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Friday, July 24, 2009

Beautiful words, wonderful words of life . . .

Images from General Convention are still cascading before my mind's eye.

Most of them are images that weren't captured on film - at least, none that I have seen. But, these images will stay with me, long after the memories of General Convention 2009 have faded.

There was another moment during the Integrity Eucharist where I got all girly-burbly that, thankfully, was not captured by the press or Louise Brook's or Cynthia Black's camera crew.

It came, quite unexpectedly, during the gospel procession.

The hotel conference room where the Eucharist was held was huge. Imagine a room large enough to hold the estimated 1,200 - 1,300 people in attendance. Imagine a room shaped in the form of a rectangle, with the altar set up on a platform with the choir behind it.

Now, imagine the congregational seating sort of wrapped around that altar and choir, in eight 'sections' of rows of seating, with wide aisles between each section.

The liturgy was a bit unusual. First there was an invocation of the Holy Spirit, delivered, of course, by Louie Crew, the unofficial 'lay bishop' but undisputed spiritual leader of Integrity.

That was followed by the 'entrance' or 'processional' hymn - "Wade in the Water" - led, as were all the hymns - by the All Saints', Pasadena Choir.

They were beyond magnificent. Every hymn. Every time.

The first reading was from the story of Cornelius and Peter in the Book of Acts, beautifully read in the "Message/Eugene Petersen" version by Jim White.

Then, instead of the reading of the Epistle, came the renewal of our baptismal vows, before the reading of the Gospel.

It was at that point that we were taught the South African chant that you hear in the IntegriTV report. Our teacher was a young, exuberant South African priest, who kept the rhythm for us on his drum, punctuating it with whistles and inspired yelps.

Then, the gospel procession began. And, no one was ready for that.

The gospel book was carried by the deacon who held it up high the center of three brightly colored, large parasols. It was flanked by four people carrying brightly colored streamers.

The procession was like this: the African drummer, the gospel contingent, and then Bishop Gene Robinson who sprinkled the crowd with the baptismal water as they processed.

They weaved down one aisle, across the back section, up the next aisle, across the front section, and back down the next aisle.

Remember: there were eight sections.

At about the second section, impatient American that I am - tamed by suburbanites who want their liturgy "straight up, no chaser" and lasting not one minute more than a proper, punctual Protestant hour - I began to squirm a bit.

I'm embarrassed, now, to admit it, but I heard myself grumble, "Oh, Lord. This is soooooo gay male, post-modern, avant-garde Anglo-Catholic liturgy which adheres to the belief that 'nothing succeeds like excess'."

I was so enjoying the drummer and the singing that I, even impatient I, decided to just relax and enjoy the exuberant singing of the congregation. I mean, what else was there to be done? I found myself enjoying watching the top of gospel procession as it weaved its way up and down the aisles.

It began to remind me of being at Jewish services, where the Torah is processed through the congregation as the cantor or rabbi chants. Everyone shouts "Alleluia!" and bows and sways as they reach out their gloved hand or pinkie finger to touch the Sacred Scrolls. Then, in an act of utter devotion to the Torah, believing it to be the "Book of Life," they kiss their hand or pinkie finger.

I found myself feeling a strange mixture of idle amusement and just a tad of discomfort by the processional image - South African chant, festive, medieval procession, ancient Jewish practice, taking lots of time - more from sensory overload than anything else.

Okay, and, impatience.

I opened the service booklet to distract myself and found myself reading the 'fine print'. I shouldn't have been, but found myself surprised to read something like, ". . . as the gospel is processed the congregation may touch the gospel book. . ."

I think I smirked. Ah, I was right. It was more like a Jewish procession of Torah. "Gay liturgists," I scoffed to my amused, smug self, who adhere to the doctrine of, 'Less is, well, less."

I say that of my gay brothers with an admitted sense of jealousy for their innate understanding of how to create fine liturgy. Chalk it up to a bit of 'sibling rivalry'.

But, isn't it amazing - evidence of God's grace - that the very ones who have known internal psychic suffering, emotional and spiritual abuse and cultural shame, including learning to cope with the loss of assumed 'male privilege' - who can create such beauty that inspires such devotion and faith to God?

I lifted my eyes from the page and began to scan the crowd.

That's when I saw it: People reaching - over themselves and each other - stretching out their hands to touch the gospel book. Some were smiling broadly, caught up in the spirit of the procession.

But others. . . others were openly weeping.

That's when it hit me - a Spirit sucker-punch right to the midsection of my soul.

Here were men and women who had been clobbered by seven verses of that Scripture - battered and bruised and weary from years of battle with those who think they know "The Truth," kept out of churches or expelled from church, people who had been told they were not good enough, that they were lesser children of God and just a bit higher than the mongrel dogs on the street - who loved Scripture.

Loved it.

Embraced it.

Reached out for it to touch it and kiss it, sometimes, kissing their hand first and then touching the gospel book.

