Happy Easter! Expect the Unexpected

Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not yet understood. Henry Miller

My transition from sleep to wakefulness comes as a result of a solid internal clock –courtesy of age – and the ambient sounds of the world around me – birds, the Latino radio station from the man delivering newspapers,  the family stirring. On Easter morning the hotel alarm buzzes me awake at five in order for my husband and myself to attend a sunrise service.

The location of the service is St. Andrew’s by the Sea in Hyannis.   The staff at the motel can’t recall where it is located.  It’s not in the telephone book and online references are fuzzy.  Through the Massachusetts diocese home site we get a street, but no no parish profile or web site. Programming this spare information into the GPS we set out before sunrise on a literal quest for the sole Episcopal church in this town.

Navigating a warren of roads that pass darkened summer homes closed in off-season, we happen upon a police officer who escorts us, headlights on, past the skeletons of privet hedge to the dead-end street where St. Andrew’s stands high on a bluff next to a local beach and yacht club.

We don’t know what to take in first : the location of a church that must have a dramatic view of the Atlantic once the sun is up or the fact that there is barely a place to park.  The road dead ends at a local private club with a capacious parking lot but it is barricaded in off-season. And most likely barricaded in-season to the hoi polloi.

St. Andrew’s is closed as well. At least the doors to the building are closed.  There is a gathering of 60 or so eager to witness and reconstruct in our own humble way the event that shattered the world.  Easter fest 2010!  We wait on a small patch of ground next to the stone building.

The service begins with a lone trumpet leading the hymns.  Everyone sings along.  The invocation and prayers are direct – nothing precious or overly intellectual.  As I say the words out loud in community I feel changed, lighter inside, a greater sense of understanding which quickens commitment.  It is terribly cold on this bluff by the Atlantic and I am not dressed for it.  My husband takes off his jacket, wraps me in it, and holds me firm and strong.  We had argued on the way here. In his loving, intimate action, there is proof of resurrection and healing. I think – no I know – this one of the best Easters ever.

The homily is short and one of the best ones I’ve heard. Here’s what I remember: Expect the unexpected, particularly when the unexpected exposes Christ in others.

The prayer that follows the homily begins like this:
God of such amazing surprise, put a catch in my breath today. Put wings on my heart.

This Holy Week, on the dune and ocean landscape of New England, the site of new buds on thorny bushes has caught my eye. There are rows of these dotted about the small patch of ground next to the closed Episcopal church.  

The church building is still dark as the sun rises over the cold Atlantic. The Church turns to see the morning fog begin its dispersal, chatting about where to go for  a warm breakfast and cup of coffee. Continuing the fellowship.

This worship was hosted by a confederation of Baptist churches in surrounding towns.  The participating pastors will be going off to their respective churches for indoor Easter services. One announces that there will be six baptisms that morning.

In the light, it becomes clear why no one knew where the church was: those who attend it want it for themselves. It is a seasonal church, intended for the people with summer homes. Most likely it is a summer cure for a priest who gets a small stipend, a place near the beach, an honorary membership at the yacht-beach-tennis-dinner club, and regular invitations to cocktail parties.

Peeking through the front window we can see that it is well-appointed: crisp volumes Lift Every Voice and Sing side by side with the 1982 Hymnal.  Although it is possible the volumes look crisp because they are held for a few minutes each week, 4 months out of the year, by people who are used to taking care of nice things.

The week before Easter the House of Bishops met at Camp Allen in Texas. Part of their time together included two days spent on the Emergent Church.  From what I’ve heard there was an amusing awkward tone to all this as the Emergent Church is anti-hierarchical as well as anti-institutional.  The bishops listened to presentations and were given a book to take home so they could read about about the Emergent Church.  The book has two introductions: one by Katharine Jefferts-Schori and the other by Rowan Williams.  The other chapters are written by people who, while insightful about the enormous transition going on in Spirit and Faith as well as the dissolution of the institutional-hierarchical church,  rely on its financial resources for their livelihood.

The bishops were also given two CDs with examples of Emergent Church music.  The music, skillfully executed and even occasionally sincere, was intended for soloists and bands.  Not a single song that could be sung by a congregation on either recording.

The readers of this blog are too wise for me to have to explain the irony of all this.  But two caveats for any bishops or canons or program people trying to understand and evolve:  First, buying the program is not the program.  If you need this verified, ask the hard-working and resourceful director of your formation program.

Second, there is an army of clergy in your diocese deeply invested in the status quo of their seminary training and the reality of parish politics.  The House of Bishops may meet as an International Entity but church is local.

