04 May 2010

St. Luke's, Jolon, and a special baptism

Sunday I had the pleasure of joining the congregation of St. Luke's, Jolon (hoe-loan) for the Holy Eucharist. Jolon is a sleepy farming community on the Ft. Hunter Leggitt military base on the Central Coast of California. A couple of stone throws from St. Luke's is Mission San Antonino de Padua which is my favourite of the California Mission chain. It was at San Antonio that the first Christian marriage in California (and some say the U.S) took place.

I always enjoy being at St. Luke's. Of all the Episcopal churches in the Diocese of El Camino Real, it's the only place that one can "get a feel" for what the pioneers who built the church experienced. St. Luke's is beside a lonely road and is the only building left of a once thriving community. Except for the occasional car that passes, one could easily imagine one had been transported back to 1860.

St. Luke's was celebrating the 52nd annual bar-be-que. It is the congregation's major fundraiser. I was invited to be pastoral musician for the Holy Eucharist. To assist me were three friends, Carilyn Anderson, alto, Erin Ewart and Vicki Ewart, sopranos) .

The Rt. Rev'd Mary Gray-Reeves, Ordinary, was present as Presider and preacher. She brings a certain "grace" to the liturgy that is difficult to explain. There is a comforting feeling that emanates from her. It's sort of like going to your Granny's house - when you walk though her doors you feel the warmth and love that is there but you cannot explain it.

I've never heard Bishop Gray-Reeves preach and not taken something profound away from the sermon. She reflected on the Gospel of the day (proclaimed in Spanish first and then English). It was the events immediately after Judas leaves to betray Jesus. The bishop talked about "an eye for an eye" and the amazing fact that Jesus didn't do what anyone else would have done. Instead, he forgave Judas even before Judas acted.

She told us of a conversation she had with the Bishop of Gloucester about a painting of the Last Supper placed as the reredos of a parish in his diocese. In the painting Jesus is a black man and Judas is a blond white man. But what he disliked about the painting is that it shows Jesus and Judas dipping in the cup - together - just as the gospel says they did that night. He said he didn't want to go to communion and have to look at that. +Mary said, "After a lot of conversation about the painting, we decided that is exactly what it's all about - betrayal and forgiveness." As soon as her sermon is posted on the diocesan web site, I'll post the link. You really need to listen to this sermon.

She made us laugh when she said, "But if Jesus was truly human, there had to be at least one second of 'I'm going to get you, Judas.' And Peter would have been right there in the middle of that, sword in hand, wanting a piece of Judas, too. But Jesus looked at Peter and said, 'Ah, Peter, guess what you're going to do tonight." (All of that is my paraphrase of her comments.)

When the homily was finished, Erin, raised in the Reformed Episcopal Church, leaned over and said,
    That was good! I've never heard a woman preach before. I've never even seen a woman priest.

    She's not just a priest, she is a bishop.

    I know. I didn't know women could be bishops. I didn't even know they could be priests.

    We like gay people, too. We have a male bishop who has a husband and we just elected a partnered Lesbian to be bishop in Los Angeles. And we even like atheists.

    Dang, Uncle Jimmy! I really like this church!
But it is the baptism of Juliet that I want to tell you about. It was the most spiritual baptism that I have ever witnessed.

Sunday was Juliet's second appearance at St. Luke's. Her first appearance was on 11 October when she came to St. Luke's in her mother's womb. The family came forward that day for a special blessing, and the mother was blessed by Bishop Gray-Reeves for "an easy and quick labour." Sunday, the mother thanked the bishop for that and said, "it was really quick!" Now, here we were, less than six months later, gathered to baptize the week-old Juliet.

The parents and god-parents (compadres) were called to the font (in the front of the nave) where they were met by the bishop, Deacon Robert Seifert, the Rev'd Carl Hansen, and young Mr. Mason Seden-Hansen, the acolyte (Fr. Hansen's grandson).

The baptism proceeded as usual until it was time to bless the water. Bishop Mary looked at the three youngsters who were in the front pew and said, "The ewer holding the water is kind of heavy, we need some help. Would you help us? We really need you to help." The oldest boy said, "Who? Me?" and looked like she'd just announced tomorrow was Christmas.

He came and stood beside Deacon Seifert and helped him hold the large ewer. When it was time to fill the font the they raised the ewer, together, and filled the font. They held the ewer high enough so that the tiny church was filled with the sound of the waters of baptism. It sounded like a waterfall - a holy waterfall.

+Mary read the prayer of consecration over the water and it became holy.

