The Maestro’s Handshake

Trinity Episcopal Church, Apalachicola, FL, 1884

Over the past twenty-six years, our family has made numerous summer treks to St. George Island, a barrier island three miles off Florida’s Forgotten Coast. Apalachicola, the seat of Franklin County, is seven miles of bridge away, and where you go for supplies.

Apalach is Old Florida. Spanish moss and air sticky-thick, like toasted honey. Weathered captains with rickety skiffs. Queen Anne homes with wraparound porches. A cemetery with gnarled trees, washed-out tombstones, and ghost walks. Apalachicola has one flashing yellow light. One biscuit shop. One soda fountain counter. One very small Piggly Wiggly.

Numerous summers, I’ve made my way to Apalachicola’s Trinity Episcopal Church. Erected in 1838, carpenters constructed the white Greek Revival in White Plains, New York, then sailed the pieces around the tip of Florida and all the way back up to the panhandle where they jigsawed everything back together. Trinity is the state’s second oldest active church. Worshipers have been sitting on and kneeling at these same creaky, gorgeous pews for two centuries.

After service every Sunday, there’s a social hour with sweets and coffee. At the passing of the peace, they do it like they mean it. Folks linger and chat. A few look around to catch the eyes of a friend across the room, offering a neighborly nod or the peace symbol. Announcements cover the upcoming bingo night (no charge) with great prizes (art from a parishioner’s daughter and gift certificates to the local grill) and the fabulous response to the school backpack drive (“we’re small but mighty”). If you wanted to feel like an outsider here, you’d have to go after it on purpose.

On my recent visit, two elderly ushers welcomed everyone at the front door, passing out bulletins and a few hugs. One of the ushers with grey thin-cropped hair was the maestro. He had something to say to almost everyone, usually prompting laughter and a slap on the shoulder. If his hearing aids didn’t do their job, he leaned in closer. His way, like his jean shirt and khakis, was easy.

After a simple sermon from a preacher who believed Jesus was actually in the building, it was communion time, and the two ushers carried the offering and elements to the altar. On their way back toward the pews, I watched the maestro stop at the bottom of the platform steps, turn back facing the altar, and wait.

He stood there until the line of people who’d received the Eucharist began to file back past him, toward their seats. As each person stepped off the final step, he grabbed their hand, looked them in the eye, and gave a sturdy handshake. You received the body and blood of Christ, and then you received the warm hand and warmer smile of the maestro. I watched, eyes moist. I couldn’t wait for my turn.

It didn’t take long, the crowd was small. Up from the kneeler at the altar, wine and bread consumed, then only a few steps. He grabbed my hand. His vigorous clutch insisted that this grace I’d just tasted was as real as his grip, and it wouldn’t ever let me go.

I sat down, filled in every way.

After church, I had to say something. I tapped him on the shoulder. “Sir,” grabbing his hand again, “my favorite part of the service was your handshake.” He put his other hand on the back of my neck, like he would a grandson, and squeezed. There was a glint of wonder, a bare knowing, in his eyes. “Thank you,” he said. And he squeezed again.

The human touch. Kind, wise eyes. Another person just standing there, waiting for me. There’s lots of talk these days about the Church’s demise, hand-wringing over what we must do to regain relevance — most of it makes me want to shove a fire poker in my eyeball. Being the church is not easy, to be sure, but the basics are fairly simple.

The Whole World a Eucharist

One of the many enchanted graces in Glacier NP

Hiking in Montana last week, the lushness enveloped me, the velvety green moss, the towering Hemlocks. The rush of frigid water cut through tight canyons while austere granite peaks sliced into the sky, dusted in white as if some heavenly baker sprinkled confectioner’s sugar across the ragged edge. Without planning to do so, I would find myself still, watching and listening, hushed, as though I were answering the monk’s bell calling me to divine hours. Over and again, I found myself uttering the most basic prayer: Thank youThank youThank you.

