Two years ago this past May I was received into the Episcopal Church. My particular reception liturgy was awkward and chaotic for me. Our priest-in-charge at my church had just stepped in at that point, and so I missed some of the information that I needed before the liturgy. So I came in late and wound up walking into the meeting with the Bishop when it was halfway through; 10 minutes before the mass my priest hadn't shown up yet owing to getting stuck at the doctor, and he was in a flannel shirt and jeans when he did. It was in a tiny church in a tiny town, and the music consisted of a single organist who meets every stereotype of the classic little-old-lady-set-in-her-ways organist who makes so many mistakes that it threw off all the people who actually read music. All in all, quite the "rinky-dink" service. It was my mother's first exposure to the Episcopal Church, and I'm afraid that it wasn't the best possible impression for someone being completely uncomfortable walking into the nave (especially someone as well-versed in liturgy as my mother).
This past year was the Reception/Confirmation/Baptism liturgy of my dreams. It was in one of the largest and most beautiful churches in the Diocese, it had a 40 person choir made up of different choirs from the district (mostly made up of the people from said large and gorgeous church -- which also boasts a phenomenal music program), and there was incense and amazing organ music and phenomenal choir music... I was honored to sing in the choir. And I got to watch the beauty of the liturgy in one of the most beautiful environments possible.
My first thought was how much I wished I'd waited. How awesome would it have been to walk down the aisle to Grace Church as a confirmand and see the magnificence of that environment. And hear the choir! And have my priest actually in clericals!
But as I watched from the choir stalls, I got to thinking: I've always loved the high liturgy, but how many times do I get lost in it? (One of the ways I explain the contrast between Episcopal vs. Roman Catholic is to say that Episcopalians in general are a lot more easygoing but they still like to have fun with all the ritual stuff.) I inherit this probably from my mother, who is so well-versed in liturgy that she knows that you're supposed to genuflect on TWO knees on Maundy/Holy Thursday after the Eucharistic procession (RC church). Her appreciation of the beauty of the rituals is not lost on me, but how many times do I wish that she missed that one little misstep/wrong order of something so that I wouldn't have to hear about it later and then have my view on the liturgy tainted?
So: was "my" liturgy a message from God, a forced situation of humility for me to learn to appreciate? I mean, my first exposure to the Episcopal Church was in a very High church (which is what ultimately made me fall in love with it -- the poetry of the Ordinary, the beauty of the hymns, the awesome organ blasting, all of it!), but not all churches of any denomination are "high."
A forced humility. Sometimes we need this. We need to see things stripped to their essentials to show that there is something greater at work than incense and loud organ music and magnificent choirs. The poetry was still there. The sincerity was still there. So what if my priest was in a flannel shirt? God sees what's in the heart, not what is on the outside. God loves us for us, no matter how we come into a church. Isn't a church a place of refuge for the fouler, darker parts of our hearts, where we can let it go to God and know we are not judged but LOVED for our not-quite-beautiful clothing and possibly dirty hands?
It took 2 years and seeing this year's really impressively elaborate liturgy to realize what God was telling me and teaching me.
And I'm glad He did.