For a low-church, priesthood-of-all, non-sacramental, ambivalent-about-ordination lady, I sure do love "presiding" "over" "ordinances."
This summer has been relentless in its event-heavy travel responsibilities. I’ve trained college ministry interns, driven the giant church van filled with middle-schoolers all over Brooklyn for our workcamp week, prayed prayers and passed polity at Annual Conference in Columbus, packaged rice and beans and chicken and peaches with our Jr. Highs during Bible School, ridden insanely intense coasters at King’s Dominion, and successfully took 14 high school youth all the way to Colorado and back for National Youth Conference. The ridiculous thing is, the summer’s not even over. I head to Minnesota for a writing workshop on Monday, then spend some days with BVSers at their orientation on the Eastern Shore next week. Summer is relentless.
Along the way, in the midst of the insanity, the not knowing what day it is or which time zone I’m in, I’ve run headlong into some sacred moments. I daresay some sacramental moments. Except we’re Brethren. We don’t do sacraments. Those are for the ruling high church oppressors, eh, the ones wanting to fence people out and compel their allegiance. We’re Brethren – no force in religion, no real ecclesial offices, priesthood of ALL believers. We don’t do sacraments.
Which is just fine, you know, except that we DO.
We call them ordinances, and we’re pretty serious about the fact that they can be led by anyone at any time – no need for a special priest or consecration ritual. But we’ve got rituals, kairos-time practices, set-apart traditions…whatever you want to call them, we’ve got them in spades.
And I fell headlong into a bunch of them this summer.
I got to perform the wedding of some of my favorite people in May, people whose sense of spiritual intuition and careful worship made for a wedding ceremony more filled with joyful presence than many others I’ve been a part of. Minister is by far the best gig at a wedding – best seat in the house for the processional, the vows, the first kiss; no need to buy an expensive bridesmaid’s dress you’ll never wear again, the opportunity to bless people you love and stand there in that space where love is pouring down and around and among and between, where covenants are being spoken and consecrated, where relationships are burgeoning, emerging, binding. There’s an ineffable thing that happens in that space, a power that is more than the sum of the ceremony’s parts, and I got to stand there, smack in the middle of it all. I could not stop grinning.
At our Brooklyn workcamp, we got to wash one another’s feet on the last night. Footwashing is a tried and true tradition for us Brethren, as weird as it may be for all y’all others. We do it at least twice a year – a sign of service, of humility, of the blessed ties that bind us together in mutual mercy and care. We’d spent the entire week in Brooklyn serving through congregations and clothing closets, senior centers and salvation armies. Washing the feet of our fellow workcampers was one more way to kneel down in presence and prayer. Plus, they’re junior highs. There is no better age group for setting spiritual significance in stark relief. The boys were boys, giggling and whispering through the singing and washing – but giggling and whispering while they kneeled; refusing to allow the obvious awkwardness of the moment to prevent them from participating fully; they giggled, and then they invited their neighbors to have their feet washed. I was the last to sink my feet into the basin, and it was the dirtiest footwashing water I have ever seen. The workcamper next to me knelt down and washed my tired feet in that nasty water, and for the life of me, I could not stop grinning.
A couple of weeks ago, our congregation baptized three people, outside, in Broad Run. I’d never baptized anyone before, and the outdoor thing was a new twist – it had been a while since the congregation had done anything outside of the baptistry. The stream was much cleaner and prettier than I’d anticipated. Kids waded in and sat on rocks as people gathered. Fred and I walked in, and, one by one, dunked three people three times each. The first guy had to pause a bit between the dunk “in the name of the Father” and the one “in the name of the Son” because a train rumbled by on the trestle not 50 yards away. They held their noses, washed their souls, and we prayed over them. It was all very Brother, Where Art Thou, missing only the sirens and the banjos. Forty people stood on the shoreline, ready with towels and hugs as the newly dunked climbed out of the water. They covenanted to be the church, together, walking in the light of this new covenant with God, living as Christ’s body on earth. Dipping those precious heads under water again and again, I could not stop grinning.
And last week, during one of the massive coliseum worship services, I got to anoint dozens of people. I touched their heads with frankincense-scented oil, looked into their eyes and reminded them that they were beloved children of God. I anointed them in the name of the God who created them, in the name of Jesus who gifts them with an abundant grace, and in the name of the Holy Spirit, who boldly stirs them to follow in the calling to which they have been called. Among those dozens were fellow clergy, BVS volunteers, young adults, and some of my very own youth group. That they are beloved, created and called is EXACTLY what I want these kids to know, EXACTLY what I want to be saying to them, in whatever words come out of my mouth. Anointing is, I think, of the highest order of ordinances. It makes space for simple truth – we are created and beloved – and asks for us to claim our identity, to grasp onto that calling and live into it. There are lots of crumpling faces and tear-washed cheeks during anointing. People hold so much so close to the surface, tamping down so many emotions and so much deep-seated tenderness. Anointing makes room for them to surface, asks us to allow them to peek out, invites us to be our real selves and touch – for just a moment – something even more real than we are. The kids kept coming forward, the tears kept seeping out of eyelids, heavy burdens kept appearing in front of me and for the life of me, I could not stop grinning.
Only slightly inappropriate.
I haven’t done the research or read the theological essays to write what I want to write about all of this, yet. But this summer has been relentless, and part of that unending pressure has been this realization: God may be ever-present, above all and in all and through all; all of life may be sacred and ripe with the possibilities of divine action; we may live in an enchanted and spirit-suffused world…but there is something seriously significant about the ways in which these ancient, scriptural, Jesus-led practices open us up to that Presence, the ways that they clear the space and shrink the distance, open us up and invite God into the most tender places of our lives.
It’s not about me, not about all those inadequate verbs: “presiding” and “officiating” and “performing.” It’s something more like “tending space” or “surrendering self” or “falling headlong into that space where ever-present grace bubbles up and over and cascades over all of our heads.”
The words aren’t right – they’re flimsy and lame, inadequate for what is really happening here. They make me sound like I’ll be pulling crystals out of my pocket and weaving them into patchouli-scented dream catchers at any given moment. I will not. I’m Brethren, after all, traditionally free of sacraments, ornaments, hierarchies and buttons (symbol of too much prideful selfishness, you know). But you can bet your bottom dollar I’ll be accepting any invitation that comes my way to stand in one of those places and feel a room fill up with swirling Spirit.
And for the life of me, I will not be able to stop grinning.