Reached over each other to try and reach it themselves.

Wept openly and unashamedly, in the words of that old hymn, for the 'beautiful words, wonderful words of Life.'

The Episcopal Church, steeped in the Anglican Tradition, has never embraced 'Sola Scriptura', but that doesn't mean that Scripture is not, as Richard Hooker said, the primary leg of the Three-Legged Stool of Anglicanism.

We are not Roman Catholics, who have an exceedingly high doctrine of the Sacrament of Eucharist. It's not all about the wafer and the wine on the Via Media - the Middle Road - of Anglicanism.

I came to understand in a new way and appreciate even more deeply why we are people of "Word and Sacrament."

I think I'm also beginning to understand the difference between Holy Scripture and Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I know I'm never going to hear these words the same way again:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

The past few days, as the images of General Convention continue to cascade before my mind's eye, I keep hearing in my head that old hymn 'Beautiful words, Wonderful words'

I'll leave them with you as gift.

As prayer.

Words of Life for your life.

1. Sing them over again to me,
wonderful words of life;
let me more of their beauty see,
wonderful words of life;
words of life and beauty
teach me faith and duty.
Beautiful words, wonderful words,
wonderful words of life.
Beautiful words, wonderful words,
wonderful words of life.

2. Christ, the blessed one, gives to all
wonderful words of life;
sinner, list to the loving call,
wonderful words of life;
all so freely given,
wooing us to heaven.

3. Sweetly echo the gospel call,
wonderful words of life;
offer pardon and peace to all,
wonderful words of life;
Jesus, only Savior,
sanctify forever.


David@Montreal said...

you have such an uncanny gift for reducing me to tears
tears of gratitude, tears of wonder, tears of awe

thank-you for this post
and for shaing this experience


Muthah+ said...

It is interesting that the conservative wing of the ELCA is called Word Alone. I too have grown to love the wonderful words of life--but I have come to them though that wonderful flamboyant liturgy. Faith, over the years, evolves and grows. I am not a Word Alone person--but I am devoted to the lived out incarnation of Jesus Christ through Word and Sacrament.

I too have impatience with the outward and fussy. But sometimes it is watching others glean so much juice from the liturgy that it makes us aware of our thirst.

Thanks for the images. I will not miss GC again. Though you may not be there, fatigued from years of making it possible for me to serve congregations, I cannot in conscience NOT come to the altar at such a service.

IT said...

Oh, interesting! like you I was thinking "okaaaaay" expecting the frequent embarrassment that occurs when Westerners attempt African rhythms and singing. LIke you also, I was pleasantly surprised at how well it worked.

But my best recollection of that moment is the joyful big grin on Gene Robinson's face. His sleeves were pushed up and he sprinkled his holy water about with great vigor and enthusiasm. I was standing on the aisle (BP reached past me for the book), and I got a big dollop of water right in the chest. This caused great mirth in my wife and friends, who I think were expecting the atheist to sizzle....!

THe word is "waden". Wadin' through the water?

WilliamK said...

Thanks SO MUCH for this. I have been repeatedly struck by the wonderful honesty with which you explain how your have learned new things or deepened your understanding of things you already knew. You set a wonderful example for us.

I love the fact that so many of our churches (including my parish) carry the Gospel Book into the midst of the congregation... but I have alwasy envied my Jewish friends the enthusiasm of their "gospel procession" with the Torah scroll. I'm pleased that my excess-loving brothers at GC provided the form of Gospel Procession that they did, and I'm sorry I wasn't there for it!

My rector was there. Maybe I can see if the idea struck him enough that he'll let us try it in our parish!!!! ;-)

Caminante said...

More tears... for those people who touched the book, for their searching and, selfishly, for what I missed.

Word verification:


sort of lectio


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

David, I am happy to share what I saw with others. Just call me an evangelist and I'll be happy.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, Muthah, I don't know if I'm so much exhausted as I am ready to let the new guard take the mission forward. Our future is in very good hands. Trust me on this. I'm not counting anything out - except deputy. I won't be running for deputy again, I know that for certain. Much too restrictive. We'll see what happens in three years.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

IT, I agree, +Gene's smile was the best. What a great time. I only wish I had had more time to spend with you and your beloved, beautiful wife.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

William K - Ask your rector. Go ahead. I'm sure he'll seriously consider it. It really all depends on the occasion and your worship space. That would never work in my church. Alas and deep sigh.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Caminante -

We were poorer for your absence, my love. I hope this makes up a tiny bit of your loss.

IT said...

We'll meet again, Elizabeth. As I said at Mimi's, we had to leave something to talk about next time!

Erp said...

But IT haven't you been inoculated by your initial baptism? Now I, if I had been there, would probably melt like the witch in Oz having had no previous exposure.

More seriously it sounds like a feast filled with great joy; may those who oppose you within the church one day join you in sharing it.