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Hugh Wesley

Amusing grace

Tales of worship gone awry

By Trisha Elliott


MALFUNCTIONS AND MISHAPS 

On the first day of any job, you want to make a good impression. That was my goal when, as a student, I accepted a summer placement at a remote rural church. Getting there involved riding a ferry. My first day, I was cruising along on the ferry when a wave flooded over the boat. I got completely drenched, hair slicked down the side of my face. Worse, the soaker gave me the urge to pee. Badly. I was never more relieved to get to church. But when I tried the door, it was locked; I’d gotten the service time wrong and was an hour and a half early. Ever resourceful, I ran back to the car and drove down a side road looking for a gas station. Then, in desperation, a suitable bush. Relief turned to embarrassment, when, as I was going about my business behind an appropriately bushy bush, a car drove past and the driver rubbernecked. I shrugged the incident off until just before the service started, when the rubbernecker walked in. Afterwards, my new parishioner shook my hand and whispered, “I live five minutes away, dear,” and continued, winking, “if you ever need to go.”

The memory is still horrifying. It doesn’t take much to throw a first day off. 

Normally, diaconal minister Kimiko Karpoff is capable of pulling off tremendous gravity-defying feats of yoga, but co-ordination failed her on one of her first Sundays. “I was preaching at pew level, so I grabbed one of those black metal music stands to put my notes on. I went to raise it a titch, but when I pulled up, the whole thing came off and I smacked myself on the forehead with it. If I’d pulled any harder, I would have knocked myself out.”

Church can be hazardous. Rev. Norm Seli once had a parishioner fall and break her hip on the chancel. She couldn’t be moved and insisted that worship carry on while she lay waiting for the ambulance. It was a long wait. Due to the chancel layout and location of the fall, Seli had to step over her several times during the service, a liturgical rendition of leapfrog.

Cramped chancels aren’t the only church health hazard. Cost-cutting measures can be equally scary. 

During communion one Sunday, Rev. Susan Howard remembers that when a congregant lifted a large chunk of bread out of the cup, a semi-congealed glob of grape juice came with it. “Ever the frugal one, the communion co-ordinator had saved the Welch’s and stretched out the cost of that one bottle over two months.” 

While it doesn’t always pay to be frugal, it does pay to be attentive. “I noticed the grape juice looked rather brown,” says Rev. Meredith Marple. “One of the elders had purchased and prepared the elements, and at the time, a bottle of Welch’s Prune Nectar looked very similar to Welch’s Grape Juice. Needless to say, it was hard to swallow.” 

Communion can be intensely physical. “I was a student and working on my worship course. The professor said we should pour like we mean it with lot of splashing, and break the loaf like we are breaking our hearts open,” says Rev. Monica Rosborough. “So when it came time to break the loaf, I put some muscle into it. My hands sprang apart so fast, I nearly bopped my supervisor on the nose. My daughter got the giggle fits. She put her head down so no one would notice. They all thought she was deeply touched by the ritual and having a spiritual awakening.” 

Breaking bread properly can be challenging. Especially with crusty loaves. Diaconal minister Vicki McPhee once got a child to help. “It was a nice, big, crispy French loaf. I asked who would like to break it and gave it to the eager kid in front of me,” she explains. But instead of breaking it with a sense of decorum, “he took the bread, lifted it up and proceeded to crack it over his knee.”

First days and communion aren’t the only worship elements to go awry. Wardrobe malfunctions rank high on some ministers’ lists of most embarrassing moments. 

“I was preaching about the lost parables. All of a sudden, I could feel something swinging by my feet. . . . It was the battery pack of my headset. Somehow, the battery pack had escaped the confines of my underwear! I had a skirt on, so I couldn’t just pick it up,” says Rev. Evelyn McLachlan. She told her congregation she was having technical difficulties and advised them she’d return. “I grabbed the battery pack and held it by the knees as I walked off to the tech room to replace the battery pack inside my underwear and secure it a tad more firmly. As I’m doing this, the laughter starts to mount until the congregation is howling. When I came out, the congregation applauded, and I announced, ‘I found the battery pack but have completely lost my dignity!’”

