Disciple: No Ordinary Time
As a child growing up in a family that went to church regularly and throughout the summer, I thought of the weeks after Trinity Sunday until Advent as the “green weeks.” We were in church most Sundays, and I remember the green stoles worn by the clergy. They wore green a long time, it seemed to my young sensibilities. Throughout the summer. Throughout the fall. Green, green, green. The worship bulletin described this period as the Sundays after Pentecost. Sounded kind of boring. Non-descript. I didn’t hear the term Ordinary Time, a term from our Roman Catholic friends, until after seminary, but I liked it, even though it is not part of the Book of Common Prayer rubrics or our official church calendar. Still, it made sense to me that there would be a season of church to appreciate the dramatic difference that God makes in our ordinary days and ordinary lives.
[Image: Oregon’s Fields Of Green Grass by Edmund Garman, flickr. CC BY 2.0]
I’ve often made the point that the word ordinary is embedded within the word extraordinary and that we see that the extraordinary presence of the divine life is embedded in the ordinary things of life. Ordinary bread. Ordinary water. Ordinary oil. Ordinary people. Each has the potential and the sacramental capacity to convey the divine and transformative power of God. But it took me awhile to see the extraordinary power of God disguised in ordinary elements of life.
After this anything but ordinary year-plus that we have just experienced, I think ordinary sounds very appealing. I wonder, though, if we should return to the wisdom of the Book of Common Prayer that invites us to think about what happens when ordinary life is infused with the power of the Holy Spirit. Maybe instead of thinking of the Sunday after Pentecost, we think of Sundays (and the weeks following) defined by the fire of Pentecost?
THE FIRST NEW NORMAL
After the Ascension and the Day of Pentecost, the disciples couldn’t go back to the ways things had been before. The power of the Holy Spirit, a baptism by fire at Pentecost, changed them forever. There was no going back to normal. They could not “unsee” the crucifixion and resurrection. The wicked powers and rulers of this world had revealed themselves in full force. The same disciples who ran away in fear and went into lockdown emerged after Pentecost “on fire” to take up the full mantle of engagement with God’s mission of reconciliation. What will the weeks, months and years ahead look like for us as we emerge from a year like no other? Can we start to think and plan and act beyond (but mindful of) pandemic protocols and think, primarily, of God’s call?
For much of my youth, I missed how the season between Trinity Sunday and All Saints’ Sunday was a time to think more deeply about how the Spirit of God was driving us, guiding us, calling us forward in faith. Maybe those long, hot Texas summers, when we spent most of our time outside and at the public pool if at all possible, distracted me from the energy of mission and movement God was letting loose upon the world through the Church. A contributing factor was that our priests tended to focus on the Epistles—teaching sermons about abstract concepts I couldn’t quite grasp as a child and found irrelevant as a teenager. In Sunday school (which was not held during the summer), we focused on the Gospel lessons. In Vacation Bible School, we dramatized the incredible accounts from the Old Testament. But Holy Spirit and mission? Not so much, though I do remember maps of Paul’s missionary journeys, which also, unfortunately, failed to capture my imagination until much later.
Maybe, just maybe, though, I was being filled with the Holy Spirit more than I realized. Something about the Holy Spirit must have been getting through. Something about the invisible presence of God making a visible difference in the world must have been getting through. Because I remember some pretty extraordinary events of the Church’s witness during some long, hot, but not so lazy days of summer and early fall in the 1970s.
It was my traditional, 1928 Book of Common Prayer church that figured out a way to open up its facilities all summer long and host a free day camp for predominantly Chicano and Black children. It was my parish, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit and a lot of elbow grease, that figured out how to set up swimming lessons, arts and crafts, trips to the zoo and access to Dallas museums for our neighborhood children. It was my parish, filled with (and in spite of) generations of white privilege, that figured out how to recruit, orient and train a racially diverse cohort of 16-, 17-, 18- and 19-year-olds from segregated high schools to be the enthusiastic and empowered camp counselors, guided by clergy and lay leaders of the parish. I can tell you that I am the Christian I am today because my church “set a table in the wilderness” of racially and politically divided North Dallas in the 1970s and changed the lives of hundreds upon hundreds of the children, teenagers, college students and adults who just gathered up the meager resources we had at hand, and by the power of the Holy Spirit created something life-giving: a taste of beloved community. What’s even more encouraging is that I see that same dynamism for mission throughout our beloved Diocese of North Carolina. Because I have a seat on the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church, I have a prime view of this work of mission, of reconciliation, of creation care, of discipleship formation throughout our Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement.
Thinking about the summer of 2021 as ordinary time runs the danger of luring us into a fantasy of going back to the way things were. Instead, what if we prayed to keep the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in the forefront of what comes next, like the development of our Mission Strategy Plan? It matters what comes now after such a traumatic, world-turned-upside-down year. It matters that we not go back to patterns and practices that were not healthy, just and life-giving in the past and instead, go forward in the faith that God is extending a higher calling to all who will listen.
As we emerge from the traumatic events of this last 16 months, are we ready to assume the mantle of fullest engagement with God’s mission of reconciliation? If that seems like too big or abstract of a question, let me put it into something more basic: Are we ready to re-engage with being the Church? Not going to church, but being the Church? Are we willing to reimagine what it means, looks like and asks of us to be the Church in a world that yearns for a fulsome and fresh expression of God’s beloved community? Can we go a little deeper than asking will people come back to church services and ask what it will take to be a Church that goes into the world rejoicing in the power of Spirit and renouncing the “power of Satan [and] all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 302) Too bold? Too big? Or is it just rethinking the power of ordinary people doing ordinary things to make an extraordinary difference in the world?
The Rt. Rev. Anne Hodges-Copple is the bishop suffragan of the Diocese of North Carolina.