"Where true charity and love dwell, God himself is there.
As we are all of one body, when we gather let no discord or enmity break our oneness.
May all our petty jealousies and hatred cease that Christ the Lord may be with us through all our days."
--Traditional Latin Prayer, "Ubi Caritas."
"They are devils," Hazel muttered. "The limb of Satan. That hairy one--he could pass for a devil himself! And that other one--I've never seen a face like that in all my born days. That man has looked Satan straight in the eye!"
--Peter Matthiessen, At Play in the Fields of the Lord.
A WORSHIP SERVICE at Holy Comforter is an unforgettable experience. By now, you all know that this is not your typical Episcopal Church and it follows that its worship of God is not stereotypical. Typical Episcopal worship is done with a stiff-upper-lip and with “decency and good order.” Odds are that if you’re a singer (or you sing out in worship), you’re robed up and in the choir. There are extended moments of heavy silence. The loudest response the preacher gets to a good point is a faint smile or a nod of the head. As the old joke goes, you know you’re an Episcopalian when the only reason why you raise your hand is to question the organist’s re-harmonization of a hymn’s last verse. As a Charismatic, this sometimes frustrates me, but this worship of God is beautiful – reflecting the beauty of our Creator. In fact, it is this worship that first attracted me to the Episcopal Church, as it is all about the immersion in the presence of God.
I DON’T WANT to make it sound like when the people of Holy Comforter get together and worship that it has neither decency nor good order. In fact, it has both, but just in a different, delightfully unexpected way. When everyone knows the hymns, they belt them out. For example, on Wednesday we sang “Down By the Riverside” (in celebration of William Wilberforce) and everyone was singing at the top of their lungs – usually in the same tonal neighborhood. Some were swaying or clapping somewhere close to the beat. It was joyful and moving. Afterwards, a visitor remarked, “Oh how they sing! It’s wonderful!”
WE’RE NOT SHY about sharing, either: I was reading from Romans once and whenever good old St. Paul said something that moved them, many would say, “Amen!” in the middle of the reading. Nobody shushes them; I wish everyone would be so moved to say “Amen” to the Word of God! One of my first experiences of reading scripture at HC was when a long-time member suddenly stood at his pew and stared at me intently with the biggest smile on his face. I looked back at him, smiled and continued with the reading. Maybe it was the robe. Maybe it was my hair. I’d like to think it was the Spirit.
WHEN I PREACH, I know that I must be careful with rhetorical questions, as I know that a few members will shout out the answer. At first, this was difficult for me, because rhetorical questions are usually the way that I make transitions to my next point. I still use them, of course, but the real trick is to learn how to make these extemporaneous answers fit into the context of the sermon. Usually, they do. For example, last Wednesday we celebrated the life of St. Mary Magdalene. My point was that when we come into Christ, not only does he change our understanding of God, but also our understanding of each other. At the start of the sermon I asked the question, “What does it mean to hold each other from the perspective of God?” Side-stepping my entire sermon, a member blurted out my conclusion. So much for rhythm and dramatically working up to a point! But, I’d rather have loud listening than quiet ignoring!
NOW, I KNOW some of you are trembling with fear. I hate to admit it, but I remember my first Sunday here being confused by the shufflings, the gettings-up, and the loud singing. Rather rapidly, I could hear that Voice on the inside of me say, “Don’t worry – I am here!” Indeed, God is here and He is moving in delightfully unexpected ways.
MANY CONVENTIONAL ATTITUDES towards my new friends remind me of the missionaries of the nineteenth century who went to Africa “to convert the heathen.” Not only did they convert many to Christianity, but they also converted many to a Western way of life. I’m reminded of the character of Hazel Quarrier in the novel, At Play in the Fields of the Lord. She constantly makes frequent biblical references to the dirtiness and dress of the natives. In her opinion, their dirtiness is not a problem of taking a bath but one of moral rectitude. In her eyes, the simple message of the Gospel came with many cultural norms that the natives were expected to accept. If one become a Christian, one was expected to dress and act like a Westerner! In their journey to Christ, one was expected to jump through cultural hoops, not just spiritual ones.
THE SAD TRUTH is that many of us welcome anyone in the Church as long as they follow certain unspoken cultural norms that we set up around the gospel. Of course, these norms are different for different groups: Would an Evangelical be accepting of someone with a mental disability or would they be shuffled off in a huff of judgement because they were “cursed by the Lord?” Would one of my new friends be accepted at your mainline Protestant Church because they have difficulty in focusing through an entire service and often vocally wander-off? Would you welcome someone who is difficult to get along with? Would you view my new friends as a hindrance to your blessed worship of God or would you consider their presence a blessed gift of God? What sorts of unbiblical, nontraditional, and unspoken cultural norms do you impose on others? How far do we expect one to come to our idea of “normal” before we stop making snide comments about their worship? What hoops must one jump through before they can worship with you? Are those hoops good or bad?
MAY GOD HAVE mercy on us all. May he deliver us from thinking that the Kingdom is as big as we want it to be.