At least her skirt didn’t fall off. When Rev. Melanie Kirk stood up to announce a hymn, her skirt hit the floor. “I had lost some weight since I had worn my skirt. Thank heavens I was gowned and standing behind a large pulpit. I announced the hymn, faked dropping my bulletin, pulled up my skirt and kept going.” 

Hugh Wesley

KIDS (AND CLERGY) SAY THE DARNDEST THINGS 

There’s nothing like getting into the preacher groove — those moments behind the pulpit when the words glide out of your mouth with such ease and elegance, it feels like the Spirit is serving them up to the congregation on a silver platter. Then there are the other moments when your tongue is like sand and words pop out sideways. Letting a sexual innuendo slip from the pulpit is one of those moments.

When Rev. Jim Tenford was supposed to read “the throngs of angels,” he accidentally read “thongs of angels.” On her internship, Rev. Nancy Nourse read “sexual immorality” and it came out “sexual immortality.” 

Last Easter, Rev. Maggie Watts-Hammond referred to “Jesus’ resurrection” as “Jesus’ erection.” Yikes!

At least ministers aren’t alone. Lay people have been known to trip up at the lectern, too.

Rev. Jeff Doucette recalls a solemn Good Friday service in which one of the readers mispronounced the name Annas, saying, “And they sent Jesus to Anus the high priest.” “I had to fully suppress shouting out, ‘Bummer!’” jokes Doucette.

When a congregant got up to deliver a Presbytery report during the service, Rev. Norm Seli says the man wondered aloud why the Presbytery’s liturgical dancers never seem to wear underwear. “That was  pretty much the sum total of his report,” says Seli. A new twist on a Presbytery briefing.

Then there are typos. In Rev. Ryan McNally’s bulletin, “Prayer of Confession” was once printed as “Prayer of Confusion,” and an invitation to a prayer of confusion was announced. Rev. Elisabeth Jones remembers mistakenly advertising her “Road to Calvary Lenten study” in the bulletin as “Road to Calgary.” (Unfortunately, the congregation didn’t stampede to her study.) Rev. Desmond Jagger-Parsons once attended a church where the welcome projected on the big screen read, “All are welcome. No boarders,” instead of “borders.”

Sometimes there are clues that worship is going to take a turn. “I should have known it was going to be an unusual committal service when I saw several ceramic pigs peeking out of the arrangements, and I blanked on the Lord’s Prayer,” says Rev. Lori Beth Sheffield-Bowles. Just before the urn was placed in the grave, the family put a small package wrapped in dog-print paper into the hole. “It was quite a surprise for me and the funeral director. It turns out the ‘package’ was the deceased’s longtime dog named Trouble. So in the end, the deceased was buried with Trouble.”

Children’s time is the most unpredictable 10 minutes of any worship service. Ministers have to exercise extreme caution when it comes to asking children questions. Rev. Donna Lawrence made the mistake of asking her church kids what the word “anniversary” meant. “It was anniversary Sunday, and one little fellow pipes up, ‘It’s when Mom and Dad go into a room by themselves for an hour and lock the door.’” 

When he asked the kids what baptism Sunday was about, Rev. Norm Seli says a child nearly got it right when he explained, “We are doing this because Jesus was baptized by Jordan in the John.” Rev. Sarah Fanning was talking to the kids about the ashes used during the Ash Wednesday service. One of the kids was mortified and asked, “Is that someone’s dead body?” 

But nothing strikes fear into the heart of a minister more than the sight of his or her own kid’s arm shooting up to answer a question during children’s time. Rev. Michael Kooiman once asked the children what their first memory was. “My son, who was eight at the time, without skipping a beat said, ‘I don’t know about my first memory, but my first word was shit.’”

