Saturday, June 27, 2015

Hearing and Seeing

I've remarked a few times about my favorite thing at General Convention. Sometimes, I tell people my favorite part is seeing old friends. Sometimes, I tell people my favorite part is the instant collaboration among Episcopalians who have never met each other. Never do I tell people that my favorite part is the interminable amendment debates (despite being the genesis of two so far). Despite having several "favorite" parts of General Convention, my really really favorite part is the worship.

For starters, it's a beautiful thing to have 1000+ people worshipping in the same place at the same time. Some churches have that every single Sunday, but I don't. To hear 1000 voices singing, praying, praising, confessing, greeting, and celebrating together is a wonderful thing. And, more than that, the way we worship is spectacular.

Episcopalians in Alabama and Utah and Washington may not realize that the Episcopal Church comprises congregations and dioceses all over the world. I don't mean the "Anglican Communion," which has different churches ("provinces") all across the globe. I mean the Episcopal Church--with the same prayer book, same Presiding Bishop, and, of course, same General Convention. Because of that, right here in Utah, we have Episcopalians who speak several different languages, and that means our worship takes on a Pentecost-al feel.

Those of you who go to church as often as I do probably don't need to hold the prayer book during the service. We know what follows, "Lift up your heart." We have the Creed more or less memorized. The Confession is written on our hearts and minds just as clearly as on page 360. Because of that, I don't usually look at the liturgial text when I worship unless I am leading worship. I prefer to lose myself in the aural experience and concentrate on the spoken word.

But at General Convention, those spoken words are often in Spanish. I don't really speak Spanish. I know enough to recognize a few words, but I certainly cannot pick up on the theologically nuanced language of our worship. So, when someone is speaking or reading in Spanish, I have some choices. I can let my ears pick up one or two familiar words--enough to keep up but not really enough to participate. I can open up the digital worship guide and read along in English. Or I can watch the interpretation.

Another language used during worship at General Convention is American Sign Language. On the platform, along with those leading worship, are usually two interpreters. Faithfully, they listen to what is being said (English or Spanish) and, using ASL, gesture accordingly so that the hearing impaired can understand. I do not know ASL any better than I know Spanish, but there is something so beautiful about the way our interpreters render the spoken word that I am drawn into its dance in a non-verbal way.

Yesterday, Gay Clark Jennings, President of the House of Deputies, preached in the service in which we remembered the life and witness of Isabel Florence Hapgood, who translated the Russian Orthodox Divine Liturgy into English. Gay spoke of translation--the importance and limitation of language conveying deep meaning. Using the analogy of a stuffed suitcase brought to General Convention, Gay reminded us that our understanding of God is never big enough to take it all in. As Gay spoke of that crammed-full suitcase, the interpreter next to her began cramming and stuffing and shoving things into an invisible bag right there on stage. Although not a mime, her gestures were plain and clear. The audience erupted in laughter. It was so perfectly, beautifully, absolutely clear to everyone in the room no matter what language she speaks.

I like words. I write a lot. I talk a lot. I listen a fair amount, too. But I often forget to "listen" for the silent but clear words that are and aren't being spoken. Rarely does the Spirit speak to us in English or Spanish or even ASL. But the Spirit is speaking. We cannot only listen with our ears. We must watch the faces of each other. We must look to the heavens. We must stare down at the earth. We must feel the Spirit's breath. Words cannot express the magnitude of what God is saying to us. Our posture must be one of reception.

We believe in the Word made Flesh--Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. That Word, which was "spoken" in the creation, has come to us. Yes, we can listen to what Jesus says to us, but we can also see who he is and watch what he does and train our gaze on his witness. If we are only listening for words, we may miss the Word who is with us.

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