My friend Francis was a devout Christian but being from the Dominican Republic she would often duct tape her prayers to make sure they stuck. There was always a brandy snifter half full of fresh water by her door. When my then church bought a vacant lot to build a community center I ripped the “For Sale” sign off of the fence that enclosed it and brought it with a bottle of champagne to Francis’ apartment. Before she filled glasses for us she poured some on the kitchen floor for the dead. At a particularly fraught zoning hearing where a decision to let us build the center would be granted or not, Francis wore ten safety pins inside of her bra, one for each of the zoning board members mouths to keep them shut. Who am I to laugh? We were approved.
This Winter Solstice marked the twentieth anniversary of the Yule celebration that Donald, who is the closest facsimile to an Altar Guild matron Grace Church has, holds in our church annually. Last year I joined the self- professed pagans who came in offering intentions, which were just about identical to prayers, for a better world. Then we linked arms and danced around candles on the floor.
Do you think this is apostasy? Perhaps. But if so it’s traditional apostasy.
Decades ago my wife and I saw “gargoyles” hanging off the roof outside a thousand year old church in Kilpeck, England. One of them was, no question about it, a fertility goddess called a sheelanagig that is also easy to find in India and there was another that looked very much like an Aztec God with a human head nestled in its mouth. I’ve wished that this church’s vestry minutes from 989 A.D. were preserved. I want to read the transcript from the discussion the Christian missionary had with some barely baptized locals about why their favorite gods couldn’t come into the church but could live outside to protect it; kind of like Francis’ safety pins.
Having spent most of the Sunday mornings of my adult life in the Episcopal Church I’ve come to find the people inside vary widely in belief but still manage to share a common faith. There’s a parishioner who’s been at Grace for decades but identifies as a Quaker. A new member reports she has been a Lutheran, Presbyterian, Unitarian and a Methodist. Over tacos recently she told me that in all of her travels she has found that the worship styles differ but the cast of Jesus’ friends- quirky, loving and sometimes stepping on their own feet, remains pretty much the same. I can’t go too long without receiving bread and wine from the altar while another member finds communion with God through speaking in tongues.
One of the many reasons I love the Episcopal Church is because we don’t lose sleep over believing the same way. Instead, we attach ourselves to the oldest creeds of the church, like the rocks on which coral grow, and we share a common prayer.
On Sunday we’ll celebrate the feast of the Epiphany and tell the story the Wisemen from a faraway land who came to pay homage to the infant Jesus who, the stars informed them, was born to be a great king. Neither Jewish nor Christian, these visitors were among the first to be overwhelmed with joy at the sight of him but they didn’t stay. They went home, we are left to assume, and to their own customs and religions which scripture leaves a mystery.
In remembrance of them, during January Grace Church will receive visitors from other religious traditions who will come with gifts of music, song and prayer. Thanks to the Wisemen, it’s part of our tradition to find our God in people with beliefs and religious practices that are different from our own.
Christ is at work in the world beyond the church and in people who don’t believe the way we do.
Treasure and have faith in that.
Your sister in Christ,