It is the middle of the night, or, if you prefer, early morning. Anna Hutto’s songs, specifically “Table of Grace,” are playing through my headphones.

I’m working on a paper long overdue. Trying to get my mind around the idea of Church.

It’s something I know and understand intuitively. After all, my proudly “cradle” Episcopalian family raised me in Church, didn’t they? So why can’t I think of concrete things to write about it?

In high school I had a nasty encounter with Young Life, a conservative evangelical group that used emotionally manipulative techniques that passed for evangelism. (I’m sure they’re still out there wreaking havoc today.) I quit the group when they refused to respect the faith of my Jewish friends. I wasn’t too thrilled with their take on sin (and, the seminarian in me adds, their atonement theology), wasn’t fooled by their sentimental ideas about sexual purity (as my mother would say, did they think we were all born yesterday?), and didn’t think all my Christian friends needed to give up their perfectly normal churches. My free thinking earned me the not-so-fun honor of being a heathen reject in a school where it seemed half the population had decided they were born again (well, at least when they weren’t partying on the weekends!)

In my mind, I ran far far away from everything Church. Oh, I was still there, at least before college. But as soon as I got to college I tried to ignore organized religion. I remember one Easter when I didn’t even bother going through the motions of showing up at church. I tried to run, to be spiritual, not religious. Tried to find a way to be universalist, to make room for any and all beliefs. I tried to live as a deeply spiritual person on my own little spiritual island in a deeply secular world. I didn’t need religion, didn’t want to understand community. It was all too messy, confused, ridiculous. It was so backward, so hypocritical. There was no place for people who could think. I was convinced that even the Episcopal Church, whose liturgy seemed to run in my veins and whose polity I understand instinctively, was just too, well, Christian to continue to be involved with.

I pause here to realize, maybe for the first time, that the joke was on me all along. God laughed while running rapid circles around me, changing tactics to appear in the wisdom of a professor of Islam, in the community service organizations I lived for, in the horses I rode (especially one beautiful little red mare named Sally, who seemed to know what I wanted her to do before I even thought it – our chemistry was so strong that when I started jumping over fences I had to stop riding her because she could read every bit of nervous energy), in the academic study of religion I couldn’t get enough of, and finally in the roommate turned best friend turned rabbi who would one day lead me through Judaism right back to the Episcopal Church. LOL. I always thought I could outsmart God…

So here I sit, in my apartment on the property of the Church, a postulant (someday soon a candidate?) for the priesthood, living in the hierarchy of the Church. And God laughs even harder…

When I think of my Church I think of the legendary question tourists hear about the sun carved on the chairs at Independence Hall in Philadelphia – is it a rising sun or a setting sun? Is the sun of my denomination rising or setting? Does it matter? After all, the Acts 2 text that I’m supposed to be writing about isn’t about my way of doing church, it’s about the Church, the whole body of Christ, the people of God.

And that, unfortunately, is what I can’t wrap my head around this morning (incidentally, the sun is rising over Manhattan as I sit here). I’m supposed to be writing about neat little categories – initiation, formation, eucharist, outreach, evangelism, pastoral care, fellowship, etc., etc. The problem is that not only does my random, intuitive brain NOT work in neat little boxes, but I don’t think the Spirit does either. The Spirit just kind of goes where it? she? wants to. Where does pastoral care end and liturgy begin? Where does formation end and social ministry start? How do you compartmentalize the life of a community?

There is a parish that lives in my mind somewhere that looks, sort of, like the Acts 2 community. I’ve seen glimpses of it. I know I’ve had some of its youth in Rite 13. I’ve walked its candlelit outdoor labyrinth following the lighting of the first fire at the East Vigil. I’ve passed bread and wine to my neighbor to the right after receiving it from my neighbor to the left. I’ve sung Taize chants and Jesus is my boyfriend songs and George Herbert’s poetry within its walls. I’ve seen lots of lay people preach there; so much inspiration comes just from hearing other’s stories. Friends of mine were married in the main Sunday service and new converts were baptized with a heck of a lot of water. In this fantasy parish lay people provide the “first responder” pastoral care. The liturgical furniture moves easily. Everybody reads the emailed updates. Nobody complains about the incense. There’s always a dog or two hanging around. A significant percentage of the parish goes on retreat together, and to community organizing meetings. When a young couple gave birth to a child with a fatal heart defect we all took turns sitting with them around the clock for the few days of the child’s life. We’re developing a health ministry for indigent seniors from the community, and our daycare is the most affordable and best run in the county. This is the parish where an 11 year old taught me how to clean up after eucharist and local college students stayed long after Compline last Sunday evening to talk about God. It’s a warm, colorful, diverse place where people know how to laugh and how to cry and how to just plain put up with each other.

I’ve never been to this place, although I’ve seen bits and pieces of it in a number of parishes I’ve known. It’s got a bit of my home parish before I went to seminary, a large dash of my discernment parish, a pinch of a cathedral I know well, and this and that from here and there. It doesn’t fit into the neat categories required for my paper. But it lives and breathes and waits in eager anticipation in my dreams.

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~ by Sophia on May 23, 2008.

2 Responses to “”

  1. YES, yes, yes. How I resonate with this post–what you went through in HS describes so well what my own daughters experienced in a different church (and they are still searching for their way back so to speak). And I yearn for and know and don’t know the church you describe. I still believe it is possible even though I am mightily discouraged at times.Good luck on your paper, but thanks for writing this.

  2. I’ll be the first to attend your parish when you find or create it!

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