The beauty of holiness

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O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: fear before him, all the earth.–Psalm 96:9

We gathered in the nave, the worship space of the church. Our task was to create a skit, highlighting a favorite moment of our recent multi-parish youth mission trip. The usual hilarity ensued. Giggles and stories. Groupings–pairs and triplets–formed, subgroups hard at work on the task. Except for one young man, whom I knew, but not well.

He walked behind the altar, at first to take a closer look at a statue of Jesus. And then, standing at the priest’s place at the table, with only a little bit of trepidation, he began to chant the Eucharistic prayer. Or at least pieces of it were somewhat recognizable as an attempt at the Eucharistic prayer. People stopped, laughed (not unkindly), helped him out a little (the chorus of “and also with you” was  significant) and together they tried to remember what exactly those words were. A mix of prayers from Compline and random proper prefaces got thrown together as he stood in Orans position. I watched for awhile. While the others worked on their skit preparations, he continued, talking/praying/chanting ,half laughing, half praying behind the altar.

I watched for a minute longer and then went into the sacristy and pulled out the altar book, the book that has both the words and the musical settings for our prayers. Taking it and laying it on the altar, I stood just behind him, and then set myself in a matching Orans posture. “Like this” I said and then I began the song that is as familiar as my own skin. He followed, singing with me, not nervous until he suddenly remembered that I am actually a priest and this was my church. Confusion flooded his face for a moment, for surely he was breaking the rules standing here, reciting the priest’s words, standing in the priest’s place, and yet, the priest was standing with him.

One of the joys of Sunday morning, of presiding over the Eucharist, is watching the faces that are before me. My heart often thinks of P, a beautiful, long haired, lanky girl on the cusp of adulthood. One of my favorite memories of being part of P’s parish was watching her worship in the balcony where I could see her lips moving, in perfect cadence, to the words coming from my lips, together we would pray: “take, eat, this is my body.”

Some of my own earliest memories are just that–kneeling in the pew, watching the priest (his back was turned to us in those days), praying, barely above a whisper, those holy words etched so deeply on my heart “therefore with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven” along with the priest. It’s funny how words become so much a part of us. We pass them on, holy words, holy prayers, one generation to the next.

Tonight I gathered in the school room of the prison. Together about 35 of us made a lopsided circle. We prayed the ancient prayers, sang holy songs. As I lifted the cup of grape juice and said the familiar words of blessing, I heard C, our sacristan who also happens to be an inmate, whisper the prayer with me: “do this for the remembrance of me.” The beauty of it caught my breath for just a moment. And then I carried on.

I wonder what it is that makes something holy. Would any of it *be* holy without all the other? Without the prayers, it’s just a cup of juice and a cardboard cracker. Without the breath, priest and people, silent and aloud, it’s just words. But mix it all together and it becomes something wholly new–an invitation, a trust, a hope that God is moving and abiding and birthing new life into us even (or perhaps especially) in our everyday and ordinary. Holiness, I am more and more convinced, sneaks in when we least expect it, mingled into our life like cream into coffee. Not to be stored away, locked in the tabernacle or kept in secret, but waiting to be poured out, like precious oil upon the beard, upon us all.

Turn left at the Baptist Church

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Mortal pride and earthly glory,
sword and crown betray our trust;
what with care and toil we fashion,
tow’r and temple, fall to dust.
(
from the hymn All my hope on God is founded)

Two blocks up the road from my house is a large, five street intersection. One corner boasts being the original site of the Dekalb Farmer’s Market. Another was home to my favorite thrift store. The center of the intersection was the Baptist Church. As an undergraduate at Agnes Scott College, this was one of the landmarks that marked the arrival to my college town, the return to school, the promise of growing up. Maps and I have never gotten along so well, but landmarks I can manage. Turn left at the Baptist Church and then go two blocks more, towards the old car dealership…those are words I can understand.

I’ve known they were going to tear it down. We’ve been at war with Wal-Mart for years. And when we finally lost, and as the congregation of the Baptist Church continued her decline, the future quickly became apparent. The once quirky intersection where the bowling ally, the local pub and the fabric store all took up residence would become just another corner with a  Wal-Mart and a generic strip mall.

And yet. It took them weeks, maybe even months, to prepare the church site for demolition. Like they were preparing a body for burial. They took it down in such small bite size pieces, almost with care–a gathering room here, a kitchen there. Still the front stood proudly, the sanctuary and her steeple. In the final days, everything was gone, save those very front walls. The very last days, in the broken out windows, amid the rubble, someone appeared. Dressed head-to-toe in black, the body could be seen dancing or protesting, no one is really sure. It’s the stuff of neighborhood debate. I heard it was a ninja (really! that was a rumor!). Another heard an artist. Another still a film student making a film. Whoever it was, someone noticed the transformation, the final stages before her complete demise.

On the last day, all that was left was a single rectangular structure–walls with a steeple. As they started to work, tearing down the steeple, she would not go without a fight. It took bending and contorting the piece before it would give way, anchored so well to the old brick, the steeple itself seemed to lift its dying breath in protest. And then it was gone. The rest came down quickly. Nothing left to stand for, once the steeple gave way.

The rubble was cleaned up in less than a day, a stark contrast to all time it had taken to get there. And now, for a pause that I imagine won’t last long, it sits barren, an empty lot.

The first few times I drove by it, I literally got lost. Not for long, but I lost my bearings. Turn right at the church, then you’re almost home. That’s the familiar way of travel. And suddenly that compass point was gone and I found myself having to shift, to adjust my own markers and map. But now the emptiness has become its own marker. My eyes have shifted to meet the space and recognize it for what it is. And in time I will again adjust, to recognize the ugly strip mall that will go in it’s place as the new landscape of home.

Less than a year ago, on my last day of work at my church in the foothills of the Northeast Georgia Mountains, I packed up my office and turned in my keys. The rain had stopped and I looked up. As if a gift from the Creator, there was a rainbow pouring over the steeple. The doors always open, I walked into the church, one last time, to say goodbye. I sat in the old rickety wooden pews and looked out over the pines as the day turned to night. I sat in the dark–I don’t know how long–and sobbed. Here, in these walls, had been my home. Not for forever, but for a time. They echoed with Eucharists and healing prayers, with funerals and baptisms, with laughter and with intimate confessions and the promise of absolution. Choirs had sung and the organ had played, often off key and with missed notes and still God was praised. Here I had stood and told the congregation that someone they loved had died or that someone they didn’t yet know, but already loved, had been born. Here I stood and blessed, broke and shared God with people. All of it, etched in the bones of that place just as it is etched into me.

I don’t grieve the Baptist Church–not really. It wasn’t mine, save a familiarity, a comfort driving home. But I grieve for those who lost it. They will find and make new walls, for, as we all know,  the Church is not the building, the Church is her people. And yet. They are the places that shelter us, that teach us, that frustrate us, that encourage us. They are the walls that stand when we sometimes can not. Until they can no more.