Wednesday, November 21, 2007

It was just another manic Sunday

Okay, before I go off into internet-less land for the long weekend, I promised to tell you the tale of my crazy Sunday.

A little background info--and this part's not funny at all. One of the players in the story is a woman I go to church with who has been diagnosed with Pick's Disease. For the last few months, we've been watching this intelligent, articulate, capable woman disintegrate before our eyes. It's beyond sad. And terrifying. This disease (which has similar effects to Alzheimer's) primarily strikes people in their 40s/50s, and since I'm 45...well, it's like watching one of my worst nightmares play out right in front of me. Unlike Alzheimer's, its victims generally don't live very many years beyond diagnosis. At any rate, to watch this formerly vital and forceful woman pacing restlessly up and down the aisle, stopping sometimes to salute people, or repeat the same bit of trivia over and over with childlike glee...there are no words. She's not like that all the time, of course. The real cruelty is that there are times when she's completely lucid, and I hope during those times she doesn't remember the other times. Okay, backstory done.

On Sunday our usual priest was out-of-town at a family funeral. We had a guest priest--a very charming, charismatic little guy who was raised a Southern Baptist preacher's kid, somewhere along the line became an ordained Lutheran minister, and was hired as an assistant pastor by an Episcopal church here (the big downtown "high" church), after the Episcopal and Lutheran churches established "full communion" a few years ago. (Basically, their clergy are authorized to serve in each other's churches.)

He was very excited to be with us, and announced at the beginning of the service that "while the cat's away, the mice will play," and we were going to shake things up a bit, since our usual priest had assured him that we were a particularly open-minded and flexible congregation. (True enough, I'd say.) The Southern Baptist in him came out right away, as he repeated the opening sentences three times, until our response was vigorous enough for him to continue. Then he informed us that we were going to worship "from one end of the church to the other," and requested that we begin the service at the back of the church, circling the baptismal font.

Okay then.

We all trooped to the back and circled the font, which was then ceremoniously filled with water. At that point, he picked up a small whisk broomlike thing, dipped it into the font, and began to dramatically smack us all in the face with water to remind us of our baptismal vows, and that we were "marked as God's own."

Okay then. (And boy, just TRY not to wince as you see that whisk broom coming your direction! And no, never in a million years would they let him try this at his usual church. They're a little more...traditional there, let's just say.)

We began the opening hymn and processed back to our seats. Things proceeded more or less as usual--some slight differences, due to his Lutheran background, I presume, (I've never actually been to a Lutheran service) and also his own extreme exuberance. (He's just a happy, happy guy. He's a "shiny, happy people," so to speak.) Different, but nothing we can't handle. We come to the scripture reading portion of the service--the lay readers are asked to approach him before each reading, so he can remove his stole and drape it around their necks while they read. (That's not funny in and of itself, but each time he pulled the hood of his vestments up to remove the stole, he reminded me of the Jawas in the first Star Wars movie, and I had to stifle a giggle.)

So we get to the gospel reading, which is done by the deacon. The deacon happens to be the husband of the woman with Pick's. At my church, the deacon and the crucifer process about halfway down the aisle to do the gospel reading, facing the back of the church, and the people in the first few rows generally turn to face him, which means the deacon can't see anyone sitting in those rows. Deacon's wife always sits very near the front. So he starts the reading, and suddenly I noticed a woman sitting in my pew (I also sit near the front) duck across the aisle and sit next to Deacon's Wife, who has just slumped right over in her pew. Another woman slides into the pew on DW's other side, and they gently rouse her. She sits up, I see her mouth "I'm fine," and I think she just had a dizzy spell or something, but it's worrisome. The two women stay on either side of her, obviously still concerned, as well. The deacon, of course, can't see this, and he just plugs away at the gospel reading. (Which was a pretty long one.) Then suddenly, over DW goes again. A couple of more people go to her, and one woman sprints off to call an ambulance. The deacon at this point knows there's something going on behind him, but everyone is being very calm and quiet about it, and he obviously doesn't know just what's happening. He finishes the reading, turns to process back to the altar, and sees people clustered around his wife, who is sitting up at this point, but is deathly pale, and her eyes are quite unfocused. He returns the Bible to the altar, and at this point the service stops, obviously.

