you don’t, here are the lines that stopped me in my tracks:

And as you…set off full of groundless hope,
you think this must be how it is
with destiny: God explaining
and explaining what you must do,
and all you can make out is a few
unconnected phrases, a word or two, a wave
in what you pray is the right direction.

*

If you find yourself on a Lenten journey or any other kind of journey, I pray that you will, indeed, find yourselves full of hope, groundless or otherwise, that God will lead you in the right direction.

 

Psalm 143, appointed for Ash Wednesday

 

When in Jerusalem…

Coptic Madonna and Child


Razzouk family stamps

Several of our pilgrims came to the Holy Land already planning to get a tattoo as a lifelong souvenir, and several more decided to get one once they’d hung around Razzouk’s, a tiny cozy shop just a block away from the Gloria Hotel where we stay in the Old City.  The shop has been in business since the 1300s. The Razzouk family are Coptic Christians, and many of the tattoo stamps used in place of a printed stencil are centuries old, inspired by traditional coptic images.  Kierstin Brown’s Madonna & Child is a good example.  Long before the Crusades, the Copts claimed to be the “the original pilgrims” to the Holy Land, and etched a tiny cross on their inner wrist to indicate their identity as faithful Christians during a time of strife and mistrust. Several of us got these tiny wrist crosses (which Wassim Razzouk took less than two minutes to create—how painful can it be?). The traditional Jerusalem Cross is seen everywhere throughout the city. While it has in the past been referred to as the “Crusaders Cross,” it is also recognized in Jerusalem as the Jerusalem Cross, the Jesus Cross, the Pilgrim’s Cross, and the Franciscan Cross. The identification with the Crusaders is troublesome to some, and yet it is perhaps an opportunity to reclaim the image from a particular era for all the centuries since, including ours.

Jerusalem Cross

Christians are a very small minority in the Holy Land, and make up less than two percent of the population in Jerusalem. Especially for those of us who inhabit the Pacific Northwest, where so many of us find ourselves reticent to share about our faith, wearing the symbol of our faith on our arm in such a committed way is a way for us to show solidarity with Christians who struggle in this Holy Land with all of its challenges, as well as to proclaim our faith to those around us in our own settings.

Day Seven (or Eight?): Living Stones

We’ve quickly moved into a space where time runs together. This happens on vacation, pilgrimage, silent retreat, backpacking trip. It’s hard to keep track of details, and yet the richness of experience continues to flow. This is as it should be.

On Sunday (which was more or less the eighth day), we worshiped at St. George’s Cathedral, and visited afterwards with its Dean. Kevin Meadows offers this reflection on the day:

This morning we attended Mass at St. George’s Cathedral, the Cathedral Church of the Diocese of Jerusalem. The Very Rev’d Hosam E. Naoum, Dean of the Cathedral, officiated the Mass and provided the sermon. We had a chance to have tea and coffee with him and several parishioners afterwards. He shared with us a brief history of the Cathedral, an overview of the Diocese of Jerusalem, as well as the diocese’s ministries here in Jerusalem.

The Very Rev. Hosam Naoum and Mother Sara

The Diocese covers an amazing, and amazingly complex, geography – including not just Jerusalem, but also parishes in Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Syria and Lebanon. He spoke of the ministries they provide: health care services, educational programs and other humanitarian work. He also spoke of the role of the Diocese, and Christians in general, in ongoing peace and reconciliation efforts between the various religious groups and nation states wrestling for control of this land. While commenting on what drives him in this work, he noted that we are a people of hope. “And remember,” he said, “right near here is the empty tomb.” The empty tomb is the source of hope at the center of our faith and at the center of the day-to-day lives of people living, working, and praying in Jerusalem. It is this hope, the Dean was quick to remind us, that inspires him and many other Christians in the region, in spite of devastating conflict and struggle. Christ has risen!

