I became an Episcopalian this past week. Officially.
Those of you who have been following along on the blog as I trip my way through retirement life know that, for some time, I have been examining my spiritual path. For those of you who don’t know, you can visit http://www.terrilabonte.com/2017/01/a-crisis-of-church/ if you care to learn the backstory.
At any rate, after living virtually all my life as an observant Roman Catholic, I decided to convert to the Episcopal Church. It was not a haphazard decision. I thought about it a great deal. I spent about a year and a half exploring, praying, and experimenting. I wasn’t exactly “all in” for awhile, but I was taking ever more deliberate steps towards intimacy with the Episcopal Church. I even took Episcopalian lessons. Last Thursday, my sponsors and I took a drive to Orlando to ask the bishop for acceptance of my commitment to the Episcopal Church.
When our parish priest told me that everything was arranged for my entry ceremony, I had a strangely nervous reaction. I wanted to do this. I truly had no doubts about doing it. Still, I could feel the butterflies in my stomach that tend to migrate there when any major life event is looming. In retrospect, it made sense. At the time, though, I felt confused by my reaction. Why would I be nervous? What was going to happen that would make anything any different? How was anything really going to change by my participating in this formal ceremony? I was baptized and confirmed many years ago, receiving the sacramental grace of the Lord. I have always spent a lot of mental energy trying to broaden and deepen my faith, so it wasn’t like focusing on my spiritual journey was anything new. As Max pointed out, I have been regularly attending Episcopal services, praying in common with my brothers and sisters, learning about the beliefs and structure of my new denomination, and contributing financially to the church for over a year. I have even started to apply what skills and talents I have to service within an Episcopal context. With all that, how could I not already be an Episcopalian?
Still. I have always been a compliant person and the ceremony is part of the process. People I trust seemed to believe that the ceremony would be a blessing to me and to others. While I wasn’t sure what to expect or what spiritual benefits I might experience, I wanted to open myself to whatever God had planned for me through the events on the day of the ceremony. I was nervous, but also excited.
My sponsor friends and I arrived at the diocesan office early. As soon as we walked in the door, staff members rushed to greet us. Employees who were not even involved in the ceremony popped out of doorways and from behind desks to come welcome me. They knew who I was without me even introducing myself. They had been anticipating my arrival. They seemed genuinely joyful that I was there. I am sure most of the joy came from what I represented- God working in the world and His people- but I truly felt that they also cherished and welcomed me personally.
The welcome reminded me of an experience I had years ago while I was working. I had been selected as a front-line manager for a new organization within my agency. I went to an orientation meeting with all 200 or so other newly-selected managers. The senior leadership circulated around the huge auditorium, greeting people and welcoming us to the new organization. There were hugs involved. I had never seen anything like it. It was obvious that this hospitality was a deliberate business decision, designed to make us feel comfortable and committed to our new mission. It worked for me. I was impressed that someone had been considerate enough to even think of it. And it wasn’t that the welcomes and welcomers were insincere. They didn’t seem phony. They were perfectly nice. I believe they were honestly happy to meet us and to be working with us. There was something just a little bit off, though. They didn’t know us.
In contrast, my welcome at the diocesan office felt more robust and visceral. There was genuine warmth and joy and connectedness. No, the staff didn’t know my story- where I live, who I love, what I do with the hours of my day- but they recognized me for the most important part of myself, a fellow child of God. Not only did they know me, I was family. I think the archdeacon who was explaining the ceremony to us said it the best. We were discussing whether my sponsors should use my name when presenting me to the bishop or just the more generic liturgical “this person.” I laughed when the archdeacon asked me if I cared and said that it didn’t matter to me because God knew who I was. She replied, most vehemently, “You are a precious child of God and we are overjoyed to have you.”
The ceremony itself was beautiful. There were two people coming for confirmation and me for acceptance into the Episcopal Church. We gathered in a small, intimate chapel and prayed for each other. Some folks from the office joined us. It felt like a small family reunion in a family where everybody likes each other. Before the ceremony, the archdeacon asked us to share our stories with each other. In just those few moments, we became connected because of what we were sharing. I doubt I’ll ever see them again, but we are important to each other.
When the bishop called me, we clasped hands and he placed his other hand on my shoulder. He looked into my eyes and spoke the words of the liturgy accepting me into fellowship. I have never been very good at looking people in the eyes for more than a second or two unless I know them very well. I get shy and embarrassed and tend to look away. I had no trouble at all maintaining eye contact at my acceptance ceremony. I listened to what the bishop said, but I felt the depth of the blessing through what his eyes conveyed.
After the ceremony was over, I reflected on whether or not the formal acceptance ceremony actually made anything “different” for me. Did I suddenly become an Episcopalian by virtue of the ceremony? The answer is probably “no.” I have been becoming an Episcopalian for some time. I absolutely did feel “different” afterwards, though. This ceremony is not a Sacrament with a capital “S”, but, for me, the ceremony and the powerhouse of loving welcome I received from everyone certainly felt sacramental. Through this process, God did gently change my heart. I felt my fear crumble, my love expand, and my sense of my own value blossom. I know that being a child of God is a lifelong vocation. I am sure I will continue to struggle with my demons, just like everyone, but God did strengthen me for the struggle in a very special way when the bishop accepted me into the Episcopal communion and His people blessed me with their love.
There was Grace that day.
Have you ever had an experience that ended up being more meaningful than you anticipated? Tell us about it! Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Grace to you today and always!