In a culturally synchronous moment, Holy Week was the week that Priest Barbie became a fetishistic fad among certain Episcopalians.  The Facebook page garnered thousands of fans.  Priest Barbie showed up with a bitchin’ liturgical wardrobe, including a miniature sacristy at her imaginary Malibu parish.  People thought a plastic priest with an anatomically impossible figure, the most hated and tortured toy in recent memory, was a hoot, a role model, and a signal of the The Episcopal Church’s “coolness”.

Can’t we stop pretending?

It is a natural human inclination to stave off the difficult but necessary aspects of transition with totemic figures, programs, and magic thinking. During Easter we not only honor Jesus, but the lifetime journey of mindfully, reverently nurturing the Christ in ourselves and others. Miracles not magic thinking. The truth – the Word – is so very near us.  It’s in night blossoms, and buds in thorns, the narratives of our prophets, matriarchs, and patriarchs, our relationships. There are portals of sacred transformation among us.

The Emergent Church has been around for two plus millennia. It is not “out there”.  Unless the leadership of The Episcopal Church considers a confederation of Baptist ministers leading the faithful to worship at dawn “out there”.

Church Vestments & Christian LaCroix, not to be confused

Fussy

So we’re up to the point in the service where the average congregant looks over her shoulder to see a gang of people coming up behind her.  “Smile! You’re a worship community now!”

 There’s the Gospel, held high, with great solemnity.  I muse on what would happen if a congregant ran up to kiss it or touch it in some way as I would see in a synagogue. Is it held high out of reverence for the Word of God? The vibe I get is more like my the memory of Great Aunt Agnes putting her Hummel collection on the highest shelf. “Don’t touch!” 

 Now comes the clergy in their vestments. Formally walking in a straight line, a flotilla of fabric. 

One year, every Sunday, one of my kids took a class just that began just when the worship for an African American church was over.  My daughter was a style conscious teen and as we walked by, watching the display of unique pride and style, she would exclaim “I love this church! Can we go there? It looks like a party.”

Title Image

Personally, I love fashion – particularly as an expression of the inner, unique self.  The florid hats in Harlem on a Sunday morning express the theology of uniqueness, creativity, and community. When a Buddhist monk in orange robes and shaved head passes, the world around him or her is changed a bit to contemplate mystery and simplicity.  Similarly the robes of those in other intentional orders express mission and devotion.

An email report on the ordination of a bishop cited the beauty and high drama of the service.  Such pomp – the bishops in all their vestments! – it was “thrilling” she wrote.

First – pomp is not an aesthetic that really works dramatically.  It is the first syllable of the word pompous.  As for dramatic, beautiful, thrilling, and even spiritual – have you seen Julie Taymor’s “Lion King”?

Episcopal clergy have their own seasonal outfits – and that’s fine.  However, many I’ve met imagine this to be a priority – there’s fussiness and attitude about vesting that really needs to be rethought.  Vestments are primarily functional, their presence may not be entirely necessary.  They are a portal to tradition and history and not to be made into idols.

Then there’s the fact that celebrating the Eucharist is not about “look at me” vestments.

We live in a visual culture that morphs every twenty four hours.  The church shouldn’t try to compete, but re-understand its place without losing integrity. And yes, slow down time a bit with symbolic representations of the faith, but cut out the personal preoccupation.

It is with great dismay that we observe too many clergy frequently referring to their love of “playing dress up”; that at Diocesan Conventions the line out the Almy’s booth is a long one and the social justice or faith formation booths have tumbleweed blowing through them; that clergy have consumer identification and self elevation according to whether they use Wipple’s or Almy.

 

This is playing dress up

This is playing dress up

 

This should not be playing dress up

This should not be playing dress up

 

...or this

...or this

 

 

 

You want to turn around in the driver’s seat and say “Cut it out back there!”  Inject a bit of humility to the discussion.  Stacy’s and Clinton’s makeovers on “What not to Wear” have more theology and mission behind them than the fussiness of some clergy. There have been instances of bishops flying to precious medieval European towns to buy particular fabrics for their vestments.  

Let’s consider the lilies of the fields.

 

....or this

....or this

 

...or this

...or this

And when a bishop dresses up as a homeless person, equating the outfit with the real condition, something has gone, horribly, obscenely wrong.

Clergy, deacons, choirs – it really doesn’t matter.  When all is said and done, the man-on-the-street who walks into the church does not see the tradition or fine weave on the stole.  He or she is more interested – perhaps driven – to understand cope as a verb instead of a noun.  The internal slide show of pop culture images makes a connection not with the history or tradition, but with science fiction.

Vested, to the average Joe or Jane, most of you look like alien overlords.

 

To Serve Mankind

To Serve Mankind

And that’s ok. Because as John Wimber said “I’m a fool for Christ. Who’s fool are you?”