And this relates to a final ministry Reverend Naoum mentioned – the role of the diocese in supporting the pilgrimage of Christians like us. In talking about pilgrimage, the Dean distinguished between encountering what he called “ancient stones” and “living stones.” The ancient stones are the ones we visit, snap pictures of, and read about in pamphlets or books. The living stones, however, are the lives of those impacted by an encounter with the story told by the ancient stones – the story of hope. And what distinguishes our pilgrimage from a mere Holy Land tour, is that we are here to encounter not just the ancient stones, but especially the living ones. We have been blessed to encounter many such living stones while here, as we did while visiting the children at St Vincent Creche/Orphanage; listening to Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb speak of the role of Dar al-Kalima University in changing the lives of the Palestinians students who attend; or listening to the stories of our fellow pilgrims, especially as they describe their encounter with this place.
Ghassan, our tour guide, has said several times that a given site may or may not be the actual place where this or that biblical event happened. The importance of these places lies not so much in geographical accuracy or specificity, but how these places have given birth to a story of hope that transcends time and place, changing the lives of those who believe. It is the story of this place that has meaning, not just the physical location. Being so near these sites merely provides us a more enlivened encounter with that story, the story of the greatest hope of all.
For those of us who are blessed to be on this pilgrimage, I pray that our experience here may make us living stones, perhaps just a little more so than the start of our pilgrimage. For our loved ones, family and friends reading this blog from a distance, I pray that your lives too are changed by your own encounter with the story of hope, even if it you are reading this from a bit further away from these ancient stones.
Kevin’s fellow pilgrim Heidi McElrath offers remarkably similar–but well worth sharing–reflections on living stones: 
The dean (the first indigenous dean, he told us) says pilgrims to the Holy Land who do not meet the local church have come to see the dead stones – the one rolled away from the tomb, the one that Jesus prayed on in Gethsemane, the ones that form the Holy Sepulcher or the Church of the Assumption – but they forget about the living stones, the faithful who make up the church today. These Palestinian Christians have a hard road to walk. The dean explained that though he is Palestinian, he carries an Israeli passport and cannot visit churches in several countries in his diocese, including Syria and Iran. The bishop himself has just visited the episcopal church in Damascus for the first time in almost 6 years (it is still thriving). My 40 minute bus ride to church pales in comparison.

Pilgrims, too, are living stones

As I look around at my fellow pilgrims, I think how they are, too, are living stones. These people I have the honor to love and live with, these are the stones of my church. You who are in Seattle and you who are far away and you who make up the faithful wherever you live. You are the living stones. Seeing you, speaking with you, praying with you, riding a bus with you and a scouting out pomegranate juice with you — these are actions that make pilgrimage a lifelong endeavor.

I am so grateful for the opportunity to be here to see these “dead “stones, these ancient foundations of the faith that have been built upon over and over and over, that have been prayed on for millennia. I’m grateful for the chance to celebrate the Eucharist with believers in Jerusalem. I’m grateful (eternally) for the living stones I get to take back to Seattle with me and those who are waiting for our return. I’m grateful to be on a lifelong pilgrimage together every single day.

Day Six: Bethlehem

The separation wall

Friday in Bethlehem was a full, rich, and hard day. We began with a visit to a portion of the Separation Wall between Jerusalem and Bethlehem covered with murals and graffiti, the art of resistance. We then visited the St. Vincent Creche, an orphanage where we visited with its director and dozens of children, and shared mass together there. Before lunch, we went to the Daral-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture to hear a presentation that was both stirring and extremely informative about the situation in Bethlehem for Christians, as well as about the facts on the ground about resources of land, water, electricity, etc., for Palestinians throughout the region. After lunch we visited the Shepherd’s Field, and sang and prayed in the cave near where the shepherds likely heard the announcement from the angels about the birth of our Savior. After the morning, it was good news many of us needed to hear.

Ryan was very popular at the Creche!

Elizabeth Schroeder has written a separate post about the experience at the Creche. Stephen Cherry blogged about his experience of our day here.

What follows are some words from our many reflections on this intense day.

  • Jesus’ perfect love casts out fear. It’s just jolly hard to get hold of perfect love.
  • Berlin. Belfast. Bethlehem. Brownsville.
  • The sea is so vast and my boat is so small.
  • It’s a very different sea from Galilee.
  • The news all feels really bad, but there’s something hopeful about a room full of Americans hearing it, listening and witnessing.
  • There is an element in all that we saw of the tragedy of some people’s desires leading to others’ suffering.
  • Seeing the things we’ve seen here (the separation wall, the discrimination, the economic disparity) makes it easier for us to recognize it at home.
  • We’ve been following Jesus on this pilgrimage, but it also seems like we’ve been following Mary.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

Day Five: Loaves, Fishes, and Fishing for People 

Today we said goodbye to the Sea of Galilee, but not before several powerful stops along the shore and a memorable boat ride. Once again, pilgrim Joe McDermott provides his reflection on the day:

