Monday, February 8, 2016

Telling Enchanted Stories

The season of Epiphany always comes to a close with the breathtaking story of the Transfiguration – that moment on a mountaintop when, before the eyes of His closest followers, Jesus’ appearance transforms.  His face changes (we are not told how) and his clothing becomes dazzling white.  As if this was not enough, suddenly there appears with Jesus the two most significant figures from the Hebrew tradition – Moses, the giver of the Law, and Elijah, the founder of the prophetic movement.  Then God becomes present to the group, but, as it often happens in the Scriptures, a cloud masks the Holy One’s Majestic Being so as not to overwhelm the human beings who are present.  And, as if this spiritual cake needed even more frosting, the Transfiguration does not end until the very voice of God is heard proclaiming Jesus as the Son, the Chosen One. 

Wow!  This is a BIG event.  It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  Can you imagine being Peter, James, or John?  What would you do with an encounter like this?  Well, according to Luke, the disciples kept silent about what they had heard and told no one about what they had seen… and (as many people have quipped) this makes them prime candidates to lead the Evangelism Committee of just about every congregation in the Episcopal Church!  Our diocesan council speaker asked what you get when you cross an Episcopalian with a Jehovah’s Witness.  The answer: someone who rings your doorbell but has nothing to say!

Why do we struggle so much to tell our stories about God’s presence in our lives?

There is no simple answer: 

· We live in a culture where talk of God or politics does not make for polite conversation.

· Even in settings where ‘God talk’ is acceptable, often times our deepest experiences of the Holy One defy description.  They are so profound, so entirely other, that words fail us.   

· But not all of us.  Think of the ‘evangelists’ you hear on TV, encounter in the workplace, or know from your neighborhood.  We listen to the stories they tell about their faith and often recognize our experience has little in common with theirs.  The ease with which they share their faith and the language they give to it has the effect of silencing us. 

Who tells faith stories similar to our own?  Who speaks a language we can use to share our faith?  For many of us the answer is no one.  It is not that we do not know God, sense God, and experience God.  We simply do not know how to speak about it.  But the world is starving for us to find the words.

In her book The Practicing Congregation, Diana Butler Bass tells the story of man on an evening flight out of Los Angels:

As the plane lifted off the ground, it moved through this noxious layer of particulate, and suddenly, as it rose above the clouds, he and his fellow travelers became aware as if for the first time of a world of translucent beauty, filled with a quarter moon, stars, and distant lightning.  Not until he moved above the smog did he realize how the by-products of our industrial system had closed his whole perception of the world, and that his understanding of his experience was subject to such a degree to the system in which he lived.

Commenting on the story Butler Bass writes, “People want to soar.  They want to see.  They want to find an enchanted world.  If we know the world to be enchanted with God’s presence then why do we struggle to tell others about what we see when we rise above the smog of everyday life?

I suspect the primary reason we find it difficult to tell our stories is we sense a disconnect between the fantastic narratives of the bible and the experiences of our ordinary our lives.  We believe God acted in those BIG stories, but fail to see how God is involved in the relatively little, common events in our lives.  One of my fundamental convictions is God is just as present in our daily life as God was present in the lives of the people of the bible.  True, it may not be as dramatic, but it is no less real and no less valuable – valuable for us and for those who might hear us speak about it.  It is how we describe what lies beyond the smog of life.  No matter how vanilla the details, it has value because it speaks of a world enchanted with God’s presence.

Last summer, in preparation for next year’s celebration of St. Paul’s 375th anniversary, I began to read through the last 100 years of Vestry minutes.  Most of our really old records were lost in various Suffolk fires, but the materials we have from this site moving forward are remarkably full and well-organized.  Here are just a few entries to give you a flavor of what they contain:

From the Vestry meeting in December, 1922:

Regularly moved and seconded that the bill of Brothers-Pruden Company, Inc., amounting to $10.50 be deferred, to investigate the balance there on of $1.50 item for the year 1919.

These folks knew how to make every penny count!

From the April meeting in 1925:

Mrs. A.S. Eley requested that she be permitted to replace fans with advertizing thereon with plain fans, free of advertizing, for use in the Church.  On motion, duly seconded, granted, and Mrs. Eley was extended a vote of thanks.

We have always been a people with certain sensibilities and a willingness to do our part to make things right.

To appreciate fully this item from June, 1925, keep in mind that until the 1960’s only men served on the Vestry.  Still, the women of the parish did much the ministry of the church through an organization called The Randolph Society:

“The Randolph Society voted unanimously that it should go on record that a request be made The Vestry to offer the use of the Assembly Room to the Memorial Library Association in order that a public library may be started in Suffolk.  Said library to be opened and continued with proper supervision – the Association to be responsible for the proper care of the Church’s property.”

After discussion of the foregoing resolution, the proposition is, on motion, duly seconded, unanimously rejected by the Vestry deeming it unwise to grant the request.

We have always had a strong connection to the common good of our community, but I am thinking more than one Vestry member slept on a couch that June night in 1925.

One final record I will mention comes from a February, 1931 meeting where the Vestry expresses concern for the rector’s health:

Motion was made… that the Registrar be instructed to advise the Rector, Rev. H.N. Tucker, that is was the entire desire and wish of the vestry that, in his present condition, he not feel that it was necessary and obligation on his part to conduct the weekly Lenten services during Lent.

Rev. Tucker remained in poor health until he retired from St. Paul’s and Vestry minutes reflect the parish’s desire he rest and take days off on a consistent basis.  You care for your priest who cares for you!

Diana Butler Bass suggests congregational stories like these often “recede into the background like familiar wallpaper, taken for granted [and] unexamined.”  A while being nowhere near as dramatic as, say, the Transfiguration, these are for us powerful stories that have shaped who we are and how we practice the faith.  They tell how God has been present with us and how we have interpreted God’s desire for us.  The more intentional we are in telling our stories the more vital we will be as a faith community.  It is our way of telling others about the times when we have seen the enchanted stars.

And while St. Paul’s has a story to tell, so does each one of you.  Protest if you like.  Say to yourself “Not me!”  But the God who is present in your life beckons you to find the words to speak about it… not the words of a fancy-pants evangelist, not the words of your born-again coworker, and not the lofty words of some theologian – your words. 

Can you find your words to speak about your experience of God?  Can you find your words to speak about how God is present in our common life at St. Paul’s?  Please try.  We want to soar.  We want see.  We want to find an enchanted world.  And you have experiences of God that will help us. 

Peter, James, and John did not keep silent forever about what they experienced on that mountain.  Eventually they found the words to describe what took place.  Their story helps us to soar.  It helps us to see Jesus as the Son chosen by God to walk the way of Cross.  It helps us to recognize the world is enchanted with a Holy Being in whose presence we live and move and have our being. 

Thank God the disciples eventually found a way to speak about what happened.  And thank God for every time one of us finds the words to speak about our own experiences of the Holy One.

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