Dothan, Alabama—I am watching an Episcopalian choir sing. The music is good enough to bring a tear to a glass eye. One soprano has a voice so robust it makes the stained glass vibrate and the rafters shake.
The choir is singing in Latin. At least I think it’s Latin.
The Baptist churches of my childhood had choirs, but not like this. We did not sing in Latin. We sang in polyester and khakis.
Episcopalians are interesting birds. The “Piskies” do everything differently than the Evangelicals who raised me. They even have different terminology. I have trouble remembering all the definitions.
For example: a priest’s robe is a “cassock.” This comes from the ancient word, “cass,” which is literally translated: the American lead female singer from the Mamas and the Papas.
Some other explanations:
Those in the congregation are not “people,” but “laity.”
The area where the the laity sit is called the “nave.”
The short prayers between the priest and the laity are called “suffrages.”
And the official title for the man who reads the scriptures aloud to the laity is: “Randy.”
After the singing, a woman takes the pulpit. She is middle-aged, wearing a cassock and surplice. She is not the priest of this parish, but a “curate.”
This curate’s name is Alice.
Like many Episcopalians, Alice was called into the ministry later in life. And this means she is, by default, a person with real life experience.
Lots of Episcopalian clergy enter the ministry later in life.
This is unlike the Evangelical ministers from my childhood. My friend Anderson, for instance, received a call into ministry around age three. He became church treasurer by age nine, associate pastor by age twelve, and he finally got his own Freewill Baptist church three weeks before he sprouted armpit hair.
Alice delivers a very brief sermon. It lasts ten minutes, tops. She talks about first coming to this church. She speaks about how she was afraid of not being accepted, and being worried she wouldn’t fit in. She is honest, and it’s refreshing.
While she speaks, I am looking at stained glass, remembering a time when I had these same feelings. In fact, I had these feelings in this exact sanctuary, not long ago.
The priest of this church was one of the first to EVER ask me to speak publicly. I’ll never forget it.
“No thanks,” I first told him. “I don’t think anyone wants to hear me attempt public speaking.”
“I think you’ll be surprised,” Father Peter said. “If I put the word out, it could be fun.”
Fun. I doubted it, but I thought about it for a few days. I don’t know why, but I agreed. I’m not Episcopalian, I wasn’t a public speaker, and I didn’t have a thing to wear.
I felt the way Alice did. What if nobody showed up? What if they didn’t like me? Or worse, what if I made a complete knucklehead McSpazatron out of myself?
My wife and I drove to Dothan on a Wednesday afternoon.
Father Peter met us at the church doors. He gave me the dime tour of the antique sanctuary. I wore my only sportcoat—a black jacket with a bleach stain on the back.
He showed me to a quiet room where I could gather my thoughts. I was already having trouble breathing.
“Nobody’s gonna come tonight,” I told my wife. “Nobody wants to hear a knucklehead McSpazatron speak publicly.”
“You’re not a knucklehead McSpazatron,” she said. “Well, not very often.”
The priest knocked on the door. “I think they’re ready for you,” he said, handing me a microphone.
My hands were trembling. I almost puked on his cassock and Pythagorean theorem.
I stepped onto the altar. I almost fainted. The chapel was completely full. People clapped for me. Some of them already had my books in their hands. Some stood to their feet.
I spoke for an hour, telling my stories. And I have to admit, I was god-awful. But the people in the audience pretended I wasn’t.
Immediately afterward, they didn’t file out of the building to go home. They actually waited for the knucklehead McSpazatron out front.
And on that evening, in front of the Church of the Nativity, I received more hugs in one hour than I’d received in six years.
It was one of the most profound nights of my life.
I was a dropout, an uneducated man with a stained sportcoat. Until that evening, I’d felt mostly like an outsider and a fool. But these people made me into something else.
They made me an author. A speaker. A storyteller. They did that to me. This place did that to me.
So I don’t mean to get all mushy, but a big piece of me started in this chapel, sort of like with Alice.
When the curate’s sermon is over, the choir sings again. And the music is fit for angels. My wife is beside me, holding my hand. I am looking upward at vaulted ceilings, adorned by the glow of candlelight.
The season is here again. And I am the luckiest knucklehead McSpazatron who ever lived.
Let’s make it a happy New Year.