The priest jumps in, calls us to gather around DW, and we do a little laying on of hands while he prays, and we lay her down, prop up her feet and wait for the ambulance to arrive. This part was really...moving. You could literally feel the love and care surrounding DW, and I don't think there was a person there whose eyes weren't filled with tears. I hope she could feel the love--she was conscious, and when we segued into the Lord's Prayer, I could see her lips moving along. Pretty soon we hear the ambulance pull up outside, and we all move back to let the paramedics do their work.

At this point, someone notices that the baptismal font at the back of the church apparently did not have the drain plug inserted properly, and has been trickling water all over the floor for some time. Water, water everywhere! So a mop and bucket and towel brigade is formed to clean up that mess before the paramedics are forced to wheel DW down a canal, instead of an aisle.

Eventually, they have her strapped and ready to go to the hospital, and the deacon goes with her, of course.

We all take a deep breath, and the service continues. Except...the next thing to happen is the sermon, and guess who was scheduled to do the sermon today? Of course...the deacon.

So our apparently unflappable guest priest pulls out a chair, re-reads us the Gospel, and asks that we each try to focus on a word, phrase or story that popped to mind when we first heard it. He then improvs a pretty decent sermon, ending by telling us excitedly that he wants to try something he saw done recently in San Francisco. He wants US to finish the sermon! Remember those words, phrases or stories we were supposed to be thinking of? Well, let's out with them, and make a beautiful tapestry of the voices of the church!

Okay, let's be honest here. I did not hear ONE WORD of that gospel reading the first time I heard it. The only words or phrases in MY mind at the time were "Oh holy crap, what's wrong with DW?!" I didn't really hear it the second time I heard it. One very outgoing church member got up and rambled emotionally a bit, and then...well, apparently I was not the only one less than inspired, because the silence was deafening. It was awkward, and sad...he stood there, with the sweetest, most expectant expression on his face, and...silence.

Okay then. Moving on.

He asked us all to depart from the norm, and come on up and kneel around the altar for the portion of the service preceding communion. Okay then, but at this point I'm just consumed with hoping that the 90-year-old woman next to me is okay with all this extra traipsing around. "Please don't let sweet Mrs. R fall and break a hip, God, okay?" (That prayer was answered, fortunately.)

We made it to the end of the service, with perhaps a little extra exuberance in the final "Thanks be to God. Alleluia, ALLELUIA!"

I stopped to shake the priest's hand on my way out, and thank him for being there. Right behind me was a fellow I'd never seen before--we didn't have our usual introduction of visitors amidst all the hubbub, so I didn't know if he was a friend of the guest priest, or a true visitor. Turns out he's someone our regular priest had been ministering to, and "this is my first church service after a 15-year hiatus." I turned and said "Well, you certainly picked an interesting day to come back, didn't you?" and we all laughed a bit.

'Cause really, what else are you gonna do?

So, that's the tale. (I haven't heard anything regarding DW, so I'm going to assume that she's okay, or as okay as someone with her disease can be, as I'm sure the phone tree would have been activated otherwise.) What a crazy day, huh?

And on that note, let's all go somewhere tomorrow and be thankful for our blessings, shall we? Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!


Sparkling Cipher said...

Wow, that certainly would be a memorable service. Kudos to the fill-in minister for trying to have fun and for adapting so quickly after the bad stuff.

I don't know what to say about the deacon's wife. I'd say I hope she recovered, but that's not really likely to happen, not fully. I can't imagine deteriorating like that, or worse, watching someone I love go through it.

Noelle said...

Wow, you told that story well. That is some wild churchin' going on over there...

SUEB0B said...

What we say when something totally crazy like that happens is "Well, that was quite a time, wasn't it?"

Happy Thanksgiving.

Sarah said...

Excellent story, although I hope DW is as fine as possible, given the circumstances.

I belong to an Episcopal church, and we used to have a youth minister who clearly should have been Southern Baptist. On several occasions, he tried to get all of us staid Epis to stand up and shout Alleluia. Never happened, and you felt kind of bad for him. I can only imagine the blank stares he would have received if he'd tried to get us to stand up and walk around!

Sauntering Soul said...

Wow, that's quite a story!

I hope the deacon's wife is okay. How sad someone has to suffer that way.