The night we gathered as a graduating class to talk about the work of our Capstone projects and theses was a celebratory one. Congratulations, hugs, tears…a chance to spend time with our faculty advisers (even though they were in the throws of the final grading needed to get us all to graduation). And in the midst of that, a friend who had witnessed many times my opening introduction of “I’m not from a diocese, I’m a Baptist” whispered in my ear, “The Episcopal Church welcomes you.” And the Episcopal church did welcome me. It did not try to convert me, it did not try to change my theology. Instead, it graciously shared with me its tools and its teachings and allowed me the space and the time to incorporate them into my own understanding of faith. I was welcomed indeed and welcomed in such a way that in my very difference I found an incredible sense of community and belonging.
And now, some time has passed since the day of celebration, the smiles and the congratulations. Friends have gone their separate way and the adrenaline that propelled us all to the finish, at least for me, has begun to fade. With time and rest, finally, I have had time to think and process, and have something to say again — something not part of a project or a paper that will move me one step closer to completing my studies. The day of graduation, the culmination of all this change and growth, and the reaching of a goal that frankly, last year at this time I was not certain I would live to reach…these things deserve remembrance.
There are lots of things that I will remember about that final day, the day when all my studies were signed, sealed and delivered in the presence of friends and loved ones: I could talk about what it felt like to sing in front of so many again, how I successfully climbed that hill from the Seminary to the Chapel several times in a hurry that day (running between events and rehearsals), how inspiring Barbara Brown Taylor was as a graduation speaker, how moved I was by the presence of good friends who had seen me through my call and the trials of this last year and held me in the light as I scrambled to finish. All of those things will go in my memory box, along with the physical cards and the ad in the Washington Post and the pressed flowers and programs.
If I had to summarize for you, though, the powerful learning of two years study with the Episcopalians I would offer you this image. In the midst of the chaos that is a large, grand worship/graduation ceremony (and it was grand, and meaningful, even for this Baptist…and, I might add, beautifully planned and executed), at the end of the procession as I looked up from the hymn page in front of me, I caught a glimpse of an unknown older man at the end of the procession. I don’t know who he was — he might have been a retired faculty member, he might have been some other kind of honored guest — but on his face and in the movement of his body was the most ebullient sense of joy. His joy at participating in the worship service and the ceremony sending out another group of disciples created a light that shone throughout the sanctuary. I could not take my eyes from him, although he was in my sight for just a moment.
And that, my friends, is the greatest gift of learning I have received in these two years of worship and learning in the land of my fellow Christians who commune as Episcopalians. That even in the dark days when we are worried about church and budgets and committees and all of the things of this world, we have immediate access to the simple light of joy that comes with the acceptance of grace in our lives. We may argue about how to worship and what kind of music to sing and the meaning of this or that doctrine, but if we cannot put that all aside as things of a less-than-successful human attempt to interpret the divine being known as church, we miss the true reason that we do all of this.
That man knew the answer. Many of my Episcopal colleagues know the answer and they were willing to share it with me so that I might share it with others, just as the Psalmist has tried to share that truth with believers down the ages:
For his anger is but for a moment,
and his favor is for a lifetime.[c]
Weeping may tarry for the night,
but joy comes with the morning. Psa 30:5
I have many changes ahead, I have much to do, but in those moments when I lose the thread of grace for just a moment, I will remember the joy in that chapel that morning and hear the voice of a friend saying in my ear, “The Episcopal Church welcomes you” and I will remember the warm feeling of that special welcome, the welcome of diversity in community, the welcome of joy and grace. Thanks be to God.