Five Loaves & Two Fish

One of my favorite books as a young child was about the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes as told from the perspective of a young boy. As we read in Matthew 14:13-21, a crowd numbering 5,000, plus women and children, were gathered near the Sea of Galilee to hear Jesus preach. As evening grew, the disciples wanted to disperse everyone so they could go to the nearby villages to get something to eat as they had nothing to feed them. Jesus instructed them to feed the people. The young boy in my storybook offered what little he had – 5 loaves and 2 fish. Jesus prayed over the food and it was broken and shared. The entire crowd ate their fill and there were 12 large baskets when they collected the leftovers. The small amount the small boy shared, after Jesus’ blessing, miraculously fed the entire crowd. A supernatural miracle for sure as I understood it.

I will always remember how I was struck by an interpretation of this Gospel story when I heard it for the first time – years later as an adult. Perhaps it wasn’t a supernatural miracle that the 5 loaves and 2 fish fed 5,000 plus the women and children. Maybe the real miracle was that the crowd all had bits of food they were hoarding to themselves. The miracle was that one person’s small offering inspired others to share. The miracle was that people shared, both of their abundance and of their necessity, and together there amounted to 12 baskets of abundance. I recognize this understanding as the miracle – that when we all share generously everyone has their fill and there is an abundance.

Today, on the third full day of our being together on pilgrimage in the Holy Land of Israel and Palestine, we began our day at the Church of Heptapegon. On this site from 28-350 AD the Judeo-Christians of Capernaum venerated a large rock upon which Jesus is said to have laid the bread and fish before He fed the 5,000 plus women and children. By about 350 AD the rock was used as an altar at the very center of the church built on this site, built by a Jewish nobleman from Tiberius some venerate as Saint Josipos. In roughly 480 AD a Byzantine church with a rich mosaic floor was erected at the site with the venerated rock placed beneath the altar. During the Persian invasion this Heptapegon Church was destroyed and faded into oblivion. After the Muslim conquest (638 AD), Christian activity ceased around the Sea of Galilee for centuries. It was in 1932 that the ancient church ruins were excavated by Fr. Andreas Evarist Mader SDS and team. The mosaics were found surprisingly largely intact. In the early 1980s the ancient Byzantine basilica was reconstructed.

After visiting the church, our pilgrim group gathered down at the shores of the Sea of Galilee where Mother Sara celebrated a moving outdoor Mass. The setting was inspired, sun-drenched lakeshores Jesus walked. In his sermon, Fr Rob acknowledged the historical places we are visiting – where Jesus walked and lived and demonstrated his divinity. But he ever so warmly called us to not only take in the history we are so surrounded by, but also to be at least as mindful of the Living Christ who is with us on this journey. Jesus among us. Jesus within us. Jesus in one another. And so very much alive today.

Day Four: Nazareth and Galilee with Mary and Jesus

The altar at Duc in Altum Church, with Galilee in the background

We began the day in Nazareth and ended on the Sea of Galilee, the weather changing as often as our location. The end of the day was lovely and full of light, and our pre-dinner sharing felt the same. Heidi McElrath shared her experience and I asked her to write it down to share with all of you.

*

When I was young, I remember being told that Mary was also young. When I’ve been scared, I remember being told that Mary was also scared. When I’ve talked of my desire to be a poet, I remember being told that Mary, too, was a poet. I always found comfort in the thought that God could take someone so weak — someone like me — and use her to enact salvation in the world.

The church of Mary’s Well

Today, we stood in the Basilica of the Annunciation, in the house where tradition holds that Mary was visited by Gabriel, where Jesus’s human body began. We dipped our fingers into the well where Mary collected each day’s water. We walked the land of Jesus’s formation—shaped, drenched, and witnessed by Mary.

The narthex of the Duc in Altum Church

We visited the archaeological site at Magdala—home to another famous Mary—and the beautiful Duc In Altum chapel. The entryway to the building is a huge atrium, held up by eight pillars inscribed with names of our church mothers—Mary Magdalene, Susanna, Salome, Martha and Mary—and one is blank to represent “women of all time who love God and live by faith.”

I have never known so significant or beautiful a space dedicated to the spiritual work of women. To stand on the holy shore of the Sea of Galilee in a room surrounded by the maternal pillars of our church was overwhelming.