Then she did something that made my heart skip several beats. She looked at the the god-mother's young daughter and said, "I need you to help me bless this water." She picked up the wee lass, took the child's hand in hers and put the child's hand into the baptismal water and helped the little girl make the sign of the cross on the water. It was the holiest moment of the service as far as I am concerned. It was a sacrament. Remember that our catechism says a sacrament is "an outward visible sign of an inward spiritual grace." There was plenteous grace in that act.

The bishop gently took Juliet from her father's arms and as she held Juliet, I could visualize Jesus taking the little children in his arms. I also got a small glimpse of how the Blessed Mother must have looked when she held her baby, Jesus.

The love that flowed from +Mary to Juliet was palpable. At that moment there were only three people in the church, Mary, Juliet, and God - no one else existed. I thought, "That's how God looks at us!"

The bishop tenderly baptized Juliet "In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" and the tiny church's rafters shook as the congregation responded "Amen!" And Juliet became the youngest member of a family stretching back all the way to Jesus himself. I could almost see all those pioneers of St. Luke's crowded around the font, looking at Juliet, and welcoming her into the family.

Those familiar with the Western Catholic baptismal tradition know that anointing with the Oil of Chrism takes place at this point in the baptismal liturgy. The priest sticks his thumb into the "oil stock ring" gets his thumb just barely "oiled" and then traces the sign of of the cross on the person's forehead.

But not this time. Deacon Seifert poured a good amount of the Oil of Chrism into the palm of the bishop's hand and the bishop rubbed it onto Juliet's forehead and scalp (shades of the Eastern Orthodox practice) and then traced the sign of the cross on her forehead while telling Juliet she was "sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ's own forever." I've heard those words hundreds of times, but Sunday those words completely gob-smacked me. That mark is irrevocable. Nothing can separate Juliet, or us, from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

After the Pax, the bishop explained that the Episcopal Church practices open communion and God welcomes all of his children at the table. Then she added, "and as you come forward, there is the baptismal water. You know, it's nice just to splash it on yourself. Play in it as you come by and just remember that you are God's child and he loves you. So enjoy it!"

I lament the loss of, and want to return to, the Episcopal Church of my youth when things were "the way they should be." But I'm also glad that those days are gone (I hope you didn't all faint). The holy moments of last Sunday would never have happened twenty or thirty years ago.

Can you imagine one of those male bishops of yesteryear inviting everyone to splash in the baptismal water, or asking the young people to assist with the baptism, or picking up a toddler and asking her to help him bless the water of baptism? It would never have happened.

Yes, I miss those days. But if we still had those days, I would not have stood in the presence of of God last Sunday witnessing and participating in one of the holiest moments of my life - and all because God used a bishop who happens to be female, to teach me.

There is a "praise song" (yes, I know a lot of praise songs) that says,
    What a mighty God we serve
    Angels bow before Him
    Heaven and earth adore Him
    What a mighty God we serve.
And that is true. He is mighty enough to forgive our betrayals before we do the deed. And he is mighty enough to force a member of the Society for the Preservation of the Book of Common Prayer (1928) to realize we have to change. If we don't change - and grow - we will miss all the holy moments that are coming - and they are coming.

One of the Fourteen Articles of Faith of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints says, "We believe all that God has revealed, all that he does now reveal, and all that he will yet reveal." So does the Episcopal Church. We are living in the "now" and stepping into the "yet."

I'm sure no one noticed, but as the events of the baptism began to unfold,I slipped off my shoes. Although my faith was not strong enough to see them, my brothers and sisters, there were angles present at St. Luke's on Sunday, and we were, indeed, standing on holy ground in the presence of a holy God and a godly woman.

03 May 2010

A "well done" to a "good and faithful servant"

As our friend, Fr. Jake, knows, my mother was a convert to the Pentecostal movement (Assembly of God) years before I was born. For the years of my life I had to attend church with her - at least three times each week. Now, this was in the days before being "charismatic" was socially acceptable. These people were holy rollers. Every stereotype "holy roller" brings to your mind, I experienced first hand. I've seen it all from being "slain in the spirit" to "holy dancing" to seeing, with my own eyes, a woman's leg being lengthened by two-and-a-half inches. The only thing I didn't see (and they didn't engage in) was snake handling.

The congregations' median age was about 60 years old. They had "gone into Pentecost" in the 1910s and 1920s. They were simple folk who had experienced something that changed and transformed their lives. They enjoyed their pentecostal faith. My vast knowledge of the bible is because of these wonderful people. I do not regret the experience of my young life.

But, I could never "buy into it." I felt there had to be something other than "feeling." I was rescued by my Episcopalian granny who got me a job playing for the Swedish Lutheran Church in town, and then got me into the choir at St. James', "my" parish to this day. That's where I blossomed.

