I saw it once. It was on TV. The man was old. He had white hair and a wrinkled face. His arm was raised. He was carrying an American flag, the tiny kind with a wooden stick, the flag no bigger than a First Aid kit. The man was running, as best as his old man legs allowed. He waved the flag.
The field through which the man ran was located in France. He ran toward another man. The other man waved his own tiny flag. The two men had fought on opposite sides of the war. They’d faced each other as enemies. Now, they were to meet in the middle of the field. Tears streamed down their cheeks.
What was it I’d seen? The power of love.
The young man looked to be not much past twenty years old. If he’d been dressed slightly differently, with his pale skin and cap of dark hair, he could have been in a Vermeer. He sat on a side bench behind the organist. Beside him rested his golden trumpet. He sat through the whole damn church service—baptism, sermon, and communion. When the signal went out that all communicants had finally been served, he stood. He raised the trumpet. He played Taps. When I approached afterwards to thank him for his offering, I hadn’t the courage to ask my question: is it as hard for you to play as it is for us to hear?
He entered college at sixteen years old; at nineteen, he was an officer in the Navy. I never saw his uniform. By the time he came into my life, decades had passed since the days when he stood on a ship as big as a small country and felt the deck shudder with the force of a far-away typhoon. Tomorrow, for the first time since I was twelve years old, I will not have him here to thank for his service. But this morning an old man rose from the pew. He stood as straight as his old man’s body would allow. He wore his uniform from 1945. He had been at Normandy. He smiled and waved his hand. The congregation rose as one and gave him a standing ovation.
What was I seeing? The power of love.
here’s to creative synthesis . . .
We were talking last night about our inward journey—what we are doing spiritually for ourselves—and I was describing a blog I had recently started following. “He’s a priest,” I said, “but—.” I stopped and laughed. I was about to say, “But I like what he has to say.” He’s a priest, but. Sometimes if I listen to myself, i can learn a lot about what I think.
This episode made me wonder: what is it I find lacking when it comes to the non-laity? I’m using this word non-laity instead of ordained because I know a bunch of ordained clergy who I respect immensely. These men and women, however, don’t create a barrier between me as laity and themselves as ordained. Which leads me to the first thing my brain thinks about non-laity:
I can’t connect spiritually with the non-laity
We put such proscribed limits and expectations on the non-laity, and unfortunately they comply, presenting to us what they believe we have told them we want to see. The maintenance of an acceptable philosophy, demeanor, thought process, phraseology, etc. means the non-laity are hiding who they really are. The only way you can connect with the spirit in someone else is to see that spirit. If the non-laity are busy being who they perceive their audience wants them to be, then we are unable to connect spiritually with those who are supposed to be enriching our spiritual lives. This is a problem.
The non-laity never talk about God
Yes, the non-laity talk about what God wants, how God acts, what God is telling us to do, but they never talk about their personal experience of God in this world. I am trying to remember the last time I heard a non-laity say, “I felt God enter our space.” I know they must experience God—too many people come to them in too many diverse circumstances searching for God for God not to be present an extraordinary number of times. But they don’t talk about it. Leaving the rest of us to put God in an analytical box we struggle to understand with our minds rather than experiencing God as a living breathing presence in this world.
The non-laity preach all the time
This is not meant to be funny. The non-laity are always talking at people. Telling us what to think, how to act, what to believe. They never ask: what do you think? If they do, usually you can detect the agenda running underneath their words as they try to subtly guide you in a defined direction, more like a law professor practicing the Socratic method than a searcher, really. I don’t think this is a function of hubris; I believe it’s because they’ve spent so much time trying to figure out this religion thing and they want to help us figure it out too. But instruction doesn’t have to come from preaching. It can come through horizontal modeling, if you’re willing to give up a hierarchical perception of being in charge.
The non-laity use un-evolved language
God isn’t a male person; God isn’t a person. God isn’t even an a. God is the force that moved across the face of the waters at the beginning of time, the burning in the bush, the quiet after the wind whistled past the cave. Any personification of God limits God and, worse, it casts on God attributes of ourselves: jealousy, anger, petulance, resentment, sadness, vengeance, disappointment, pride, etc. Once you start talking like this, you’re soon thinking like this, and you wind up less than one step removed from the Roman and Greek belief in Jupiter and Zeus, just rolled all into one.
The bottom line? I’m afraid I start from a very different place than most non-laity in what I think is important, which is connecting spiritually with other folks on this journey to get to know God in this world. Or maybe it’s the structure of our concept of church that lies at the heart of the problem. I don’t know, but the laity are a totally different matter. They’re essential to my quest, with their open, seeking, acting, and accepting demeanor—plus, they aren’t sticklers about using language prescribed by a creed old as dirt.
At least that’s what I think today.
“Like an adopted family,” A. said.
We were bumping along in the church van. Ten of us crowded the back seats, plus the two church members driving the van. We’d eaten lunch, opened gifts, and enjoyed Christmas caroling. Now we were finishing up our shopping spree at Wal-Mart, returning home. As we traveled through the beautiful tree-lined streets of Germantown, W. asked, “You don’t go to church there?” She had assumed I was a member of the church hosting the writing group on this wonderful outing.
