January 4, 2009
So come the storms of winter,
And then the birds in spring again,
I do not fear the time.
Who knows how my love grows?
Who knows where the time goes?
— Sandy Denny, 1947-1978
Judson Memorial Church, just off Washington Square in Greenwich Village, is a historic church known for its peace and justice activism, its support of the arts (both traditional and avant-garde), and its interest “in changing the plight of the marginalized and noticing when the emperors have no clothes,” as the website puts it.
I found out about it and made a decision to go there for worship this morning quite by accident. In November, when I had my breast cancer concern, I Googled the name “Donna Schaper,” wondering if she’d written anything about her experience with the disease.
Donna Schaper is a woman of seemingly boundless energy. She is an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ, a writer, a speaker, a mother of three, a gardener, a community activist, and a champion of the rights of the poor and the outcast. I first knew her from an essay in The Lutheran called “Calmly Plotting the Resurrection.” I followed her from that into some of her other work on making prayer and holy ritual of everyday tasks. In 1998 I attended a workshop she led at Kirkridge on the spirituality of gardening and writing. Her work has had a great influence on me. I knew that she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer a few years after I met her, and that she was a five-year survivor. Knowing how well I’ve been able to connect with her work, I wanted to see if she had something to offer me about living with breast cancer.
She did write a book of spiritual guidance on that subject (A Holy Vulnerability), a book which my pathology report suggested I did not need, at least not right now. When I knew Donna, she was an associate pastor at a church in Massachusetts. At the time of her diagnosis she was the senior pastor at a church in Florida. Since 2006 she has been senior pastor at Judson Memorial Church.
The United Church of Christ is the denomination I happened to join when I sought to develop a spirituality (or, in other words, when I had my conversion experience) in 1980, because the pastor who led a program on writing for personal growth that I attended was a UCC minister. The UCC does not celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday, but only about a dozen times a year. When the Eucharist became the heart of my spirituality I found myself led to join a Lutheran congregation, where communion is offered every Sunday (and at funerals and weddings as well). I no longer derive much spiritual sustenance from a worship service that does not include communion.
As it happens, the first Sunday of every month is Agape Sunday at Judson, with participants sitting at tables in the sanctuary and communion consecrated and distributed, and so today would be an opportunity for that.
My subway ride down to the village included a woman who boarded the train around Columbus Circle and preached the need for those who want to get to heaven to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior and to forgive and forget all conflicts they have with anyone. She was dressed in an embroidered linen pants and tunic and spoke with an African accent. As she was getting off at 34th Street, an energetic pair of Hispanic men got on, one playing a guitar, one an accordion. They looked like Pancho and Cisco. After about two stops they had spread so much toe-tapping energy that I was sorry to see them move to the next car. Although I had ignored the evangelist, I put a few dollars into the sombrero I was offered.
The service at Judson was astonishing in its energy, its inclusiveness, its celebration of hope and community. The sanctuary (which has no pews and is evidently set with portable chairs on other Sundays) was set with long tables. Each table had baskets of bread, fruit, cubes of cheese, and flasks of wine and juice. (As suggested on the website, I’d stopped at my favorite bodega on Columbus Avenue for some bananas and a loaf of hard Italian bread to contribute.) Although traditional in pattern (call to worship, morning prayer, three readings from scripture, sermon, offering, consecration and consumption of the elements of communion), and the hymns were decidedly 19th century, one solo was from The Wiz and was presented by Ruby Rims, a well-known New York City drag queen who is a member of the congregation, and another was a tender rendition by Andy Frantz, Judson’s Sunday School coordinator, of Sandy Denny’s hymn to the constancy of love and friendship, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?”
“Be swift to love, make haste to be kind,” was Donna Schaper’s benediction.
In recent days I’ve had a spiritual experience that was moderately profound. On New Year’s Day I had an unexpected encounter with a youngster in my congregation with whom I had had a severe falling out several years ago when I served as a substitute in the senior high Sunday School class. Attempts to heal the rift were unsuccessful, and though I prayed for him and for the situation from time to time, I gradually let that concern recede so much into my unconscious that you could say I had forgotten it. On New Year’s Day we found ourselves face to face in the empty narthex, and began to talk. For the first time in the six or so years I’ve known him, I saw him smile. The significance of what had happened built in my mind over several days.
This young man is a marginalized outcast, one whose difficult personality can make being in even the most casual of relationships with him a challenge. I left Judson Church this morning with a better sense that things take time. Donna Schaper writes that the purpose of the Gospel is to give us “the permission and command to enter difficulty with hope.”
Who knows how my love grows, into the new year with so much hope.
A year ago, I wrote about a dress code brouhaha in a local school district.
Two years ago, I did not post on this date.
Three years ago, I also did not post on this date. (Holidailies was over already in both 2007 and 2006.)
Four years ago, I wrote about post-holiday depression.
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