I awaken and am immediately struck by the silence . . . the complete stillness. I breathe in the sweet calm of Paradise Valley, Montana. Its name fits.
The western view out my bedside window is of the Gallatin Mountain Range, massive rock faces covered with expanses of white snow, interrupted by bands of deep green pine forest. Even at 8:00 a.m. all I survey is bathed in muted tones of gray as the sun still works its way up from behind the wall of the imposing Absaroka Range to the east.
The Yellowstone River runs through the property, not 100 yards from my window. The sides of the river are beginning to freeze. The only sign of movement in the landscape is the center of the river where the water rushes away, as if trying to escape winter’s grasp, tossing chunks of ice downstream. The bed is warm, the log cabin cozy, and outside is some number of degrees below zero.
Husband stirs beside me. What time is church, I ask. Not until 10, he responds.
That’s good. Time to figure out the espresso machine downstairs. (It’s quite a log cabin.) Let’s go sit by the fire, drink coffee, and watch the sun come up over the mountains. He agrees. For once he has time. I have time.
If it were up to me alone, I am sure I would figure out all kinds of ways to justify skipping church just this once. I think it through, to myself. It’s entirely too cold. Church would be cancelled if it were this cold where I grew up in Alabama. And just think about how much we are paying to be here each day and how much we have to do. We could go dog sledding or skiing instead.
I start to feel guilty about the “too cold” excuse.
Three of our four boys are here with us and the oldest will arrive in two days. They are still sleeping, but soon we will wake them. They probably wouldn’t object if we all slept in one Sunday, but they rise and dress. It has been the pattern all their lives. Much like the experience of being foreign exchange students, when we visit the small churches we seek out on vacations we are welcomed into a home and treated like family.
We ride north through the valley, passing clusters of cattle, huddled together, taking warmth from each other, eating from bales of hay spread atop the snow. Delicate wild deer hover nearby, gleaning, benefiting as well from the farmer’s provision. The sun is up, its rays blindingly bright reflecting off the snow-covered valley floor. I reach for my sunglasses so that I can see more clearly.
Arriving in the small town of Livingston, we find St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, off the beaten path, nestled in a neighborhood of what appear to be 1920’s homes. Even if we had not spotted the sign outside the church, we would have recognized the architecture as having that Anglican sensibility that infuses even a modest white frame building with dignity and beauty.
We scurry down the sidewalk, a few minutes late, and into the welcoming warmth of the sanctuary. This morning we are a long way from our home in Nashville, Tennessee. Even so, as we take our seats, the priest begins with those familiar words from The Book of Common Prayer, words being spoken in every Episcopal church throughout the land.
Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid:
I remember my early morning reluctance. Sorry God.
Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
I continue praying, thankful for a husband faithful to God and to me, doing the right thing getting us all up and delivering us through the snow to this flock, our flock, where we are warmed by the communion of saints, where we are fed by the Good Shepherd.
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
We say the response in unison, but I notice that one voice lags a word behind.
The liturgy moves to the Scripture readings, following the prescribed order of the lectionary. In every Episcopal Church, and many other liturgical denominations, this morning the same passages are being read.
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. Isaiah 62:3.
I look at the people assembled and at my own disheveled crew. I am amused, looking at all the hat hair and puffy down parkas, by the declaration that we are, indeed, a “crown of beauty” in the hand of the Lord.
The Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God.
Again the voice lags just a bit.
We read Psalm 147 responsively.
He scatters hoarfrost like ashes
The voice continues to lag. I first wonder if it is a child learning to read, but then realize it sounds familiar, like that of a friend with Down syndrome. How precious to hear that voice as part of the one voice of the congregation in this Psalm of praise. The lack of complete unison in the unison is right and good. I look around, unsuccessfully, for the source of the voice.
He scatters his hail like breadcrumbs,
Who can stand against his cold?
Though I have read this psalm many times, after the morning’s cold I can see more clearly the futility of standing against God’s cold. Especially alone.
He sends forth his word and melts them,
He blows with his wind and the waters flow
I can see more clearly a river melting. It must look like a river freezing, just like I saw outside my window this morning, only in reverse.
But not everything is clear.
The Apostle Paul tells us that now, in looking at God, we see through a glass darkly. Perhaps this is to protect us. If we beheld Him in all His Glory it might overwhelm us, like Jehovah of old, like the sunlight on the snow.
But some times, in some places, the glass seems to be more clear, the veil between heaven and earth more thin, and the glory of the Lord shines through in ways that stir and move us deeply. Some theologians speak of these as “thin places.”
I find one of those places while worshipping at St. Andrew’s
It is time for the Gospel reading. In Episcopal worship, a server and priest bring forth the Bible to the midst of the congregation. The congregation reverently stands and turns to face the Bible, and the Gospel lesson is read there. This portrays in tangible form the mystery of the Word of God, Jesus the Son, coming down from heaven to dwell among us.
At St. Andrew’s the acolyte is the server, adorned in a red robe embroidered with gold. Though resplendent, her robe is plain compared to the joyous expression on her face. It is a face that also bears features similar to other people with Down syndrome. She grasps the Bible tightly with her small hands as she deliberately descends the altar stairs. She leads the procession down to the people. In this most important of responsibilities, she is first, not lagging a step.
She stands reverently, opening the word of God for the priest to read, opening my eyes to a glimpse of His Glory.
“The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John,” said the priest.
“Glory to you, Lord Christ,” we respond and the priest reads these incomprehensible words from John 1.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . .
He came to what was his own, and his own did not receive him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the power to become children of God, who were born not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God . . .
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
She continues her service as we worship. At the Passing of the Peace she races around the room, touching every single person present, pausing briefly for hugs at times, exclaiming for joy at others. When she sees my sons, she speaks with delight saying “All the boys — so cute!”
May the Peace of Christ be with you.
And also with you.
Good thing it was a little church or else we would still be there.
As I see the love of this young woman for her Lord and the love of this congregation for this young woman, the veil between heaven and earth seems very thin indeed.
After the service we join the congregation in the fellowship hall for coffee. I notice a newspaper sports page pinned to the parish bulletin board. It features a large picture of a church member, the starting defensive end for the local high school football team. The young man is handsome, muscular, with a winsome expression. The article discusses his excellent grades and reputation.
His name is Daniel. His name fits.
His parents must be very proud.
Picking up my bulletin from the table as we leave, a name catches my eye.
The acolyte’s last name is the same as the football player. I confirm that they are brother and sister. And her first name?
Her name is Pearl . . .immensely valuable Pearl . . . beautiful Pearl.
Her name fits.
Her parents must be very proud.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it. Matthew 13:45-46
This essay is written by Molly Lindsey Powell for the blog In-House Counsel. To Subscribe, please visit https://ihcounsel.wordpress.com
The photo of the church is from the St. Andrew’s website. All others were taken by Molly in Yellowstone National Park, January 2013.