Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Surprise! Liturgy and Episcopal Evangelism

I first saw her among the group of crisis house residents walking back from a trip to the dollar store.  She stood out startlingly.  Haunted eyes stared hollowly ahead, eyes underlined by dark, sleepy semicircles.  Her facial muscles gave the impression of numbness in their total blankness of expression.  She was not well.

I sat chatting with other members of the house, trying my best as a chaplain to be present to their stories of pain and struggle with addiction, or suicidal thoughts, or family trauma.  Some minutes later, a nurse with the clinic to which I was assigned asked me to find Jan inside the house, so I ducked in.  Jan (a pseudonym), turned out to be the spooked and spooky person whom I'd noticed earlier: a young African-American woman in her 20s.

"Hi Jan.  How are you today?," I asked as we walked over to the clinic together.

Seconds of silence.  Then a mumble.

I turned to her and smiled, but quickly felt uncomfortable.  Her eyes stared at me as helpless castoffs from any landed sign of facial movement.  Something terrible must have happened to her, I thought.  She walked into the exam room.

Back in my chair among the other residents some time later, Jan walked out of the clinic and toward the rest of us.  I waved, meekly and kindly (in moral support perhaps?), or just out of a basic curiosity to see what would happen next.  One, two, three seconds passed as she stared at me and kept walking slowly -- then, a slight wave.

I shifted my focus back to the conversations at hand, but when I left the group to take a phone call, I noticed Jan sitting by herself, stiff backed, as I hung up.  Why not?, I thought.  I approached.

"Hi, Jan!"  I blurted (over) enthusiastically.  "How are you?"

A second passed.  Another.  She stared at me.  Then --

"Not good.  I'm depressed.  But it's getting better since I've been here," her poker face stated mechanically.  If fonts had voices, hers mirrored Courier.

"That's good to hear.  Are you from around here?"

The now conventional pause ensued, like we were talking on the phone across continents.  We exchanged laconically for a few minutes.

Then I asked her what she liked to do.  "Reading," she replied.  My follow up question about her favorite book didn't get anywhere.  Feeling the conversation's juices had been all but squeezed out, I asked, "Would you like me to say a healing prayer for you?"

"What's that?," she returned curiously.

"Let me show you.  There's a book I have from The Episcopal Church with healing prayers.  I think you'll like it."  I ran over and picked up Ministry with the Sick (a volume of selected prayers from The Book of Common Prayer and Enriching Our Worship), wondering what the Spirit had in store.

Sitting next to Jan, I opened the book to page 13, which outlined a service for "Ministry in a Home or Health Care Facility."

"See, we start by reading either this prayer or this one," I said, motioning to the page.

"The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all," she read in brisk monotone.  Okay, I thought.  I guess we're jumping right in!

"Then I read here," I said, pointing again.  "The Lord be with you.  And you say" -- pointing again --

"And also with you."

So we embarked upon an extended, unfurling liturgical surprise.  The book provided a few choices for each of the elements of the healing prayer ritual, and Jan resolutely and seriously read them all to herself before picking the one she liked best and reading it aloud.  During the proclamation of the word, Jan chose the excerpted story of the paralyzed man to whom Jesus said, "Take heart, son, your sins are forgiven," from Matthew's gospel.

After reading the prayer she selected for the laying on of hands, and a concluding prayer she picked out, I closed the book.

"What did you think?"

"I liked it."  She smiled.

I found myself beaming: the Spirit had just touched both of us through the words on a page, traditional and updated prayers relied upon by The Episcopal Church for years.  Liturgical structure proved to be a key to unlocking a smile from within this deeply distressed and depressed young woman's heart.

We prayed and talked together some more.  We smiled and laughed a little, too.  But I left my encounter with Jan heartened by the fact that the tangibility of the page, the clear and neutral choices between beautifully-wrought prayers, became a conduit for, not an obstacle to, the Spirit's work.

Episcopalians hold a more powerful resource for evangelism than we imagine.