Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Episcopal Church and Laying Down Some Baggage

I look at this and sometimes it STILL shocks me that I feel so at home here. So formal, so ornate, so liturgical. I think at one point it would have downright offended my Protestant sensibilities (which is asinine because these folks love the Reformation like no other). But these days? This is as much home as any church I've ever known. It's as much home as any place in this city. And honestly? I think it's a little tiny taste of what my ultimate eternal home will feel like.

 I shared these sentiments and a similar picture on Facebook the other night and also confessed that I was teary. This post is going to get pretty honest, so I'll just go ahead and admit that "teary" was a massive understatement. 

Several months ago, I hammered out two really difficult posts about our church situation- at home and up here. They were difficult to write because I wanted to take great care to avoid stepping on toes and sometimes that's an exercise in compulsion. They were also difficult in the sense that they were posts that, like a handful over the years, really required me to pour out some emotional resources. Which left me feeling...very satisfied and very depleted.

I realized the other night that it's time to go there again. And writing this post I have the same feelings of anxiety and dread and also feelings of excitement and gratitude that I'm even in the position to write it. Anyway, backing up...

I have plans one day to do a series of post that really delve more into my journey of faith. Until that time, the Cliff Notes:
- I was raised in a United Methodist Church in downtown Jackson. We were the type of family whose attendance was a bit spotty. 
- I attended an Episcopal school until I was twelve. During my tween years, I went to an Episcopal church in my neighborhood with my friends. I was actually baptized there because my parents, despite our tradition, weren't big on infant baptism. Some unfortunate things happened and I quite going. I also changed schools to a non parochial school. 
- I started attending youth group and then church with my boyfriend when I was fifteen. This is where I really came to understand the fundamentals of my faith. He left the church after awhile (his parents weren't really church goers themselves) and I kept going and sat on the back row with little white haired ladies who were so generous with their Altoids and became, on one level, true friends
- Peyton and I started dating and we looked at a number of churches (he grew up Catholic, but had gone through a period of Agnosticism, and was at that point open to a lot of different things)
- We settled on the church I had been going to for years, attended there regularly, and had our children baptized there. That's where we were before we moved. 

All that to say, I'm somewhat familiar with different denominations and such. But I realized when we got here, especially when we started attending an Episcopal church, that I had a lot of hang ups. 

My issues were two fold. First, I assumed an Episcopal church in New York City would be VERY liberal on social issues (which is fair in a way, I guess- I'm pretty sure most are). I had gone so far as to telling people in Mississippi that we probably wouldn't be able to find a United Methodist church in the city where we would feel comfortable because of this very thing. We are not super conservative in a lot of ways. In a lot of ways we are not that conservative at all at this point (in a few areas- which are to us, BIG areas, we still are). But I didn't want to go to a church and hear a social gospel preached every week at the expense of THE Gospel. I just didn't want that to be the sole focus.  Well, I shouldn't have fretted much there. While I know our church makes space for those in relationships and families that look different than mine, I've never heard anyone courting the culture from the pulpit (which, for the record, Evangelicals and progressives alike often love to court the culture from the pulpit). 

The second piece of baggage was a bit more difficult to shake. For some reason, at home, any time I would talk to someone about these things I would acknowledge that sure the UMC was part of the mainline, but I'd make damn sure to issue a quick caveat about small town churches in the South (i.e. my United Methodist church isn't that dissimilar from your Southern Baptist church, at least not where it really counts). You know in an effort to feel secure with my Evangelical friends. And some of that is still the social/cultural stuff. But some is not. 

When I've written on here or discussed with people about teaching the children about saints it's been with more caveats and half a dozen disclaimers. When I've talked about Lent, I think I usually hedge my words to make sure no one thinks I think a Lenten sacrifice is in any way meritorious. 

One of the priests actually told me that when he's visiting other places (mainly the South) and tells people he's an Episcopal priest in New York people's first question is about homosexual marriage and their next prerogative is to make sure he actually knows Jesus in a personal way. Which is ironic because I've literally never heard a three point sermon on how to be a better person at Calvary. I've never heard a sermon designed to make me feel good about myself. What I have heard is the impassioned preaching of the Gospel- the bold proclaiming of the historic faith of Christ and Him crucified. Every Sunday.

When we first started attending Calvary, I had a lot of strange, upside down feelings. For one thing, I hesitated to tell our friends at home where we were even going at first. And when I did, I think I often jumped right into defense mode ("I know what you're thinking..."). 