One of the major events of the Pentecostal church year was the revival. These occurred quarterly, if not oftener. For two weeks, every night except Monday, we would fill the church while the Evangelist preached. Some of them were really unintentionally funny, some were boring as heck, and some were just plain stupid.

But two of them reached out and grabbed my heart: Mary Worden and Dovie Harms. They were The Gospel Roadrunners and there was a painting of a roadrunner on each side of their Winnebago. They chose that name because they "ran up and down the highways preaching the Gospel"And let me tell you, those two women could preach. They made Billy Graham look like an amateur.

Mary ran a puppet show and we "kids" would be recruited to help out. We laughed, and laughed and laughed. When we did David and Goliath, Tybeth King was "working" Goliath. When David let lose that stone, she had ol' Goliath fall like a lead brick. But, Tybeth had this wicked sense of humour - so, once he fell down dead, she pulled on the string working on of his legs and he did the famous "kick of death." Mary and Dovie laughed until they cried. Then they asked her to leave it it the presentation. The congregation howled in laughter.

Once, during the church service the bible story was about "two in the field, one is taken and one is left." There was this old man puppet who was just a horrible person and he was so mean to the little boy puppet who was meek, and good, and kind. Well, when it came time for one of them to be taken, Dovie yanked the old man up into the air and out of sight. She screamed in a whisper, "Oh, Mary, I took the wrong one!" She later told us that for a split second she contemplated sending the old mean man back and snatching away the wee lad. I wish she had! The vision of heaven spitting that old man out is just too funny. When the presentation was over, Mary, ever unflappable, walked out in front oft he puppet theatre and said, "You see, brothers and sisters, you looked at the outward appearance, but God sees the heart." I've never forgotten that lesson. That night was the beginning of my egalitarian outlook.

Mary and Dovie would return annually and I couldn't wait until they returned. They were such fun. They would eat at our house a lot, and we would laugh until our sides hurt. We developed a real family bond with then. We talked with them via telephone on the first Sunday of each month. Mary died a few years ago, and I kept calling Dovie.

When Doive was a young minister her first pastorate started out well, but two days after she took over, the flu hit the congregation. For six days she had no sleep - she was called to house after house to pray for the ill. She said that it got to the point that she was walking in her sleep. She was called to one man's bedside to pray. She said she remembered kneeling down beside the bed and the next thing she knew she was almost yelling "Hello? Hello? Hello?" She said that it shocked her, but that she had the inspiration to add, "Oh God, I'm so glad you always hear us when we call on you." So, When I telephoned Dovie, our conversation always began with "hello, hello, hello!" And she would laugh and say, "Jimmy, is that you, hun?" Before the telephone call was through, she would launch into a mini sermon - and then say, "Now, Jimmy, you didn't think you'd get away without a sermon, did ya?" Then she would add, "Stay close to Jesus, Jimmy, it won't be long before he comes back."

Today I made that call and got a recording stating that the number was not a working number. I telephoned Gary, Dovie's son, and learned that a couple of weeks ago Dovie graduated to that larger life of perfect freedom. I wept, and wept, and wept - for many reasons:
  • Dovie was the last person of influence from my childhood. Her death closes a chapter in my life.
  • Dovie was one of my best friends
  • Another connection to my parents is broken
  • The final connection to the religion and congregation of my early childhood is no more.
But, most important, there is no one to pray for me. I have to explain that, I suppose. Growing up with those Pentecostals, I loved the hear the elderly women pray. No, it wasn't the type of praying I do, or even like, but I knew they were in direct communication with God. The cadence of their prayers, their fervor, their sincerity, and their simplicity was really comforting.

Throughout my life, when I was going though major trials, I could call Mary and Dovie and know, that they were interceding for me even before the telephone conversation ended.

Even now, there is something very comforting to me to hear a Mother in Zion (the term used when I was a child for the elderly Pentecostal women) pray. I think of all the things I'll miss about Dovie, not having her pray for me, or hearing her pray is what I'll miss most.

I know that on 27 March at 5:23 PM Jesus was there to welcome Dovie and say, "Well done, good and faithful servant." I only wish I could have been there when she arrived to join the chorus saying, "Hello! Hello! Hello!"

