A Sunday of Epiphanies

My husband, Dick Johns and I were co-pastors at Dexter Avenue United Methodist Church in Montgomery, Alabama (now River City Church) in the mid-1990s. This is a story of one Sunday.

It’s 8:15 a.m. I am in our communion service. “You know, God, things are not all in place at this time, but I pray that you will enable us to do what we can—and let the rest go by!”  

There are several known hitches. We have two liturgical dances. I need someone to do the sound for the dances and our sound board is in the balcony—a bit of a stretch for me. The volunteer calls on Saturday—sick. I check with someone else and he says he will if he can. Turns out—he can’t. One of the dances is with the Holy Family: Wise people bringing their gifts on Epiphany Sunday. My Holy Family is ready and rehearsed. Saturday three out of the four are ill: the little shepherd boy, his baby sister who is to be Jesus, and “Mary.”

Sunday they are worse—not better. “Joseph” is the only one well, and I expect him to stay home to nurse the rest of them. I call several people: another sick Mom and baby and another Mom has to be at work at noon. Finally I grab a choir member and hurriedly tell her what to do, but there is no time for a rehearsal. We are having a baptism of a grandchild of a member and I ask the mother if Morgan can be the female baby Jesus. She agrees: again, no time to rehearse.

“Joseph” shows up, but since the gospel writer Matthew says the wise people go in and find Mary and the baby, I scratch Joseph from the scene—and he runs the sound. It is looking like the service may come together.

As we are rehearsing the dances, a member comes in. “Pastor Louise, I need you.” Being in the middle of the rehearsal I say I'll be there in a minute. Then she says, "Someone's screaming outside on the sidewalk.”  

The latest “Mary” disappears to see what she can do; I finish the dance I am in, tell them to start the next one and dash out.

When I get there I realize it is someone I know. The twenty-something woman is throwing a temper tantrum. Several people are trying to talk her “down” (someone calls the police—but as far as I know they never come,for which I am glad).

The growing onlookers say all they can understand is, “I hate my mother!”  

I take charge. "You know this kind of behavior gets you in trouble and none of us wants that. You need to stop yelling now!”  

About that time her mother drives up and waits while I help calm her daughter down. We strike a bargain. “If you quieten down, you can come into church. If your mother wants to come in also, she may. But the two of you may not sit together.”

I feel sure that by the time the service is over, between time and God, things will be in a bit better shape. The young woman gets fairly collected. I send her in and talk with her mother. She prefers to go somewhere else to church (smart move in my opinion; says she'll pick her daughter up after church).  

I rush back in; they aren’t rehearsing the other liturgical dance yet, so I blow the “whistle” and they start—at 10:50 (service in five minutes).

My husband has the first of the service and I run to get changed.

The service seems to have settled in when Dick forgets that I am to read the Matthew passage to prepare for the dance. I stand up and interrupt his preparatory remarks. There is a little back and forth; I yield. Then he says, “Do you want to read it?” I reply, with relief, “Yes.”  By now the congregation is highly amused and that helps. I explain how we have a shortage in the Holy Family category and another baby Jesus is being run in, only a little older than the usual image: nearly one-year.  

I am not sure if the baby Jesus is in the nursery, and not too sure “Mary” knows where to find the nursery, or when to come in. Then I look in the congregation, spot a child about the right age and go and get her. As I say, “Now I need a Mary” in she walks. She gets seated and I present her with Jesus. The dance goes beautifully. “Jesus” points to the dancers, interacts with them when they bring their gifts and is generally captivating. “Mary's” two-and-one-half year old, seated with her grandmother, sees her mother with another baby. Rather loudly she exclaims, “I want my mommy to hold me, NOW.”

Explanations fail, but eventually when she sees the baby being baptized, she says, “Oh, look at the pretty baby. I want to hold the pretty baby.”

All in all, the service is marvelous!  

 

The service went about as smoothly as a gravel road, and by the power of the Holy Spirit we saw glimpses of God in unplanned places: a Sunday full of epiphanies.

About Louise Stowe-Johns

I'm a writer,
a mediator,
a pastor,
an educator,
a lover of the arts,
a wife,
a mother,
and on occasion,
a pot stirrer.

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