But even besides that. Even within myself, it was hard to reconcile the baggage. Coming from a Methodist background, I was not unfamiliar with a liturgy, with an order of worship. I knew the creeds and the words before communion are strikingly similar. But there was more to it. There was kneeling and processing. There were PRIESTS (who could be married, and could have children, and could watch cable TV...but still). There were these historic church buildings that I count among the most beautiful places I've seen in New York City but that at first felt like I was playing dress up in. There was this really ornate elevated pulpit and initially I kept thinking "Doesn't this put the priest on some super high level where we're almost worshiping HIM?" until he said things like "I'm not as different from ISIS as I'd like to believe" because DEPRAVITY and I was like "Guueeeeessse not". There was the occasional smoke or singing of like the entire liturgy, which apparently is done on special days of the church calendar like Pentecost. There were these vestments that had big stiff collars and reminded me of Annie's plastic triceratops a little when I first stalked the priest on Facebook (yeah, alot is coming out in this post, okay?). Even though I heard Calvary described at Mockingbird (hot damn- Mockingbird...run, don't walk to the conference if you're anywhere in the area) as "distinctively low church and decidedly Protestant" that really depends on your frame of reference (which would be small town Methodist church in the Deep South mostly, which is well, pretty low church). It all freaked me out. To be honest, it terrified me and I spent a lot of time wrestling with it. Afraid of becoming too formal and too ritualistic and too stoic (while also wrestling with some of the theological beliefs that I was hearing espoused).

Interestingly, that's exactly the opposite of what happened. I worshiped in a way I am sure I never have. I felt things to my core more than I ever have. I felt abandon during a church service the way I never have. I finally opened up to the idea that Grace is really free. 

Most importantly, I learned to understand the Gospel in a way I never had. I learned what it means to, to quote of my favorite Rain for Roots songs, "rest even when you are awake". I experienced peace here in a way I never have. That's sort of a tangent, but a really important one, so I included it. 

It's just strange how something can feel so incredibly natural and so wildly unnatural at the same time. But so many important things do. The first time you make love, or give birth, or nurse a baby. [Those things felt weird as Hell  for me, and I felt this strange anxiety of "Should I really be doing this?" "AM I REALLY DOING THIS?"] But then those things become some of the most powerful acts of your life and you know that, in a way, you were made for them. What felt awkward at best and shameful at worst turned into the most beautiful, most pure thing you've ever done in your life. 

Slowly, I felt the liturgy become a part of me. And perhaps more importantly, I felt myself becoming a part of it. Slowly it went from being awkward and even feeling a little ritualistic and unchristian- one of those things where you feel nervous and guilty and worried someone might catch you doing it- to being one of the most pure things I'd ever been apart of. 

Our friend Jake (who is also the priest) said something a couple of weeks ago about "when God seems so hidden you would think that He was absence". He talked about how reassurance is found in God's promises- His promises in His word, but also in His sacraments. He said one of the most beautiful things I've heard lately about doubt and fear and uncertainty- he talked about how we have been given the FULLNESS of God's promise though "bread in your mouth, water on your head, and promises in your ears"...

Tears welled up in my eyes. I realized that something I had struggled with so much, things I had fears were so "works based" were exactly the opposite. I had worried that these Anglican folks were thinking these things SAVED them. These guys don't. These people will not let anybody, or anything, but Jesus save you. But I do think they think of them as a means by which God carries us. And that's okay. Sometimes (all the time) I need something to carry me. I've long called them, per John Wesley, a "means of Grace", but I was paying lip service to that notion in a way. I hadn't really experienced them in that means. I didn't fully understand what the big deal was. I don't really think anyone can. But I'm closer to it. And...I think...they're drawing me closer to the foot of the cross. 

All these thoughts came to the surface when I saw that picture on Facebook the other night. I experienced a weird sensation. For a moment I was drawn back to those early feelings- the eerily beautiful church that seemed daunting almost, the priests standing so straight and upright. Then, like a rubberband, my mind popped back into place. That building is home here and those men are our friends. The haunting beauty that is a two hundred and something year old building remains and the seriousness of the moment does, too, but it's now so very comfortable. A security blanket that enfolds me and speaks truth to me about the hope found in the risen Christ. 

I realized, shortly into writing this, that if someone were to ask me if we were actually going to join an Episcopal church when we got home I'd still offer my disclaimers and caveats, maybe even offer them first. 

I'm not sure. I'm not sure what we'll do when we get home. But I'm letting go of my final piece of baggage- if we find a church like Calvary at home (which I have NO grand illusions of, but I am trusting in the Lord's provision) then I don't think there's a disclaimer or caveat in the world that I'd be justified in leading with, that wouldn't rob that place of its dignity in some way. 

This is where I feel at home. No parenthetical needed.


Jennifer said...

I LOVE this SD! I am a cradle Episcopalian and love the liturgy and the sense of tradition. My husband grew up Lutheran but ultimately we decided that being Episcopalian was more important to me than being Lutheran was to him. I am conservative and liberal all at the same time. My Dad thinks I am a bleeding heart and Carl thinks I am too progressive sometimes with my need to minister to those who are alone. Ultimately, it is the right space for us to Walk in Love with others and I am glad you found a church that fits your needs. We will all celebrate together one day with no more tears or suffering. That will be worth celebrating!

Little Nia said...

Sarah this is a BEAUTIFUL post - I love your writing and voice and am so happy you and your family are at the church! I'm so excited that photograph affected you too, feeling very honored because I snapped that shot and was worried people would be annoyed that such a loud CLICK resounded during such a beautiful moment of the palm burning.

See you Sunday :)