John Bunyan wrote in Pilgrim's Progress"
I have formerly lived by hearsay and faith but now I go where I shall live by sight, and shall be with him in whose company I delight myself. I have loved to hear my Lord spoken of; and wherever I have seen the print of this shoe in the earth, there I have coveted to set my foot to. His name to me has been as a civet-box; yea, sweeter than all perfume. His voice to me has been most sweet; and his countenance I have more desired than they that have most desired the light of the sun. His word I did use to gather for my food, and for antidotes against my faintings. 'He has held me, and hath kept me from mine iniquities; yea, my steps hath he strengthened in his way.'
That perfectly describes Dovie's life of faith.

I love you, Dovie. Thank you for loving me, for praying for me, and for being my friend. And thank you, God, for giving me Dovie to know on this, my earthly pilgrimage.

I've posted a few songs from my childhood in that pentecostal church. The songs are out of favour now, but I love this type of "old school Gospel" music, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. I guess these songs are a tribute to, and a burial of that childhood faith experience. The first song is
If I could hear my mother pray again. I'm posting it as a tribute to all those Mothers in Zion I knew as a child - especially Dovie Harms. And I really would love to hear them pray, again.

By the way, Dovie was also my mother's name.

In this final clip, please take note of the older people singing. They are the royalty of the Gospel music world. They are the remaining membrers of all the quartets from the 1940s - 1960s.

02 May 2010

The Fifth Sunday of Easter - Vocem

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

(RCL) Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

Introit: Declare it with the voice of joy, and make it known, alleluia: declare it even to the ends of the earth: The Lord hath delivered His people, alleluia, alleluia. -- (Ps. 65. 1, 2). Shout with joy to God, all the earth, sing ye a psalm to His Name: give glory to His praise.

Collect: Almighty god, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know thy Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.Amen.

The Collect for today asks for us to be able to know Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life that we may follow in the way that leads to eternal life.

Once there was a church that had the phrase “I am the way, the truth and the life” on a sign above its iron gate. The church and its message intrigued a young man, so he decided to go there on Sunday. He was not welcomed. No one spoke to him, or smiled, or offered him a handshake. After the service he left in a puzzled state.

What Peter discovers in the reading from Acts for today is a revelation and a revolution. God reveals that nothing in God’s creation is profane, that the purity code is a limitation imposed by humans, not God, and that keeping that purity could in fact be hindering God. This was something obviously lost on the folks in the small church that the young man visited. They were uneasy with somebody they didn’t know, so they kept their distance.

Have you ever thought about what is going on in the world today in terms of Peter’s experience? Have you ever wondered why many are afraid of immigrants, legal or not? Do you understand that Sunday morning can be the most exclusive, segregated, and separate time of the week? All week long we work with, bump against, commute with, and eat with people who are not like us, but often on Sunday we attend a church that consists mostly of people like ourselves.

There are exceptions, of course. But many of our churches do not look anything like the communities that we live in, the grocery stores we shop in, or the movie theaters we attend. Why is that? Do you ever wonder?

The writer of Revelation, our second reading for today, offers a passage often read at burials. The image of death having been vanquished, of mourning and crying being no more, and of God wiping away every tear is a powerful image, followed by the declaration that God is making all things new. One of those new things is surely the way we experience one another, as diverse gifts of the God who made us all. If we begin to think about people who differ from us in race or culture, then see them as gifts to us from God, that gives us a wholly different point of view toward the many people sent to us by God. We can turn away from them, but are we not then also turning away from God?

When we hear the gospel reading, Jesus’ own words call us to love one another, “Just as I have loved you.” This is not a phrase easily dismissed. Jesus’ entire ministry, including his passion and resurrection, hangs on this phrase. Jesus loved people in a radical way. Today he would be – and often is – in the supermarket talking with the checkers, the stockers, and the customers finding their way through a bewildering array of products. He is there because that is where all the community goes to buy food. He is there because that may be where a lonely newcomer to town gets a smile at the cash register, or even a query, “Are you new here? Welcome.”

But what about church? What about that Sunday morning experience that is often the place where we see only familiar faces, only people like us, only people we know? Is Jesus there? Of course he is, but he is there to welcome the stranger – whoever walks in that door timidly and tentatively looking for new community. Are we ready for that? Do we seek those persons? Would they be welcomed, truly welcomed here?

Not long ago the young man who had visited the church and was made to feel like an outsider was back in the neighborhood and walked by the church he had visited on that Sunday. It had been many years. The sign “I am the way, the truth, and the life” still stood above the iron gate. Then he saw that the church doors were boarded over, as were many of the windows. The church was obviously closed, and looked as though it had been for some time. He walked on, wondering what had happened.

We can draw our own conclusions, but if that church had welcomed him and others instead of being closed to what God was sending them on frequent occasions, the end of their story might have been very different indeed.

-- Ben Helmer is vicar of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. He lives with his wife in nearby Holiday Island.