Once the majority of our group had left the building, Kierstin, Adrienne, and I took an extra moment to reverence the space and the women it represented. I wished desperately to remember even one setting of the Magnificat that I used to sing so regularly. All that came easily to mind were these lines:

He hath put down the mighty from their seat
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things
and the rich he hath sent empty away.

I have come to see that yes, Mary was a young, scared, poet of a girl, but she was also a bold, revolutionary thinker who worshipped a God who wanted to overthrow hierarchies and class systems. Mary was invested, even before Jesus was born, in feeding the hungry, taking down the mighty, exalting the meek, and she shared this with her son.

This is the Mary who birthed Jesus, who taught him to speak and walk and live. This is the Mary who is our first example of the Christian life.

Heidi, Adrienne, and Kierstin

So with confidence, we three twentysomething women spoke loudly in this room of our mothers: Hail Mary, full of grace. Our Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.

I pray that we can see ourselves reflected in this bold, revolutionary woman, who formed our Savior, who was scared and young and poetic and helped God turn the world upside down.

Amen.

Day Three: Arrival and Transfiguration

Our tired, happy group arrived in Tel Aviv at 9:30am, Israel time, collected ourselves and our luggage, found our guide, Ghassan, and boarded the bus that will be our home away from our various homes away from home for the next 9 days.

“”We drove past small towns and rich farmland to meet up for lunch with our group members who had arrived from other places the previous day. Those people had the benefit of this lovely sunrise over the Sea of Galilee on Tuesday morning; it rained most of the day but we hope for a similar sunrise Wednesday or Thursday!

Joe McDermott contributed the rest of today’s post:

Today at the beginning of our Pilgrimage here in Israel and Palestine, we went to the top of Mount Tabor, where believers hold that the Transfiguration took place. (See: Matthew, Chapter 17)  We’d had many paths to gather here in the Holy Land (I’ll take my pre-pilgrimage holiday over the diversion to Newark and 9 hour layover many shared any day!), and this was a fitting place to begin.

“”

“”

There are two churches at the top of a striking mount rising up out of the plains, one Franciscan and Greek Orthodox (which seems to be closed). The pictures are of the Franciscan church exterior, the nave, detail of the mosaic above the main altar, Rev Rob Rhodes (Associate Rector at St Paul’s) celebrating Mass in the Elijah side chapel, the detail of Moses above the altar in the other side chapel, and a view from the church to the valley below. 
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 It became clear I wasn’t alone finding myself in awe to be standing for the first time in a place Jesus walked.  Through our shared liturgy, we became a transformed gathering of pilgrims, shedding any tourist-identity we still had tagging along.  Jesus reveals himself to us – sometimes in dazzling white – and sometimes asks us to hold that in our hearts until the time is right.  I hold this experience in my heart and know that I will have the skill and insight to share it in the right way when the time is right.  We as a group see ourselves differently as well, transformed by the experience.  We went up the mount perhaps a group of tourists and came down a community of pilgrims.  This is a fitting beginning.

 Growing up Camp Filed, the former Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) summer camp and retreat where Sleeping Lady Conference Center is now outside Leavenworth, Washington, was very important to me and my family.  Thus beginning at Mount Tabor was particularly poignant for me as the Chapel at Camp Field was the Chapel of the Transfiguration and I had occasion to remember dear friends in my prayers there this afternoon.

Remembering where we come from and entering into a spirit of pilgrimage, its been a good day.

 

The subversive power of resurrection

We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

Part of my Lenten journey included the Stations of the Cross most Wednesdays. It was a blessing to make that journey-within-a-journey week after week. If you’ve ever participated in this service you are familiar with the verse and response: “We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.” Saying those words on my knees, over and over in the darkness of the Wednesday evening liturgy got them into my gut in a new way. O Christ, by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

So here we are, on the first day of the week, on the other side of the cross. Do we feel redeemed? What about the world? What would a redeemed world look like? I think most of us would agree that it would look different from our world.

I could tell stories of terror and violence on the other side of the planet, in Brussels, Istanbul, or Jakarta, but I don’t have to; it’s all around us. We could look at poverty and desperation in another hemisphere, but we need only walk around our block. We can read about broken hearts in the daily news, or we can find them in our neighbors, our friends, and sometimes, in ourselves. We could look toward another era, an earlier time, for fear and civic unrest, but it’s here, in our time. More and more people I speak with talk about their fears for our own nation, our place in the world. You don’t need me to tell you stories of bad news.

the-empty-tomb

We live in a time not unlike the time and place where Jesus’ first disciples encountered the empty tomb, a time deeply entrenched in a system of racial and religious prejudice and economic inequity that made everyone powerless to effect change.

