Walking our faith: Wading in the water with Father Charlie (column)
The sharing of God’s Word that I experienced two weeks ago at St. John’s Episcopal Church warms my heart, even now.
I can’t decide whether it was the obvious synchrony and affection between Father Charlie and the members of the church, an intimacy that is enhanced by the lovely small historic chapel where services are held every week. Or, whether it was the sermon, delivered by a priest who, although new to Breckenridge, is using his thirty years of experience to discern the present challenges and blessings of his new parish family.
Most likely it is a combination of the two.
For his homily, Father Charlie (most parishioners just call him Charlie) sat facing the congregation holding his guitar, and interspersed his spoken homily with verses from the old Negro spiritual, “Wade in the Water.”
Over the course of twenty minutes, Charlie wove together a homily that carried elements of the gospel story of the crippled man at the healing pool, Harriet Tubman’s use of the old song to guide slaves to freedom in the Underground Railroad and musician Ramsey Lewis’ jazz version that enlivened the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement, and finally our modern walk of faith. (“Wade in the water, children, God’s gonna trouble the water.”)
It was a transformational homily that took three strands and wove them together into an American story that reflects our history and our faith that no matter what our circumstances, God hears our cries, even in times of greatest suffering or danger, and gives us the strength we need to keep walking in hope.
I am not ashamed to admit that I felt the very real presence of the Holy Spirit hovering over us during that homily.
When I began writing this weekly faith column, I knew that I wanted to challenge my overwhelming introversion by getting out and meeting other people of faith. As I wrote in my first column, it was the locals that welcomed me when I first arrived and helped me to see Breckenridge as a small town with a big heart. That first impression has only grown the longer I’ve lived here.
As I approach the one year anniversary of my arrival, it’s only fitting that I meet people of other faith communities by interviewing their leaders, attending worship services and meeting the members.
As I go, I will bring you with me, to encourage you to find your own faith home. My hope is that these introductions to faith communities in Summit County will help.
What I discovered in my first foray is that it’s one thing to interview a preacher, but if you really want to get a sense of a person, watch them interact with their church congregation. Which is exactly what I discovered with Charlie.
We first met at one of the weekly Tuesday night community dinners that St. John hosts 52 weeks a year. We chatted and then agreed to meet a couple days later at Amazing Grace for coffee and a more in-depth interview. I learned that Charlie had been a high school history teacher before his life was dramatically changed by two events: working at a church camp for seven summers (which immersed him deeply in the challenges and joys of community) and the early and unexpected death of his father (which brought him face-to-face with matters of ultimate concern). These two life-changing events drew him into the seminary and then to become ordained in the Episcopal Church.
I enjoyed hearing his story. But, after I went to the Sunday service, I realized that a person’s calling is best conveyed in action, not words. Before our conversation, I’d assumed that most pastors were drawn to this position in the church out of a desire to be spiritual leaders. After speaking with Charlie, it was apparent, that he sought the priesthood out of a desire to celebrate, grow and serve alongside others.
That’s an important distinction. And one which I believe models Jesus’ instruction to his disciples that those who wish to be first, should be last.
After watching his homily, it was apparent that here was a person who would use his mind and heart to share the Gospel of Jesus in a manner that was relatable to a contemporary church.
Over tea and sandwiches, we spoke of Charlie’s thirty years of service in congregations both small and large. I imagine that both extremes carry their own joys and challenges. But after experiencing the Sunday morning service at St. John’s, I believe the reward of a smaller church is a special intimacy that can develop between the pastor and the people where connecting names to faces is easier and relationships are deeper.
For instance, at the end of the service, when announcements were made, different members stood and announced projects they were working on, or prayers that were needed. One woman was leaving for a medical mission trip to Honduras and would also be bringing much needed computers to a school for learning-challenged children. Another stood and asked for food donations that would be taken to the foodbank at Father Dyer’s.
After the service, most of the congregation gathered in the kitchen for coffee and doughnuts and conversation. All of this felt in line with the Episcopal Church’s reputation for social service. But it also occurred to me that a newcomer to St. John’s would feel immediately welcome and at home here.
I am grateful to Charlie and the entire congregation of St. John’s for welcoming me to join them for a Sunday service and to write this profile.
I hope I will be invited to meet more faith communities in Summit County. Please contact me if you would like to meet. God bless you!
Suzanne Elizabeth Anderson writes a weekly faith column for the Summit Daily News, has written 10 books, and can be reached at: http://www.suzanneelizabeths.com or at http://www.facebook.com/SuzanneElizabeths
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