But a Step

“From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step.”

I’m pretty sure James Joyce wasn’t thinking of the minister’s experience of Holy Week when he wrote that sentence filled with deep and resounding truth, but any minister who has made it, breathing, to the other side of Holy Week will tell you: these words could have been penned for us.

This year, for example, it was my full intention that anyone in attendance at our Holy Saturday Easter Vigil would experience a moving ritual of sharing the light of Christ, witnessing a whole crowd of eager and grateful baptismal candidates declaring their faith in public, and sharing the bread and cup as we declared together in the darkness that Christ had risen and the light of a new dawn would surely come.

It was my full intention that anyone in attendance at our Holy Saturday Easter Vigil would experience everything I just described.

I hope they did.

I didn’t. Not exactly, anyway.

Perhaps my own experience this first Holy Week in a new church made the distinction sharper, but I have to believe this annual, real-time illustration of James Joyce’s thoughts about the close proximity of the sublime and the ridiculous is not unique to me. Surely ministers everywhere experience something similar during Holy Week.

While I certainly hope that most in my congregation experienced the (mostly) sublime, I’d say my own experience this year leaned largely toward the ridiculous. Here’s how it looked from my perch:

To begin the Easter Vigil, we’d planned a moving service of sharing the light of Christ — which is a great idea if you can remember where you stored all those little candles we used on Christmas Eve. Remember those? It further helps, I’m guessing, if the brass fixture holding said light of Christ weighs less than 50 pounds and/or the minister is not still recovering from shoulder surgery. This particular convergence of events might lead the minister to run around panicked, sure those candles are around here somewhere, and spend the entire ritual praying desperate prayers that she will be able to successfully spread the light of Christ by means that do not involve dropping an open flame, starting an uncontrollable fire, and burning the church down.

After successfully navigating that first ritual (“The light of Christ … Thanks be to God … The light of Christ with no fire emergency … Thanks be to God.”), the congregation moved to the chapel for baptism. One of my favorite parts of being a pastor is entering the waters of baptism with those declaring publicly their intention to walk in the way of Jesus.

I especially like this experience when I walk into the robing room immediately before worship and find my waders hanging in their customary place.

BaptismOn Holy Saturday, however, those waders were inexplicably missing. I may have sounded slightly panicked when I engaged my Presbyterian colleague in a last minute problem solving conversation. As it turned out, he’s generally baffled by the whole mysterious immersion ritual we Baptists like so much, and he became even more distressed than I. “What are you going to do? You’ll get all WET!” he exclaimed in a panic.

I know the sequence of events the elude some of my colleagues who baptize on dry ground, of course, so I knew that a quick run to my next-door apartment to grab a bathing suit would solve that little problem. And, it did, in the knick of time. Everyone got sufficiently dunked, and I emerged from the robing room just in time to dedicate a baby. Dry.

And what a gift to celebrate the Lord’s Supper on Easter Saturday. We’d planned a choreographed service of intinction, but as I stood behind the table surveying the crowd it quickly became clear that, in addition to a likely violation of fire code (another quick word of gratitude for successfully navigating the whole Christ candle situation), the packed crowd could barely fit in the space, much less move toward stations for intinction. Ever grateful for sharp and responsive colleagues, I eyed them meaningfully as I called out: “Please remain where you are AS YOUR PASTORS COME TO SERVE YOU.”

After it was all over, sand buckets filled with candle stubs, plastic grocery bag stuffed with a wet bathing suit clutched tightly to my chest, and a communion table in crumb-filled disarray, I thought: “This was so chaotic. And it was so wonderful.”

Perhaps my way of thinking is just a desperate attempt to redeem a series of unfortunate events, but in retrospect I wonder: isn’t this perhaps where our best work is always done? It’s always in that space between where God tends to show up, in the one step that separates the sublime and the ridiculous.

Originally published April 21, 2015 over at Baptist News Global.

7 Comments on “But a Step

  1. I love that pic of you embracing the brother in our Baptismal pool. His face simply radiates joy- from both his sacramental experience and the purely infectious love that you exude upon anyone fortunate enough to receive your warm embrace.

    Two baptisms stand out in my memory:
    1. Mine…I was 6 years old in 1963. My Daddy had died the year before, and with my mother, three older brothers and sister, I left West Virginia and moved to New York City. In the summer of ’63, Mama took my sister and I back “home,” and on one Sunday morning, I was taken into a changing room after Sunday School, put into some old clothes, and was led onto the church’s lawn where there was a small pool, painted sky-blue. The elders were singing “Wade In The Water.” I was nervous, because all eyes were upon me. More than the nervousness, however, I was excited, because in my childlike fashion, I understood that being baptized was like becoming “married to Jesus.”
    As I stepped down into the pool with Reverend Palmer, my eyes met my mother’s. Her smile was so full of love, and were brimmed with tears. We smiled at one another, I held a deep breath, and Reverend gently immersed me in the cool, beautiful water. The pressure of being brought upward from the immersion caused my head to fall to the left, and the first thing I saw when I came up was my mother, handkerchief in hand, crying.
    After the service, Mama was beaming, and she said to a group of nearby parish members: “Wasn’t my baby pretty, going down in the water!” That was 52 years ago, and I remember it as though it was yesterday.

    2. Two Junes ago, I sat in the front pew of the nave at Riverside next to my wife and the Godparents of our only child- our daughter, Kyra. The processional hymn was ” How Firm A Foundation, Ye Saints Of The Lord.” As I looked to my left onto the center aisle, I saw, marching down the aisle, my 15 year-old daughter. Our eyes met, hers, smiling at me, looking so sweet and angelic in her white baptismal robe… I thought: “My baby is being baptized and confirmed!” I began to cry, so hard, in fact, that I became unable to sing from the sobs of joy logged within my throat…something that as a professional singer, I had NEVER experienced before. Yet, I knew that at this occasion warranted my joyful tears of praise and thanksgiving, and it was OK not to sing!
    Immediately after the service, we got into our rented car, and drove Kyra to her month away at summer camp in Connecticut…

    These will remain tow of the most memorably beautiful moments of my life.

    Well, I’ve been sitting at my desk, working and listening to a recording of hymns.

    I took a break to view personal email and saw, for the first time in weeks, your Talk With The Preacher ( which I LOVE, by the way). Music and photography ( you performing the sacrament of baptism), summoned up my vivid memory. Thanks for providing me a space in which to share it.

    I’ve not been in regular attendance this year due to my temporary New Jersey relocation. Know, however, Amy, that I love you, and I love our Riverside.

    See you soon,

  2. Holy waders? Like fly fishers use? That’s not anything I have ever witnessed in any service in the 38 countries in which I have been.

  3. Ah, dear heart, how charming and even a little brave of you to give us this “behind the scenes” look of the realities of making worship together!

    Actually, I love that about worship: The several times I’ve been in the processional Sunday mornings at The Riverside Church, I’ve noticed how the chaos in the narthex turns to order the moment that participants step through the big doors into the back of the nave and begin to move toward the altar. It never fails to bring tears to my eyes – there’s something really beautiful about that moment of transformation from chaos to order and beauty.

  4. Good word, Amy. The last time I used waders was Easter Day 1989. They sprung a leak! Never again! Swimming trunks is the way to go. Seriously a very thoughtful word. Blessings on you.

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