We are often presented with Two Paths.
One, we’re told, will be full of challenging decisions that, if we handle them correctly, will result in a Healthy and Successful life. The other Path, it is said, is the result of bad decisions and ends in despair and disappointment.
I heard this analogy a lot growing up, from pastors to my parents. It is a helpful differentiation for many parts of life. Relationships, drugs and alcohol, jobs. They are full of choices that are either healthy or destructive.
But the church is something different.
The church is not a choice between possibly healthy or potentially destructive. It’s both.
So when I set out to find a church in college, after an eclectic narrative of church experiences in my youth, I didn’t think about two paths. It was a somewhat random search and coming from a non-denominational background, there was no sister church to find in my college town.
Someone recommended we check out the Anglican congregation that met in a Seventh-Day Adventist church a few blocks from campus, and for the majority of college that was home. I never made a declaration of Anglicanism, I was never confirmed into the parish, it was just had the right spirit of Christian community to it. The moment of taking communion with friends, with professors, and with strangers stirred my soul to wonder at the sacrifice of Christ.
The grace, the Sacraments, the community are all part of why I was drawn to the Anglican tradition and why I have embraced my place in it.
We recently traveled to England, home to many of my wife and my ancestors.
We traveled to cathedrals and to genealogy records houses to explore the depth of our families roots in England and Scotland. One afternoon we drove out to a parish a few hours northeast of London, on the North Sea. A parish where, over 400 years ago, my ancestors were part of the Christian community.
As we entered the church I was underwhelmed. After visiting several cathedrals and being knocked speechless by their beauty and grandeur, this parish was shrug-inducing.
I had hoped to have some spiritual connection to the place when I walked through the door.
Instead, it felt bland and unfamiliar.
But we had made such an effort to get to the church, and praying the office is significant to us, so we joined the three priests of the parish in the choir stalls. Just six of us, the Book of Common Prayer, and God. And that’s when my senses started to tune into the holiness of the space.
The prayers of the faithful that have resounded from those pews, every morning and evening for centuries.
The sunlight shining onto the altar. This was the spirit of the church I had been searching for when I entered the doors.
Prayer ended and the priests were kind enough to show us around the grounds. We learned that the building was heavily damaged during World War II and that a large majority of the space was rebuilt in the 20th century. It was only a fraction of the parish my ancestors would have worshipped in many centuries ago
As we prepared to leave, one of the priests pulled me aside and offered to show me one of the parish treasures. After a few minutes of searching, he returned with an object hidden from my view.
“Your ancestors, they were married here in 1600?” he asked me.
“Yes, we confirmed the records at the county record office this morning.”
I swear he paused for effect. Holding up a chalice for communion, he smiled and said quietly “they would have communed from this chalice.”
In that moment, staring at that four hundred year old chalice, the journey that started in that Seventh-Day Adventist church in Michigan came full circle. Being Anglican was no longer my own personal journey but included embracing the fellowship of my ancestors, the communion of saints down through the ages.
As the priest held that cup out I could hear the words of a priest saying “Take and Drink” and understood that generations before me had worship and served God in this place, in this tradition.
It turns out that life has many paths, all of which have been walked by many others that have gone before us.
None of my immediate family was raised in the Anglican tradition. I hadn’t been inside of an Anglican church before the age of 18. And yet this journey I am on, this journey that has led to ordination and a life of ministry inside and outside the church, is a return to a path that many of my ancestors once walked.
My story, it seems, is not simply about me. It is filled with real characters that are long dead.
In the moments of communion, as the elements are consecrated and held aloft, as the priest proclaims, “These are the gifts of God for the people of God,” I realize I’ve been with my family all along.
[Photo: Mike Cattell, Creative Commons]