Eucharist (or Holy Communion) means thanksgiving. It is, from beginning to end, a prayer of thanks. Thanks for Father, Son and Spirit. Thanks for the life we’ve been given. Thanks for love that holds the world. Thanks for the healing promised for any of us who will have it. Thanks for the hope that we are not alone. Thanks for the beauty of those who are gathered at this table of mercy alongside us. Each Sunday, we find ourselves (whether we feel like it or not) receiving these small graces culled from our everyday world and uttering the most basic prayer: Thank youThank youThank you.

But the Eucharist, with its table of hewn oak or pine, with its bread of golden wheat and fresh oil, with the wine squeezed from plump red grapes, tells us that the good things of this earth are the very elements that lead us to God — these are the very parts of this good world that will find, with us, their healing in God. The Eucharist on Sundays reminds us that the whole world is a eucharist, a holy thanksgiving. There are places of such enchantment, such rawness and mystery and joy, that to simply walk their hallowed paths is to participate in a prayer of gratitude. On such holy ground, we inhale the incense of pine and western red cedar, we drink from the cup of wild rivers singing a powerful song, we eat the bread of so many beauties, so many. We really can’t help ourselves: Thank youThank you.

I know a woman most dear to me who, for a season of her life, could only pray while standing on solid ground, among the trees or touching those fresh green shoots pushing their way through the brown dirt. Some might think she was straying too far. I say she had learned to receive the gift. She had learned to say thank you.

Divine Therapy

Recently, I enjoyed a conversation between Krista Tippet (on her NPR program On Being) and Vigen Guroian, Orthodox theologian and professor at the University of Virginia. Guroian narrated the various Biblical metaphors for the work Jesus Christ did for the redemption of humanity — though Jesus’ life, cross and resurrection.

Western Christianity, Guroian said, emphasized a “judicial” forgiveness, with the emphasis on debts paid, accounts settled, etc. Eastern Christianity, on the other hand, emphasizes the “divine therapeutic” aspects to Jesus’ work on our behalf. Through Jesus, our senses are restored, our body is healed, our mind made new. Through Jesus, we are given wholeness. Then, the question becomes (and this is more my question) how does the Christian walk into, appropriate and act upon this wholeness that, quite frankly, still seems like quite the pipe dream?

While Guroian contrasts the two theologies perhaps too starkly, his point has traction. Modern Christian theology has at times been too reticent to preach the this-world, very present message of Gospel wholeness, God’s intentions (and enactment in Jesus) to heal emotions, neighborhoods, wounds, families, systems of power, histories. Forgiveness and new creation is more than forensic and future but immediate, personal, now. It is now and it is also not yet. This is the mystery. This is the faith we are invited to experience as well as the faith toward which we hope.

The image centers on the Lord’s Table, the Eucharistic moment where the mysterious Kingdom of God breaks into the now, where our senses are touched, our hunger is sated with bread and our thirst filled with wine. This moment is not only for our memory, to recount what God has done, but for our encounter, to experience in that very meal the healing and restoration, the “divine therapy” if you will, of our Redeemer. Jesus, the Son of God, surrendered all the rights and prerogatives of being King of the Universe to come and heal us. God bled, died and rose again, to restore us to our full humanity, to joy, to life. Life with God. Life with ourselves. Life with others.

The Christian Gospel does not announce a message of self-help. We’ve seen the best of what we humans can manage, and it isn’t enough. What we need is the God of the Universe to touch our sorrows and our bodies, our minds and our memories. We need God to break into our governments and our economies. We need God to restore us, or we’re doomed. Good News: God has come. In Jesus, God is here. Through the Spirit, life and healing is ours. And not just ours, but our neighbors. Friends we’ve known for decades – and friends we don’t yet know. This restoration flows to all.

In all our strivings for new things, whether lofty or mundane, we are secretly reaching out to this new and imperishable life with God. And the promise of that new life, given to us irrevocably through Christ’s resurrection, grounds our hope that rapacious time will not swallow and make waste of our best efforts. In this time of worldwide crisis, we need the energy birthed by such hope as we undertake the daunting task of mending our lives and our world. We also need assurance that, no matter what happens to us, our lives are embraced by Christ’s new and imperishable life. {Miroslav Volf}