Last Sunday morning, before my husband and I piled our son’s undergraduate detritus in our van and headed home from Pasadena, I stopped into All Saints Episcopal Church for the 9 a.m. worship service. I took with me my set of Episcopal prayer beads that I made at the Sea Ranch – the ones made from paper beads made by women in Uganda.
Full disclosure – I have used Rev. Susan Russell, an All Saints pastor, as a source for several stories I wrote for Beliefnet.com on the Episcopal Church’s struggle with homosexuals in the church. I have also listed her a source for other reporters to use as a source on the same subject for ReligionLink.
I love this church. I have visited it before on other trips we have made to see our son. It looks like my idea of church should look. It is a traditional stone structure with the traditional nave, apse and transept layout, with the four arms of the church ending in four gorgeous stained glass windows. The appointments of the church are traditional, too, with woodcarvings that decorate the podia and stonecuts that adorn the communion rail. An elaborate wooden latticework runs across the top of the altar to separate the choir from the congregation. It is just lovely.
But what pleased me even more that this church belies the commonly held notion that Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America. I am happy to tell you that I worshiped this morning with blacks, whites, Asians and Latinos. There was a lot of grey hair, yes, as in most mainline Protestant churches, but there were lots of young people, too, including a couple in the pew in front of me who came in jeans and t-shirts and fit right in. The music we sang consisted of traditional English hymns, African-American spirituals and some Spanish verses to old Christian standards. It felt like God’s home should feel like.
The sermon was given by the Rev. Abel Lopez, and the subject was forgiveness. Father Lopez said that forgiveness isn’t usually a sermon topic – perhaps because if you preach about forgiveness, you have to preach about sin, a touchy subject. But he said there is a “universal hunger in the human spirit for forgiveness, both to give it and to receive it.” He said forgiveness is “the heartbeat of grace.” As an example of the power of forgiveness, he pointed out Bishop Gene Robinson (and you can see what I have written about him in the above Beliefnet.com stories), who has been a lightning rod of controversy as the first openly gay man consecrated to bishop by the Episcopal Church. Last week, Robinson entered into a civil union with his longtime male companion – just after making out his will in case any of the death threats he has received were successful. Father Lopez called him, “our brother, Gene Robinson” and described him as “forgiveness in action. . . . He can only exhibit what he does because God’s grace and forgiveness are in him.”
After the sermon came communion. This is my favorite part of the service, the time I feel closest to the holy and the sacred. It is when I pull out my prayer beads and try to focus on aligning myself with the divine. I carry some of my favorite prayers on a laminated card in my purse, but was inspired to use instead some of the lines of the collects, liturgy and prayers printed in the bulletin given each person at the door. You can do this, too, at any worship service you attend. Just pull out the words from the service that feel most like prayer to you. This is what I came up with for my Episcopal prayer beads, but I could have said them on a Catholic rosary, a Pearls of Life or any unique set of prayer beads I have constructed. Here goes . . . .
For the terminal charm, I said an old standard, heard in most mainline Protestant services:
“In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be Amen.”
For the invitatory bead, I turned to the 3rd page of the program, where the church very helpfully included two prayers of meditation that worshipers could use as they waited for the service to start. I picked this one:
“God known and beyond all knowing, thank you for the blessings of the past and for those who have gone before us, upon whose shoulders we stand. Energize us to seize the present moment and fire our imagination for the future, that we may dare great thing sin your name. Amen.”
“Fire our imagination for the future” – I love that. That is exactly what I, as a writer, need. And to “dare great things” – safe writing is boring writing. For me, this is a powerful prayer.
For the cruciform beads, I turned to the consecration section of the communion liturgy, also printed in the bulletin:
“Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”
But, for a less Christ-centric prayer, I could have used the salutation from the very beginning of the bulletin:
“Blessed be God: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.
And blessed be God’s kingdom, now and forever.”
And for the weeks beads, I chose the following from a refrain in the “prayers of the people” section of the service:
1) Holy and gracious God, bless me with peace,
2) Holy and gracious God, bless me with hope,
3) Holy and gracious God, bless me with wisdom,
4) Holy and gracious God, bless me with generosity
Then, for the remaining three beads, I made up my own requests –
5) bless me with patience
6) bless me with strength
7) bless me with courage
and if I had been using a Catholic rosary, I could have added (and did, in a mixture of prayer)
8) bless me with purity
9) bless me with kindness
10) (in the spirit of the sermon) bless me with the power to forgive and to be forgiven.
I don’t when I will be back in Pasadena – if ever – but I will certainly make a run to All Saints. Its spirit of inclusion and joy and purpose infused me with a brightness that I still feel.
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