When I was very little, coins were knotted into the corner of a pretty, freshly-ironed handkerchief so that they would not slip through my small fingers before they reached the collection plate on Sunday morning. An outdated and quaint practice even then, the little ritual was, nevertheless, effective, and remains one of my earliest and fondest church memories. Stewardship, the concept of taking tender care of what we love and those we love, was not in my vocabulary. But as I got a little older the concept of giving to God, through “our prayers, our presence, our gifts and our service” was lived out through other family rituals. Prayers were offered before meals and at bedtime. Our presence at church as a family – every one of us, every Sunday, no exceptions – was another given. And when my brother and I got big enough, the church provided abundant rewarding opportunities to participate in the service component of the four-part stewardship formula.
Of course, one isn't usually destined to live under the roof of one's parents for one's entire life so the old rituals were gradually, or suddenly, replaced with new ones when “home” moved to a college campus. Each new home thereafter reflected geographic and life changes which layered new habits and different customs over my childhood traditions. Through many decades the stewardship formula gathered dust and even the presence component – attending church on Sundays – became a duty to fitfully perform rather than a ritual to be faithfully cherished. My heart was not feeling lifted.
It was time for Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, a place of spiritual depth, great beauty and joyful community, to enter my life. And my heart did lift. Fifteen years ago the wise women of the Women's Spirituality Group climbed the steep steps with me to the sanctuary in the Palmer Nave where I then knelt for confirmation as an Episcopalian, their hands on my shoulders in blessing. I still love walking south on Main Street Sunday mornings through the Gothic arches formed by old oak trees that shelter my journey to the nave. If the time and the wind are right the smell of incense from the thurible greets me as I walk toward the cluster of clergy and acolytes assembling outside for the prayer, preparing them for the service. Palmer reaches out its welcome well beyond its doors.
Inside those doors the beauty of the liturgy and the exquisite music lift up my heart and support the sense of being in a sacred space as I stand, kneel, bow and make the sign of the cross. I am physically, mentally and spiritually engaged. All of our senses are involved on Sunday mornings. We read from a prayer book steeped in hundreds of years of tradition; and we know we are reading the same prayers and listening to the same scripture readings as other Anglicans all over the world who are in worship that Sunday. We at Palmer read and sing and pray and listen in a space sanctified by people, the joyful and the grieving, the prosperous and the humble, that have worshiped right here for nearly 100 years. A particularly beautiful and tender moment in every service is when I come back down the side aisle after the Eucharist and look out at you, the people who worship here now, and I am awed by the community we share. And it is also at Palmer that I have, at long last, found a profound answer to my childhood question about prayer: “Why, when we pray, do we do all the talking? Why don't we give God time to answer?” Contemplative Christian prayer, introduced to me at Palmer and practiced within our community, graciously allows me the space to listen in prayer, adding both depth and meaning to prayerful words.
It is October. Of the beautiful services at Palmer throughout the year, one of my favorites, Covenant Sunday, happens this month. The high point of the service is when members of Palmer process as a community to reverently place their promises to God, through the church, on the altar. There those promises are blessed so that the gifts they represent may be put to use to do God's work, with God's help, to the best of our ability. It is a privilege and honor to be with you then, a part of that gentle yet powerful, solemn yet joyful, procession of hope.
It lifts my heart.