Tuesday, January 17, 2017

England and the Piercing (in the Best Way) of My Heart

After a glorious week in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, exploring places throughout the Midlands and along the coast, I have most definitely discovered one thing.

My English roots, that at first seemed separated from me by a great divide of generations and centuries, are in fact very much near the surface.

It was hard to explain throughout my life why I felt such a pull to England; I had never before visited and thus had nothing upon which to draw for a sufficient answer. But the feeling was there nonetheless. There was something about this place that was calling to me, not audibly or on the surface but in an internal, very deep way. It would have been very easy to chalk it up to a desire to experience the history of the place, to wander through villages and castles and soak up the stories of the men and women who shaped this nation. I could have pointed and said that I wanted to go because that is the place where Richard III met his fate or a site where the Vikings camped on their expeditions across the Europe. This first week, I have been truly blessed to experience a bit of that history, to stand gazing at the Magna Carta and to walk through a medieval village abandoned long ago and now tucked quietly and largely forgotten in a valley in the Moors.

But beyond that, deeper than that, I have experienced in the many opportunities for worship with my friend Trudy that my calling to this place has been – all along – a deeply spiritual one.

As an American and an Episcopalian, I still find myself amazed that I am a member of a denomination that stretches back more than two centuries. Certainly I am very aware that it grew from the Church of England, but that connection for me was more a historical rather than spiritual one – something to read about in my church history courses and simply think, “Oh, that’s quite nice. We come from a great tradition and we owe them a lot.” But to have an opportunity to explore those roots, to worship in places that – as Trudy jokingly but very accurately reminds me – “are older than your country,” is much more powerful indeed. A connection that before now was somehow missing has now been made in an extremely powerful and emotional way.

I was reading a newly-written Lenten reflection about Mary, the mother of Jesus, reminding us that she had been told that because of who her son was, her heart would be pierced. That is a very apt way of explaining the feelings I have had with worship this week: my heart has been pierced. Before being alarmed, it is not a painful piercing, the type Mary experienced. This is a piercing that has made my heart full, a piercing that has injected me with something utterly beautiful and almost completely indescribable.

Hearing the majestic sounds of a choir singing Choral Evensong in the darkened Peterborough Cathedral in the way that it has been done for centuries. Sitting in the ruins of Whitby Abbey and reading Celtic mid-day prayer in a place where for nearly 1,500 years men and women prayed and devoted their lives to nothing more than loving God and living God, the only sounds being their voices and the crashing off the waves in the North Sea. Joining with three other people in the cold choir stalls of a 12th century Norman Church for a service of Holy Eucharist, stripped away of everything except the words and the elements – and despite those absent parts finding it to be one of the most meaningful Eucharists I have ever attended. And hearing my friend, herself following the call of God into a new vocation and soon to be ordained a priest in the church, read the Gospel and have her voice and those words echo in the space and then slowly fade and blend into the ancient and communal memory of the countless voices of those proclaiming God’s word since time immemorial.

For me, there is a distinction between having roots and being rooted. My roots are in rural Virginia, in the countryside resting in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. There, too, are the roots of my personal faith journey, in the Episcopal churches I attended in my youth. But I have now seen – have now experienced – have now lived – the realization that I am rooted in a church, in a faith, that stretches across the ocean and into cathedrals and parishes, hidden villages and ruined abbeys. I have not been reminded that I am rooted downward; experiencing God in this new way has very much shown me that I am rooted inwardly, held in place by the prayers and voices and worship of saints and ordinary worshipers.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Reflections from the Brigg Road: One Sunday in North Lincolnshire

(Following attendance at two services in two different parishes in the Diocese of Lincoln this morning, I was asked to write a reflection on my experiences. This is the text of that reflection.)

One, a market town with a population of roughly 5,600 along the River Ancholme. The other, a tiny village numbering slightly more than 450 within the boundary of a larger agricultural parish. In the first, a service of Holy Eucharist was held in a recently-renovated church hall equipped with lighting and heat, kitchen facilities and running water. In the second, a similar service took place in a 12th century Norman church with no electricity, no lights, no heat and no running water. For those at the former, there is only the passing question of whether to hang coats and scarves in the entryway or on the backs of their chairs. Those at the latter need not ask; there, the question is instead how many layers of cloaks and clothing are needed to insulate against the cold.

At the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Brigg, you could hear the words of the Liturgy spoken by the congregation of 40. For the four seated in the choir of the Church of All Saints in Cadney, you were also able to see your words, each prayer and each “Amen!” hanging in the air as the breath escaped the lungs and froze in the chilled air.

Two parishes separated by just 2.9 miles – not even five minutes in a car – yet seemingly coming from two different worlds. How, then, could anyone ever compare worship in a modern space, with music and lights, with a service that has been stripped of all except the words, in a space lit only by candles and whatever shines through the windows? What do these two churches have in common?

Quite simply, the love of God, the love of worship and the sacredness of fellowship. Despite being in each for only a brief  time, I could feel the strong presence of God in the midst of these gatherings and see it reflected on many, many faces. In both places, there is a strong tie binding them together, even beyond  simply being present as members of the congregations. And for  both, I experienced that their true warmth comes not from central  heating or bundling up in coats and scarves, but from the welcome they extend to the stranger and the love they share with one  another.

I found myself on the receiving end of many smiles, handshakes and brief conversations in Brigg, engaging with those who took it upon themselves to seek me out as a visitor and make me feel welcome. I heard stories of life in Brigg and of why St. John and its life in community have made the town identifiable as a home in a much deeper way than any post code or street address. One even told me of how he derives so much joy in sharing his gifts with others in community theater productions.

The same was true with my visit in Cadney. Despite being a much smaller congregation, I was accepted not for simply being someone visiting from the United States for a day, but instead as a beloved member of their community, kneeling as family at the altar in a shared act of worship. I was brought into conversation with everyone, being asked about my home and about what I have found  to be the most impactful moments during my time in England. I was even privileged to share in the joyful expectation of one who, as he said, was looking forward to getting back home after the service to join with family and friends in celebrating a beloved grandchild’s 16th birthday.

My journey down Brigg Road revealed much. For all of the stark differences I expected to find, one thing was made clear. This was a journey between two brackets bounding a shared story. St. John and All Saints are joined by much more than simply being two parts of the Benefice of St. John the Evangelist. They are joined in the strength of and joy in their worship. They are joined in what as I witnessed as a living out of Matthew 25:35: "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me." And they are joined forever as companions on the journey through this life and as faces of those seeking to serve God in all persons, truly loving their neighbors - and their visitors - as themselves.