Sunday Surprises

As noted earlier this week, we’re in a strange season in our lives. Taking a break from our home worshiping community for four months – and visiting others, both nearby and further away. Last night we had a list of about four choices and opted for the mainline option located on upper State Street. First Presbyterian has a beautiful plant and campus, three completely different worship services and a fleet of 3 busses they use to transport senior citizens from a number of different retirement communities in Santa Barbara. We’d been there once for worship – about 10 years ago – and once for a concert, so we knew that the sanctuary was large and lovely. Pretty certain that we’d see a smattering of grey heads and not much more at the latest service of the day (10:30 a.m.), we went in with not much anticipation or expectation.

Well. It was a truly wonderful morning, filled with surprises for both of us, but maybe most especially for me. I thought I had already done most of my grieving at leaving my position of the last 14 years. I thought I didn’t care so much anymore for an entire service of traditional hymns, organ music and a choir. I thought nothing in a Presbyterian worship service could surprise me. After all, I WAS a Presby for almost 20 years, from the ages of 12-30 and my mom and both of my daughters have attended Presbyterian churches for many years – so I knew what to expect, right?? Wrong.

Yes, there was a fair amount of liturgy. Okay by me – I love liturgy. Yes, we sang from the hymnal. But at least one song was completely new to me and really lovely. Yes, the choir was quite small (I counted 17). But wow, could they belt out Mendelssohn’s “He, Ruling Over Israel,” with the best of them. Yes, the pastor wore a long robe and there were portions of the service that were almost stiffly formal. But the general feel in the room was a relaxed one – quite proper, for sure – but laughter was easy, the pastor tripped over his own words a couple of times, and it felt human and welcoming, even if a little more circumscribed than we are used to. We missed the children’s sermon and we missed the contemporary music and we missed the people we love – but… we gained a lot this morning.

First of all, this is a little of what we got to look at:

Sorry I didn’t capture the whole sweep of this large, lovely room, but I think you get the picture. It’s a beautiful space, and despite its large size, very conducive to worship. Very early in the service, a small baby boy – in a tremendously long gown – was baptized. And the pastor of this church led in the baptismal liturgy, accompanied by one of the elders, a very smartly dressed and articulate middle-aged woman.

But the one doing the baptizing happened to be a relative of the baby’s mother – her aunt, from Tennessee – also an ordained Presbyterian minister. She was dressed as I always wished I could dress when I pastored – in a lovely, loosely fitted black cassock with a button-front, a mandarin collar and a beautiful stole – purple for the Lenten season. She took that little boy and spilled water over his tiny head 3 times – in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit. She said lovely words of blessing and thanks – and I began to quietly weep, just a little. Offering the sacraments, both at table and at the font (or in a pool or the ocean) was probably my very favorite part of ‘the job.’ Such a privilege, such a picture of grace, such a unifying act for the community to share in together. I miss that.

Surprise number two came at the reading of the morning psalm – about 20 verses from Psalm 139 – one of my favorites. There was a printed musical response in the bulletin, which the pastor led us in learning. And then…. and then…. the pastor sang the psalm – stopping about every two verses for us to join in the sung response. He had a good, strong voice – not a great voice, not a trained voice, but a pleasant and inviting voice, which was just right. It was beautiful, moving, surprising. There’s something about having the Word of God sung to you that causes even very familiar words to take on new luster, deeper shades of meaning. It was, simply put, marvelous.

Surprise number three came with the sermon. The pastor is doing a six week series, looking at the faith traditions outlined in Richard Foster’s book, “Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith.” There are six of those streams – contemplative/holiness/ charismatic/evangelical/social justice/incarnational – and today’s focus was on the second of those streams. Coincidentally, both my husband and I began our faith journeys in holiness churches – me in the United Methodist, from birth to age 12 and he in the Brethren in Christ/Mennonite from birth until he married me. We brought our mixed traditions to the Evangelical Covenant Church in 1975 and have never regretted that decision, relishing the rich mixture and wide acceptance of varying traditions within this small but steadily growing denomination.

So to read 1 Timothy 4:6-10, and to hear the pastor encourage us all to a.) avoid the potential pitfalls of this mindset (legalism, self-righteousness and perfectionism) and b.) heed the 4 lovely hallmarks of this tradition: 1.) scripture – everyday, time in the Word; 2.) service – everyday, doing something for someone else that you don’t ordinarily do; 3.) praise – everyday, being grateful, giving praise, paying attention to the graces of dailyness; and 4.) prayer – everyday, in all situations, offering this simple 4-word prayer: “Lord, open my heart” – well, it was just about perfect for us this week. It was a great reminder of where we’ve been in our journey together these last 45 years. It was a great encouragement to remember that our heritage is rich and real. It was a lovely morning of surprise and serendipity and we are deeply grateful.

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  1. I love the 4 “lovely hallmarks of this tradition” as they provide a possible framework for my day that I had not thought of before.

  2. Thank you again Diana. We feel that we visited the service with you. Now to read Foster’s book and recommend it for our book club. This kind of recognition and appreciation is consistent with our journey at this time.

  3. Wow, Diana, I just loved walking with you through this beautiful service. Thank you for giving me such a rich glimpse of God and His people today.

    And thank you for linking up — it’s lovely to meet you here!

  4. Thank you for taking me with you! Your photos are beautiful. I miss liturgy and hymns, lost when we moved from Great Plains to Rocky Mountains (though we did manage to find a church our 14 year old wakes up early and stays late for!)

    Blessings on your wanderings during these months. May you find all you seek.