Tuesday, March 30, 2010

At the end of all things normal...peace

Ten days ago, I was standing inside the house/gallery at the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens in West Palm Beach, Florida, looking out the first floor, eastward-facing window. Outside was a small gathering of people sitting in two rows of chairs, facing the veranda just outside and to my left. Past a fountain/sculpture behind the small crowd was a smaller group of people wearing suits and dresses, preparing to walk in pairs toward the veranda, between the two rows of people. If you haven't figured it out or already knew what I was up to this day, I was in the final moments before a wedding ceremony which I was officiating. Read on after the break for my ministerial reflections on this amazing experience...

Basking in the glow
In the month leading up to this moment, I had experienced a range of emotions and feelings, from anxiety and worry to nervous excitement and expectation. But now I was calm, at peace and joyfully savoring the moment before I would step out onto the veranda and officiate the wedding of my good friend, Mark, to his lovely bride, Andrea.

This “non-church” wedding had previously produced a fear in me that I wouldn't be living up to my ministerly duties to my church body, my peers and advisors in the ministry. But those fears were behind me in this beautiful scene, overlooking a lovely garden with sculptures and smiling friends and family and the inter-coastal waters visible beyond, the sun beaming in a spotless blue sky.

The assurance from my friend that my part in the preparations for the wedding had been deeply appreciated in addition to my presence and role in the ceremony about to take place had helped bolster the sense of rightness about what was about to happen. His placing “100% trust” in my upcoming time for reflection in the ceremony on its significance and the significance of the three readings (one scriptural, two non) also put me at ease. The deep connection I felt with the readings and my friend, coupled with the preparation for the reflection, which I would deliver mostly extemporaneously, yet further solidified my tranquil excitement.

Quite simply, this was a sublime moment in my life that's been etched photographically into my memory and being.

My thoughts in the remaining moments before the wedding ceremony taking shape outside this window were mostly a marveling at the logistical feat that a wedding calls for, and an appreciation for those who carried it to this beautiful conclusion, both the end and a new beginning. Watching the movements of the small crowd now filing toward the veranda, I chatted with the woman beside me in the room, who worked for the facility, sharing with her the appreciation for details.

As the groom seated his mother and mounted the steps of the veranda, I concluded my breath-prayers for presence of mind and spirit with both the people present and the Spirit of God at work in this moment, in this place, and for what would follow. Walking from the room I was in, though another gallery room to my left, and out the glass double-doors leading to the veranda, I met my friend, Mark, and the rest of the group standing with the bride and groom. We whispered a few last-minute agreements on details before turning our gaze beyond the crowd, watching expectantly for Andrea to come join us and let the ceremony begin.

Approach in the moment
The decision to deliver my reflections from a terse outline, mostly extemporaneously, was made relatively late in wedding preparations. At first it was out of a sense that time had slipped away from me to prepare a well-written reflection. But as the moment drew nearer, it seemed more appropriate and genuine to go this route.

Before coming to seminary, the few sermons that I had preached had all been written beforehand and were essentially read word for word in the service of worship. But as someone who puts a lot of heart into not only writing, but also reading aloud, I always felt this was acceptable and perhaps my best approach. Since becoming involved in worship planning and leading at The Table, however, my approach has shifted to a more extemporaneous style. It's been right to do this in the context of The Table, and it seemed right here in this wedding. My wife affirmed this for me before I pitched the idea to Mark the day before the wedding, when he voiced his complete trust in whatever I would bring.

So it was, that an hour before the wedding, I was sitting in a peaceful place in the sculpture garden, going over the texts one last time, looking at the various underlines and scribbles I had made on them, and making a few new ones, before finally writing a simple outline and closing my three-ring binder that contained just three sheets of paper for all that I needed during the ceremony.

And now in the opening moments of the ceremony, collecting my thoughts, focusing myself in the moment with these dear people, I drew my breath and began to speak.

Principled, Patient Presence
This was the rare occasion that I felt all the traditional, biblical fruits of the spirit firing on all cylinders (to poorly mix metaphors): love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The principled application of all these fruits at various points leading up to the ceremony brought me, as a ministering person, peacefully into a very significant public event in the life of various connecting, overlapping communities (families and friends) in the joining of these two people, my friends, and getting there without being freaked out about it, avoiding pouring my “stuff” into their vastly more important “stuff.”

If I manage to pull this off in similar situations in the future, I will continue to be deeply grateful and orient that gratitude outside myself, keenly aware of when my own fears were producing anxiety that needed to be checked in order to approach this moment humbly, patiently, and reverently in service to my friends.

Conclusion, theological reflection
Truly, God was work in these moments I've described, beyond my fears that I was serving in this way outside the church. But that's not entirely true, maybe even not true at all. As John Howard Yoder describes in The Priestly Kingdom, Christian discipleship should be invitational (non-coercive) and confessional (particular yet catholic/universal). Do I want my two friends whom I've married to know about the gospel, the good news, of God's kingdom as most perfectly articulated and embodied by the man Jesus of Nazareth, the christ/messiah of God? Absolutely!

But how is this done? In my approach to the faith, which is roughly well-described by Yoder above, preaching the gospel takes on infinitely diverse, situational forms. It's narrative in that it's ingrained into my life's story. The part of my life story which I describe here contains the stories of my friends, Mark and Andrea, and intersects with them at the moment of their new story's beginning. It will change them, their families, and it has changed me.

My meager offering in this beautiful moment filled me with the joy and wonder of the powerful love of God. If this is my ministry...I thank God for it and readily ask for more. If my ministry has been faithfully administered to others, may God bless that and let the kingdom come, let the marriage festivities begin.

(The sun is playing w/ the lens in this picture, but I actually kind of like the effect.)

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