What do we do about this? What do we have to say about this on Easter morning? If you get together with friends or family later today and talk to them about your morning, and if they say—as my friends often say—“Oh, yeah, it’s Easter….I forgot,” is there anything to say to them about this day that connects with the rest of life?

Yes. Tell them about the “subversive power of the resurrection.” I’m borrowing the phrase from New Testament theologian Nancy Claire Pittman, who has written that resurrection is “an invitation to live as Jesus lived, a doorway to a life in which meals are shared with enemies, healing is offered to the hopeless, prophetic challenges are issued to the powerful. Only now it is not Jesus who does these things, it is we ourselves who see … the subversive power of the resurrection in order to live it now.”

Tell them about the subversive power of baptism.

Years ago, I had the privilege of participating in the baptism of my two-year-old niece. It was a complicated situation. My niece and her big brother were not churchgoers; my sister-in-law was having them baptized to please her father, who was dying three thousand miles away. My niece was having none of this. She screamed and cried all the way through the procession to the font. She hadn’t had her nails trimmed in a while and her mother, who was carrying her, had scratches on her neck.

The priest used a line I’ve borrowed whenever I’ve baptized a fussy baby. He said: “We all respond to God this way sometimes…” When it came time for the actual baptism, she struggled even more. The priest turned toward the congregation with a big smile and said: “I think we’re all going to get a little wet.”

In a few minutes, we’re all going to get a little wet. There are cathedrals that do asperges with giant branches of water from a swimming-pool sized font, and everyone gets soaked. This water is a tangible reminder of who we are, why we are here, and who we belong to.

When we blessed the water earlier this morning, we remembered the water of creation, the water through which God delivered God’s people into the land of promise, the water in which Jesus himself was baptized. This is the same water that fills our font, the water with which we washed each other’s feet on Maundy Thursday, the water we used to wash this altar.

The water is the same water drunk by our enemies and those who wish us harm, the water that bathes the person with whom we are angry, the person who has hurt us, the person who doesn’t know we exist.

Remembering these connections across time and borders has never been more important than at this moment in our common life. Through the call-and-response of the baptismal covenant, we become active participants, stakeholders in the life of the one who rose from the dead and who goes before us in the transformation of the world.

LS20120612_stpaul_005-smallWe adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world. The cross itself is redeemed: God turns a shameful death into triumph over death. Hence the crucifix hangs right here where we feast and celebrate. God redeems our sin and alienation, exchanging them for love and hope.

Easter does not erase suffering. Easter says that God never stops being present in suffering and that we, too, as followers of the risen Jesus, can be present for those who suffer, can be present in vulnerability, in love, in the mighty, subversive power poured onto us in the waters of baptism.

Before dawn, we heard the Exsultet, an ancient hymn of praise that proclaims our Easter faith: This is the night when you brought our ancestors out of bondage in Egypt, and led them through the Red Sea on dry land….this is the night when Christ broke the bonds of death and rose victorious from the grave.

We don’t say “that was the night,” but this is the night. Every time we proclaim resurrection we proclaim liberation of the oppressed, food for the hungry, good news for the downtrodden. The resurrection is now. The life we covenant to live in baptism is now. Like the prophets and storytellers whose words fill this day, we bring into this moment all the suffering and fear around us and we take from this moment the life that cannot die, the life that, as George Herbert says, killeth death.

The angels of the Lord ask: why do you look for the living among the dead? Witnessing and experiencing the subversive power of the resurrection, the subversive power of baptism, is as important now as it has ever been. Unless we’re going to live out our lives inside the empty tomb, we must find ways to wield our baptismal identity for good.

Maybe redeeming the world is redeeming fear and turning it into courage. Perhaps redeeming the world is about redeeming doubt and turning them into good news. What if it’s redeeming complacency and resignation, to turn it into outrage and action? What if redeeming the world is about finding stories of love winning, and telling those stories. Maybe redeeming the world is about being those stories, living those stories. Let’s find out.