“No,” I explained. “They joined us for writing group one time and sent a note afterwards, saying how much they enjoyed it. So I asked them if they wanted to get more involved.”
“And it was happily ever after,” D. added.
“Yes,” I said.
That’s when A., gazing straight ahead, said, “Like an adopted family.”
I don’t know A.’s story except that, like all the members of writing group, he has a personal experience of homelessness. At one point, after writing with us for several months, he decided he wanted to be a writer. This happens often. Someone who has no history of writing attends writing group for a while, and the writing catches fire.
Of all who have experienced this thrill of discovery, A. is the one who came most intimidated by writing. A quiet man, he sits, then offers observations that make me say, “Yes! Exactly that!” Once, when we were discussing writing group, he said, “It’s like we’re writing our dreams.”
I hope our adopted family holds together. I hope A. continues as a member. In any event, I’ll remember everyone on the van smiling at his purchase of a space heater, impressed with what he’d snagged at Wal-Mart. Enjoying the connection that’s a mix of fondness and joshing, being impressed and enjoying. The peculiar love that signals: we are family.
here’s to creative synthesis . . .
At St. Anna’s Episcopal Church, we are not a church that welcomes African Americans, by which I mean a white church with a hand-full of African American members. We are not a church that welcomes gays—a straight church reaching out to folks regardless of sexual orientation. We aren’t a wealthy church that helps out the poor among us. At St. Anna’s, as a wealthy, white, straight female, I am the minority. The church belongs to those not like me in race, sexual orientation, or economic status.
Yet, St. Anna’s welcomes me.
She smiles when I approach the door. He holds out his hand to pass me the peace. He thanks me for coming.
Sitting in the pew, experiencing St. Anna’s, I am struck again how my view of the world casts me in the leading role of the magnanimous one. Confused by my distorting, dominant lens, I believe the choice rests with me to accept those the world pushes to the margins, or to not accept. I am the one in control, in charge, and I bask in self-satisfied pride when I act appropriately: I am such a nice, right-thinking person.
Worshiping at St. Anna’s, I understand my choice differently. I have the option, or not, of accepting God’s Kindom. If I accept, I give up the control. I recede into the background, into the group, into community.
I kneel on the pew. Those around me kneel. Together, we worship. For this, I am eternally grateful.
here’s to creative synthesis . . .
The man and I sat down at the art table, staring at the chip bags we would turn into crosses, when he asked, “What led you to do this?”
I was preparing to give him my standard spiel about how the tragedy of 9/11 led me to make crosses from broken and found objects. But something made me ask, “Making crosses, you mean?”
“No,” he said, gesturing to the church’s fellowship hall full of currently homeless men and women eating breakfast. “What led you to come out here among the people?”
Earlier during the church service preceding breakfast, I’d been squatting on the floor in the crowded chapel, my back against the wall. All the chairs were taken; plus, I wanted to leave chairs for those who didn’t have access to chairs, beds, tables, etc. and couldn’t sit their asses down whenever they wanted, like I could. This decision put me at calf level to most of the group (except for the man who was squatting next to me). I knew it was where I was supposed to be; for several years now I’ve believed in—and responded to—the Christian call to form relationships with those pushed to the margins. But squatting there in the tiny, crowded chapel where folk slouched on chairs willing the service to be over so they could eat breakfast or maneuvered their shopping carts full of possessions through the narrow aisles or sneezed into their palm—the palm that would later be offered for me to shake as we passed the peace—I thought, “Christianity is too hard.”
Jesus hung out with the poor. The sinners, the tax collectors, the ceremonially unclean. The great unwashed, as it were. When we read this about him, we think, “Of course he did, he was Jesus!” But the clear implication is that Jesus hung out with people different from him. He chose to put himself with a group he wouldn’t otherwise have naturally associated with. People he was not used to. People he might have been uncomfortable around, particularly when he looked, not across the table at his friends, but over a jostling, crowded mass of folks. Maybe when that happened he had to force himself to begin: “Blessed are the poor.”
The men and women from the church service snaked past the art table, on their way to the fellowship hall. As they passed, we talked art. I explained about the chip bags; they gave me advice on what a cross was supposed to look like. They said good morning, their faces broke into smiles; they broke down from a clump of folks into individuals. One man, curious about the objects, asked why I picked them up from the sidewalk.
“To make crosses out of,” I said.
When he continued to wait for an answer, I added, “Because God is in everything.”
“Now that’s the truth,” he agreed and, satisfied, moved on down the line.
When the man said, “among the people,” I realized that I live my life in my privileged world and dip into service, believing I’ve left the normal world and encountered a special group of folks for whom life has not been kind. Really, I’ve left a rarefied world of safety, love, acceptance, regular meals, a hot bath, and such abundance that I can afford to select trash as my medium of expression. Crossing a chasm as wide as the one that separated the rich man in Hades from Lazarus seated on Father Abraham’s lap, I’ve entered the world of the people. Thankfully, when I crossed the chasm, I was greeted by those who smiled at me in the hallway while I made my insubstantial art.
here’s to creative synthesis . . .