Follow the Leader

For forty years, my Sunday mornings were spent at the church house. Teaching, preaching, celebrating, presiding, praying, greeting, dodging, and connecting.

Little did I know of the holy space and time called CBS Sunday Morning. It is such a fine show, giving the Lord God a run for the money on Sunday morning. If God was as “small” as some of our leaders, God would be unnerved by losing the Arbitron viewing ratings…..it is not a good thing to fall into the hands of a jealous God, I am told.

Obviously, God did not smite the hosts of this show. Charles Kuralt, Charles Osgood, and now Jane Pauley anchor the show that presents substantive pieces of journalism over the course of an hour and a half. I confess that, upon finding the freedom of schedule, it became my Sunday morning time of collecting my self at that pause between weeks. It was with a sense of religious commitment that I would turn my Smart TV on each Sunday at the divinely appointed hour.

That is, until the blessing/curse of the pandemic. I was curious as to how church might be done in such a time where social contact was not allowed. Through Zoom and Facebook, I was lured back into the fold of Sunday morning church, forsaking CBS for CCF, Christ Church Frederica.

I marvel at the creativity of Tom Purdy, the rector of the Episcopal parish on St. Simons Island, my new home. I think he digs the medium and secretly longs to be a television producer. I have been surprised by the effectiveness of the presentation, of how I feel connected with the congregation without the usual physicality of gathering in a specific place and time. As a sacramental person, I long for the connection through the blessed bread and wine, but this will do for the moment. I am a sucker for creativity.

Strangely, I now find myself “booked” every Sunday morning, watching Christ Church at 9:15, New Life Cathedral (a black Pentecostal church in Brooklyn NYC at 10, or St. Mark’s, Brunswick, and Holy Nativity Episcopal, also on the island, Simons not Long, at the traditional 11 o’clock hour. I am not missing Jane and crew, nor Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday. And heavens to Betsy, whatever the hell that means, I find myself looking forward to it. What’s wrong with this picture?

This past Sunday, I was watching intently as the Celebrant was offering the Eucharistic Prayer, an ancient action from the days of gathering with the early church, under the persecution of Rome, not just some damn virus. I focused on the priest’s manual acts, the precise motions and actions of the hands of a sacramental actor, as he said these prayers. Priests, particularly those of us from a certain breed, spend hours studying the choreography of this sacred act. After reciting the words of Jesus at the Last Supper (what we South of God folks call it), the celebrant typically elevates the bread and the wine, and holds it midair for an eternal moment. This week something holy happened for me in cyberspace.

As the Celebrant lifted the bread, my memory sent me back in time to my days at the Cathedral in Atlanta. I remembered standing to the side of my bishop, Judson Child, as he celebrated the Eucharist. At times, it was at the High Altar, and on other occasions, it was in the intimacy of the chapel. Each time, Jud would elevate the bread, or the chalice, and would quietly say this odd phrase: Dominus Meus, Deus Meus. It was uttered with a reverence that took my breath away. Luckily after four years of Latin in high school from Ms. Speer, I knew what he was saying, and knew he was not speaking in tongues. “My Lord, My God”.

Those of you familiar with Scripture will recognize these words coming from Thomas. It was after Thomas showed up late for Easter. The women at the tomb, the disciples gathered…. all experienced the Risen Christ on that pivotal third day. The first day, they witnessed Jesus suffer and die, executed as a criminal. The second day, they waited, not knowing, anxious as to what was next. And then, on the third day, they experienced the Risen Christ.

But not Thomas. For some reason, he was not there in the gathering room with the others. He comes in late, like us. We too are late to the party.

Thomas is tellingly disturbed by missing the action, and he in frustration blurts out that unless he can see and touch Jesus himself, he would not believe. And here, Thomas stands in for us….at least for me.

I have a deep affection for Thomas, I confess, as he is me. He embodies the need to experience the Christ for himself, not just hear about it in third person telling. He’s not a doubter, Doubting Thomas. He’s just late…..like I said, like us. Thomas the Tardy.

Thomas was my touch point when I was wrestling with what to do with this Jesus. I could easily sign on with his ethical teachings, radical as they are about loving one’s enemy. I enjoyed his teaching parables….I’m South of God, so I love a story. But this Resurrection thing…..that flies in the face of my scientific mindset and training. Like Thomas, I needed to experience it for myself, just not hear a report. Second hand will not do. I don’t just want you to tell me about the movie. I want to see it my own damn self.

Pause: I named my first-born Thomas. It was over-determined as my spiritual director, Tom Francis, my therapist, Tom Malone, and my primary source of learning, Thomas Merton, all led me to a love for the name. My brother-in-law, Tommy, thinks my son was named for him, so let’s keep this among ourselves. But more importantly to all of this, Thomas of Bible fame is my person in the story that I identify with. Back to the action.

When Jesus shows up again, to allow Thomas to experience the Risen Christ, his faithful exclamation explodes as he touches the very wounds: My Lord, my God! Dominus Meus, Deus Meus!

My own experience of the Risen Christ has occurred when I see, feel, even touch the connection with Christ that death can not erase. For me, that experiential moment came and comes when I gather with other persons around a table that we set in common. There the Spirit creates a transcendent and imminent connection that re-minds me of the Christ that is in me, and the Christ that is in my sister and brother, even in my enemy. My ordaining bishop, Judson, who was from the strange land of Jersey, experienced that connection and would proclaim with Thomas: My Lord, My God, when he celebrated the holy mysteries of the Eucharist. As I watched him, and marveled at his devotion, his commitment, his joy, I consciously and unconsciously decided to follow him. My own practice of being a priest, of being a person took note of his way of leaning into life.

So in this odd time of corona, watching a Zoom broadcast, I strangely touched the Christ again.

This peculiar moment of watching another priest, in another place, at another time put me in touch with this person, Judson, who was formative in my person. And in that moment, I was grateful to have such a leader to follow.

This begs the question: who are you following? From whom do you get your cues as to how to live your life? Is there someone presently who you look to? Are there voices from the past that whisper, or yell, in your ear as to what is important, what you need to pay attention to?

I have a host of those figures. My mentor, Marney, called them your “balcony” people. I prefer that term to Freud’s super ego. It’s the people who stand on the balcony of our lives and call to us to live out our best, to aspire to the highest goals, to live a life that is worthy. Who are your “balcony people”?

Marney also observed that we have “cellar people”, people who call up from the basement, reminding us of our failures, our shortcomings, cautioning us to not stretch, trading in that toxic commodity known as fear. These dark figures employ fear for the future, and shame from the past. Who are these “cellar folk” in your life?

The art of being a person seems to be orchestrating those various voices and attending to those who call you to your best self, while quieting those voices that want to pull you down.

For me, my daily rhythm of morning and evening prayer and meditation focuses my attention on the aspirational sounds of faithful living. And on Sunday, my Sabbath time, I am able to touch the reality that calls me to my best self, the Christ in me, even if only through a cyber prompt. I prefer the real thing, in the messiness and inconvenience of gathering with other persons. But even in this odd time of pandemic, of Zoom and Facebook, the reality breaks through on occasion, if I am present and paying attention.

And I gasp, Dominus meus, Deus Meus, following my leader as I lean into the future.

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