Wednesday, May 23, 2012

"Hearing the Holiness"
reflections on Annie, Joy, & Buechner

I grew up singing the Lord's Prayer.  One day I stopped singing it because the church at which I worshiped stopped singing it.  In place of the singing, the congregation simply said it together.  This was not a big deal to me.  The priest at the church was my dad, and he had a habit of letting me in on his liturgical thinking.  This one was convincing: "The Episcopal service is strange," he explained, "and the Lord's Prayer might be the only part of the service that the guest or newcomer feels comfortable joining."  In the overwhelming context of the Eucharist, the Lord's Prayer stares back at the stranger like a solitary familiar face in the midst of the unfamiliar throngs.  "Good enough for me," I thought to myself, and I never looked back.

I should probably pause long enough to say that I am not one who gets bent out of shape much over questions of liturgy.  I grew up in a Rite I Anglo-Catholic parish with a parochial school whose rhythm was daily prayer.  After high school, I went to Wheaton College (God's good sense of humor, and after a brief but formative time in a Canterbury Community engaging the Taize tradition in South Bend, Indiana), subsequently enrolled at Duke Divinity School (a Methodist school with an Anglican Studies program), and have happily lived out the first five-plus years of my ordained ministry in the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas.  That is to say I've "gotten around" about as much as is possible for a life-long, cradle Episcopalian.  Rather than feel pulled in many directions by these experiences, I have grown to find my patch-work history shaped and centered by the gravity of St Paul's words when he writes:

There is one Body and one Spirit;
There is one hope in God’s call to us;
One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism;
One God and Father of all.

I remember these words and I particularly remember, too, the image of our div school chaplain, Sally Bates, breaking the bread time and again as light streamed in the chapel and speaking the reality that "we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf."

All of that is to say that I don't find myself interested much in the "freshman jostling" of inflexible liturgical decision making - life is too rich, and my economics background is always thinking "trade-offs" before absolutes anyway, and so my main point just now is not whether it is right or wrong to sing the Lord's Prayer in corporate worship.  But we did stop singing it, and I never looked back...until one day this past week.

Annie is two and a half, more or less.  She'll be three in August.  She "reads" books voraciously, memorizing the pages and speaking the words, often to other books.  Recently she's taken to singing.  She has always sung - a favorite past-time the two of us have shared together from her beginning - but she has recently taken to singing songs to tunes with the original words kept intact.  This is new.  This has mostly happened suddenly: one day she wasn't, the next day she was.  This past week she unexpectedly interrupted my knitting and sang the Lord's Prayer to the heavens.   As Bek and I listened in, my heart was swallowed by the prayer that I would never forget the awe and the magic and my jaw-dropped disbelief in that moment.

She was singing to God, but grace found our ears.  And every word was there: this ritual ending to our family's evening prayers, sung at Bek's whim one night, continued because Annie enjoyed her parents' singing, and two months later she's belting it out from the heart and from memory.  Maybe that's what I am striving to appreciate in this post: how music stains the memory; how prayers so sung make ready homes in us.

A few days later, this moment very much alive in my memory, I was listening to a speaker at our diocesan clergy day.  He was telling us about Frederick Buechner's encounter with mystery in the space of a "particular Episcopal church he attending while lecturing at Wheaton College."  My heart quickened as he spoke.  I also went to a particular Episcopal Church while at Wheaton...  "In Glen Ellyn," the speaker continued.  My eyes went wide - "Saint Barnabas!" we nearly said together.  And I wondered how many times I sat in Buechner's pew, two decades after his visit.  Anyway, I looked up the book, Telling Secrets, from which the speaker's story came, and found the following words that helped me make sense of the joy that flooded my being as Annie flooded our home with her song.  Before I share them, my point, the moral, my main advice to the patient reader who has nearly made it to the end of this long and winding post: sing as much as possible. 

Here's Buechner:

I also found myself going to an extraordinary church or, with my rather dim experience of churches back home, one that was extraordinary at least to me.  Its name was Saint Barnabas, and it was described to me as an evangelical high Episcopal church, and that seemed so wonderfully anomalous that what took me there first was pure curiosity.  What kept taking me back Sunday after Sunday, however, was something else again.  Part of the service was chanted at Saint Barnabas, and I discovered that when a prayer or a psalm or a passage from the Gospels is sung, you hear it in a whole new way.  Words wear thin after a while, especially religious words.  We have spoken them and listened to them so often that after a while we hardly even hear them any more.  As writer, preacher, teacher I have spent so much of my life dealing with words that I find I get fed up with them.  I get fed up especially with my own words and the sound of my own voice endlessly speaking them.  What the chanting did was to remind me that worship is more than words and then in a way to give words back to me again.  It reminded me that words are not only meaning but music and magic and power.  The chanting italicized them, made poetry of their prose.  It helped me hear the holiness in them and in all of us as we chanted them.

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