 

 

Stage directions from the Bible

I am a huge fan of the works of William Shakespeare. Like a lot of people in strange lines of work, I was an English major, and so I was exposed to a lot of Shakespeare, not just the obligatory eighth-grade reading of MacBeth and tenth-grade reading of Romeo and Juliet, but throughout college. Last fall I had an ongoing discussion with my son about why it would behoove him, as a possible college English major himself, to take a Shakespeare elective in his last semester of high school. (He is having none of it.)

randjAs I’ve reflected these past few weeks on the Gospel of Mark, the thing that has me thinking about Shakespeare is not any particular play, but stage directions. Shakespeare’s stage directions were always very spare, essential three- or four-word instructions that Shakespeare left, instructions that always included a verb and only more if absolutely necessary. The most famous of these comes from “The Winter’s Tale”: Exit, pursued by a bear. Somewhere in the development of playwriting—and if your studies took you out of the 17th century you will know more than I do about this—stage directions became far more than the bare essentials. Some playwrights seem to need to spell out every minute detail of a scene, leaving nothing to individual directors, producers or, heaven forbid, the actors.

Mark’s gospel is like Shakespeare’s stage directions. Especially this Epiphany season. Our gospels resound with Epiphany verbs. These are the verbs that reflect what Jesus did. They also are our one-word stage directions for being followers: Come, proclaim, repent, believe, call, leave, go, follow, teach, heal. 

Much is left to the imagination. And, we hope, to the Spirit. As we strive to follow, believe, go, or teach, no one is going to tell us where to stand or what to wear or what to do with our hands. That’s up to us. Gloriously challenging and freeing. What Epiphany verbs are going to direct you in the coming weeks?

In which I discover universalism in an unlikely place

I moved to the city where I currently live in May 1986. My first task, after making the beds and finding the grocery store was to find a church. I was twenty-six and a relatively new Christian, having been baptized two years earlier. I had never worshipped anywhere besides the church in which I was baptized, a shabby but beautiful place with an informal Prayer Book liturgy as the container for liberal-progressive theology and a strong emphasis on the arts. The cross-country move was an opportunity to continue sorting out what kind of Christian I might turn out to be.

photo 1 (38)On a beautiful June morning I walked to the church closest to our house, and soon found myself in the back of the church’s long, narrow interior of brick in different shades of brown. When my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness I saw elaborate renaissance-style paintings covering the wall behind the altar and in a small side chapel. Candles, paintings of saints, and gorgeous Tiffany-inspired stained glass windows were everywhere. I was a sucker for Christian art although I didn’t know much about it. I loved the stillness and the darkness.

The congregation was small, a couple dozen people, evenly divided between young men and old ladies, several of whom covered their heads with bits of lace, the elderly Anglican version of a Catholic mantilla. With a tank top and Indian wrap skirt, I felt a little bare and out of place. The pew was pleasantly cool when I sat down. A moment later the organ prelude broke the silence, and a few minutes after that, we stood for the opening hymn. The basic structure of worship in the Episcopal Church is the same the world over, a fact that is a source of comfort to some and a source of tedium to others: Opening hymn, opening prayer, song of praise, two bible readings with a psalm in between, another hymn, a reading from the gospel, a sermon, more prayers, and communion. I found this predictable order reassuring.

After the reading of the gospel, I heard—and felt—the collective creak of the pews as we all sat for the sermon. I looked forward to hearing what the priest had to say, as a way of learning more about that particular church. So far, I liked it because of its beauty and its size; I thought a small congregation would be easier to get to know.

Then the priest began to speak.

“I’m going to tell you all about an important thing that happened just a few weeks ago.”

He stood in a pulpit about five feet up from the rest of us, reading from a sheaf of papers.

“I received a phone call from my brother, whom I hadn’t seen for a while. He lives in Seattle; we’ve lost touch the way family members do when they don’t have much more in common than blood ties.”

This made me think of my brother, who was a year younger than me and had moved to Taiwan when he graduated from college, to make his way as an English teacher and English-language radio announcer. We had little in common and didn’t talk much, but were very close nonetheless. We always would be.

“My brother called me to say that his eldest son, my nephew, had died suddenly in a house fire. He was twenty-seven.”

I was twenty-six. In my youth I had not been able to imagine living past twenty-five, and now I had survived many of the dangers, toils, snares of a turbulent adolescence, was a newly-married lady, and felt like the best of my life lay before me. The priest’s words made me shudder.

“My brother was calling me because he wanted me to help him plan his son’s funeral, and he wanted me to officiate at the funeral.”

