It was the summer of 1962. I had just turned eight when my family moved from a tiny town to, what seemed to me at the time, a large city, and a strange church. I was small and scared. So I became tough and wild.
Almost immediately, it was realized I would not be contained in Sunday school. Some wise person decided I should become a server; I moved from children’s lessons to serving lessons. Being elevated to the adult world of vestry and sanctuary appealed to me. The meticulous choreography of serving settled my restless spirit. The company of men much older than myself made me feel mature and responsible as I shadowed the thurifer carrying my little silver “boat” full of grains of sweet smelling incense.
This was important work we felt honoured to share.
We had servers’ practices concluding with “Compline” in the chapel. The tune of “Before the ending of the day” still sounds in my mind.
As a server I learned that religion was serious business. I came to understand there was nothing trivial about faith. I can still feel that sacred moment before each service as we stood in our appointed places ready for the procession. The sound of the organ came muffled through the vestry door. We waited silently to play our appointed parts in the unfolding mystery in which we were privileged to share.
By the time I was twelve I discovered another mystery. There was a dimension to serving which never appeared in the sanctuary. Two of the older servers liked to have sex with younger boys. I was one of those boys.
I do not know that it seemed terribly wrong to me at the time. There was such a divide between my two worlds. On Sunday I was the devout blond-haired server, moving smoothly through my paces in the adult world of religion. During the week, some of these same adults introduced me to other mysteries about which I knew to keep silent. God and religion had no place in this other adult world. I learned to keep secrets. I learned to keep much of myself invisible.
But I also learned other lessons that have served me well in life.
I learned that the bad things that happened to me did not make me a bad person. I learned that, even the fact that I might do bad things, did not make me a bad person.
We are all wounded. At times our wounds wound others. Human beings are deeply complex.
Life involves pain. The important question is how I respond. I can allow my pain to define me, or I can affirm something deeper, more real and more lasting than the pain. My experience as a server exposed me to pain and shame. But, my experience in the sanctuary also introduced me to a reality greater than this shadow side of life.
I remember getting up in the middle of the night to kneel in church at the altar of repose on Maundy Thursday. I felt the conflict of that dark and lonely night. I sensed the failure of Jesus’ friends. It was a time of desperation and despair. But the liturgy had taught me that something else was coming. I knew that on Saturday evening we would gather and light a large candle. I knew that this candle would be carried into the darkened church. We would hear the words ring out, “The light of Christ.” And I knew that at that moment I would kneel and respond, “Thanks be to God.” The darkness was pushed back. Betrayal, sadness, and shame were not the final words. There was a truth I could fall into with all of my chaos and confusion. That truth would hold me.
Life did not always make sense. Things did not always go perfectly. But there was a greater reality. And so I could tell my own truth. I could acknowledge sad things, bad things, wrong things that had happened to me and wrong things I had done. Those things could no longer hurt me. I could practice the forgiveness I saw in Jesus who looked down from the cross upon his abusers and, even though they did not seek forgiveness, could pray “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Forgiveness means letting go. When I forgive, I surrender my need for the world to be put right. I no longer need to be vindicated. Forgiveness knows that only truth can set me free. It was in the midst of the darkness and the light of those confusing years that the seed of this freedom began to germinate in my young life; for that I am grateful.