Last night, Paul and I were dropping off a Home Depot bucket full of cleaning products at our priest’s house, and Mother Leslie was thanking us for contributing. A couple of other parishioners are driving a truck, stuffed with cleaning supplies, de-humidifiers, and fans, down to Houston today. I told her no worries, we always hope someone will be here for us if we need them. It’s a privilege to be in a position to help, if only in a small way. I mean that, even if it took me an awful long time to learn it, and it reminded me of my Percival* Moment many years ago.
I was basically an un-churched child. Baptized at Our Lady of Las Vegas (Seriously! It’s a real place) and raised nominally Roman Catholic by my divorced, and thus excommunicated, mother. After she married my wonderful, Jewish step-father, we just didn’t go to church a lot.
For me, church was a beautiful, candle-lit place, with patient-looking Madonnas and stained glass, where I got to wear my best, white, Mary Jane shoes, and a white lace doily on my head, dreaming of the day I was old enough to wear the long lace mantillas like my mother did. For me, churches were something eternal, always there, and it never occurred to me they were built, operated, and funded by actual humans. Because=God & Miracles.
Years pass, I became a mother and felt the tug at my heart, calling me to be something more than “spiritual”. I also wanted give my daughter all the things I hadn’t had and that included a proper religious education. But where to get one? As an American, I did the logical thing: went shopping.
Over a few months, I attended services at the local parish of every mainline branch of Christianity, looking for a spiritual home for Charlotte and me. I really liked the energy of the large, local Methodist parish, right until the young pastor began encouraging us to pray for our homosexual brothers and sisters to be healed. According to him we could, apparently, pray away their gay. That wasn’t the parish for me.
It happened to be Easter Sunday when I visited the local Episcopal Church, where I saw a woman celebrate the Eucharist for the first time in my life. Here was the place to raise a daughter as a first class citizen. I was home.
We attended faithfully and I dropped my check in the collection plate every week, saw Charlotte to the door of her Sunday school class, then beat feet for Starbuck’s on Main Street, and a mercifully quiet cup of coffee, confident I was doing my bit by tossing in that check each week.
(Wo)man plans, God laughs. One day, just as I was making my escape, the Junior Warden caught me, asking where I was going. Oh, just grabbing a cup of coffee while the kiddo learns about Jesus.
“We have coffee in the Parish Hall! Let me buy you a cup!” He was holding the door open, and bearing a wide grin. It was a trap, I knew it was a trap, but my momma didn’t raise me to be rude, and so I walked right in to the Ministry Faire. (I always add the ‘e’ to make it seem more like a Renaissance Faire, and less like we’re asking people to you know, work. I prefer conjuring images of turkey legs rather than empty wallets or blisters.)
Oh God there was a whole Parish Hall full of smiling people beckoning me come join them in their noble pursuits. I had no idea what they were talking about; apparently, besides the check each week there was some expectation that I, personally, like myself, Do Things. Having no idea what to do with this, but with cultural politeness literally beaten into me as a child, I found the one thing (I thought) which would consume the least amount of my time: Lay Reader. I liked to read, was there anyway, it would cost me nothing. Ha! I showed them.
And God laughed and laughed.
Reading the lesson required standing up in front of People, and even though I am a good reader the Bible is full of weird people and place names. St. Paul especially writes in circles, so I found it far less personally embarrassing if I prepared during the week prior to my assigned readings. It also required me to be there a wee bit early, to check in with the Verger, and here I made remarkable discoveries: there was an entire room behind the wall on one side of the Altar, into which I had seen people disappear each week. Within the room were Vestments, and people who tend them; votive candles and their glasses, and Miss Pauline who could give you a thorough education on their proper cleaning; a Vestry person and an Usher, sealing up collection envelopes; Acolytes shedding their hot albs and storing their candles; and much, much more. Who knew?
Then I learned they took the show on the road, painting maps on playgrounds, literally feeding the hungry – they dished food on a plate and handed it to hungry people at a Homeless shelter! Delivered water, cleaning supplies and fans in the wake of hurricane Katrina, Vacation Bible School to the Navajos, and cooked meals for one another when someone was ill or had a new baby. Clearly, I had a lot to learn about the way of Christians.
One day, perhaps a year or two later because I can be a slow learner when it’s made too obvious, I had the Percival Moment: the Church is the People/the People are the Church.
So…. it isn’t God doing things, of course it is, but not in a woo-woo, parting-of-the-clouds way, it is through us – kind of like an Agency Agreement, which is something I do understand. God grants us agency to do the nuts and bolts of The Work for Him (Her). Having bigger fish to fry, when cookies need baking for a bake sale, God delegates the baking of cookies to me, or teaching a Sunday school class, or filling a Home Depot bucket with cleaning supplies. He relies on others to swing hammers, cut grass, and right now, drive those cleaning supplies to Houston.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t times when I am confronted with some task, or person, clearly set before me by God – God waiving that Agency Agreement between The Supreme Diety and this Christian – and I think, Really? I can’t get a pass this time? Sometimes I shirk, maybe less often now than once but surely not as less often as I should. But I know now that the church, churches, do not spring forth whole and entire, like Aphrodite from the head of Zeus; the Church is the People/the People are the Church, to the glory of God. And maybe one day, if I need a bucket of cleaning supplies, God will invoke His Agency Agreement with another Christian, or maybe a Muslim, a Jew, someone, and she will have a Percival Moment of her own, and fill a bucket for me.
*Spoiler Alert! Percival, in Arthurian legend, is the Knight who discovers it’s not only the Holy Grail he needs to cure King Arthur of his deadly malaise, but also the knowledge which comes with it: the King and the Land are one, neither can thrive while the other ails..