I felt a pang of sympathy for the priest. I had begun—crazy cart-before-the-horse person that I am—to think about perhaps becoming a priest someday, so I had been thinking about things like weddings and funerals from that new perspective. I couldn’t imagine how I would plan a funeral for someone in my own family, let alone offer words of comfort and explanation in the face of such a tragedy. I imagined that priests learned such things from seminary and from experience. My mind wandered off to contemplate what fun it would be to study theology and scripture at the graduate level.

“I told him, of course”— he lengthened the space between each word, for emphasis—“I told him that because his son was not a baptized Christian, I would not be able to help him.”

I think I sat up two inches straighter in my pew, as if that stretch of the spine could make me better understand what I had just heard. I must have heard wrong, I thought. How could this be? As I puzzled over these words, he continued about the benefits of a Christian burial and the promise of heaven. His message horrified me. I looked around. No one else seemed particularly shocked. A few people nodded at the priest’s words, in agreement. I waited until everyone stood for the creed before slipping out.

photo 2 (41)On that day I learned something important about what kind of a Christian I was turning out to be. I was the kind of Christian who—if anyone asked me—did not distinguish between baptized and un-baptized, Christian and non-Christian. If I were a priest in this or any church, I would want to care for people, in death as in life, whether or not they were baptized, whether or not they were Christian or any other kind of religion. I couldn’t imagine someone being excluded from the church because they didn’t believe as I believed, or were in a different place along the journey. Later I learned the churchy word for this: it turned out I was a universalist, someone who believed that if there was in fact a heaven—a big if, in my book, at that time in my life—there was not just one way to get there, but many ways to get there.

*                        *                        *

Last week I visited that church again, for the first time since that early June Sunday twenty-seven years ago. It was an amazing experience. The music was to die for, especially the cantor. The liturgical style was reminiscent of my favorite parish in New York City, St. Ignatius of Antioch, where I did a year as a seminarian intern. (St. Ignatius used far more incense!) The stained glass is even more beautiful than I remember it. The head-coverings, which I felt sure would have faded out of fashion by now, were out in full force, on women and girls of all ages. I looked around a bit when I arrived to be sure I was not the only woman without one.

The order of service had changed a bit over the decades, and I missed the predictability of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Sparing my patient readers the details let me just say that there were things about it that made me, shall we say, cranky. I almost left several times but had gone with the feeling that I needed to finish the service that I had left unfinished 27 years earlier.

This notice appeared in the service bulletin for the day and also in the season missal in the pew:

This parish observes a closed communion. Following the historic practice of the Anglican Church, preparation for Communion includes sufficient instruction and the Sacrament of Confirmation If you are not prepared to receive, we invite you to join the communicants at the Altar rail with your arms crossed over your chest to receive a blessing.

eucharistBy the time, after about 90 minutes of praying and chanting, it was time for communion, I was not sure I wanted to receive it. And I was not sure it was intended for me, as a woman priest with no mantilla and affiliated with a much more open and inclusive brand of Anglicanism than theirs. But I was hungry for Eucharist. I read over the notice again and decided that I had indeed received sufficient instruction, and was indeed prepared to receive.

It was at the altar rail, sometime between receiving the bread and the wine, than an amazing thing happened. I felt a little shudder in my chest, a catch in my throat, a familiar little prick in my sinuses, and I began to weep. Weeping at communion is not, of course, an abnormal occurrence for me or perhaps for you. What seemed strange was to do so at that place where I’d begun to get my back up a bit, and where I’d spent much of the service taking inventory of all the ways I surely disagreed with that community about so many things.

What I realized, at that moment and in later reflection, was that I was gobsmacked by the power of the Eucharist, by the mysterious capacity of the sacrament to transcend differences and, more to the point, to outsmart all of our interpretations and expectations. Rather like God. This sacramental experience, in that place whose identity seems to be all about affirming separation and difference, was, in fact universal. That little wafer, thin enough to melt in my mouth so I wouldn’t have to chew Our Lord, binds me to everyone in that place and, more importantly, binds all of them, whether they like it or not, to a whole host of others, many of whom are not necessarily the kinds of people with whom they might choose to share that holiest of meals.

When I visited that church 27 years ago, it was where I learned that I was a universalist. The second time I visited a week ago, I learned that–at least in my opinion, from which many of you may differ–the Eucharist makes universalists of us all.