Rev. David Shearman discovered that getting creative for children’s time can have unexpected benefits. Shearman’s colleague brought a real chicken to church to emphasize the theme of new life. The children were captivated. “During the sermon, I could hear rustling in the chicken cage. At the end of the service, one of our members went up to the cage, lifted the cover and started to laugh. That was the first time any sermon I ever preached caused an egg to be laid.”

That’s the way it is with worship. The unpredictability makes it exciting, the misfires part of the lore, the humanity of the drama touching. Worship is a slice of life. When it doesn’t go as planned, it may in fact be at its best.

Rev. Trisha Elliott is a minister at City View United in Ottawa.


'I did a wedding between a tattoo artist and a body piercer.'

WEDDING DON'TS 

Some couples are unconventional. I once had a wedding couple opt to exchange cowboy boots instead of rings. Which isn’t as outrageous as it gets.

“I did a wedding between a tattoo artist and a body piercer,” says Rev. Ruth Noble. “For the wedding, she pierced him in the nether regions, and he tattooed her ring finger. The groom was very uncomfortable during the service. The bride explained to the congregation that she pierced him there because she wanted to make sure he knew every part of him was hers now. The groom explained that he tattooed a Celtic love knot on her finger because they are forever connected.”

I think couples should steer clear of knots. I once had a couple’s parents tie them up in a ceremonial knot during the nuptials — which would have been fine if they had practised the untying part. The bride and groom were tied up for several minutes, parents scurrying around, pulling the rope this way and that, yanking them uncomfortably tighter. Eventually, someone offered up a jackknife to cut the couple loose.

Turns out jackknives (if used correctly) can come in handy at weddings.

Rev. Anne Hepburn remembers a wedding where the rings were sewn onto the little pillow so tightly that they had difficulty untying them. The groom (who was appropriately dressed as a gangster) whipped out a jackknife to slice them off. He was a little overzealous, though, and the rings spun down to the floor. Fortunately, Hepburn has a good ring-recovery track record. For example, when one of her canine ring bearers shook his muzzle and the rings went flying, parishioners scoured the sanctuary on hands and knees and turned them up. So far, Hepburn’s two for two. 

I haven’t had such luck in the dog department. Of the two dogs I’ve welcomed into wedding parties, one of them pooped in the aisle during the procession (you can imagine the stench in a cramped, sweltering church), and the other disliked the organ so much that he howled every time the organist played. Accompanied by a dog, Love Divine, All Loves Excelling does not excel. 

Possessive preschoolers top uptight canines, though. When Rev. Joan Wyatt asked the four-year-old flower girl for the rings at Rev. Teresa Burnett-Cole’s wedding, she flat out refused, arguing that her aunt gave them to her. “What followed was a hysterical negotiation in front of 120 guests, which only ended when Joan convinced our flower girl to exchange the rings for a cross locket,” says Burnett-Cole.

Weather is another capricious force at weddings. “My first wedding was held on the front porch of the groom’s parents’ home. I set the rings on my service book to bless them, the wind blew the pages and the rings fell,” says Rev. Lynne Allin. “I managed to grab the bride’s ring, but when the ushers all rushed for the groom’s, they knocked it down between the decking planks.” Cool under pressure, Allin asked one of the ushers to hand over his wedding ring, and she used it for the service. Afterwards, one of the children was sent under the deck to get the real ring. 

It could have been worse. She could have set the marriage licence on fire. It happens. “During one of my weddings, the soloist came over and whispered, ‘You’re on fire!’ I looked down and realized the government documents came too close to the tealights,” says Rev. Sarah Fanning. Fortunately, the quick-witted Fanning licked her palm and smudged out the fire. 

Next to setting the licence on fire, forgetting the names of the people you are marrying takes the mishap cake.

Diaconal minister Christina Miller Paradela once got the groom’s name wrong. “I had the name of the groom from the last wedding in my book. It turns out this wrong name happened to be the name of the groom’s boss, who was at the wedding. The cracks erupted and caused a three-minute delay in the ceremony.”

Rev. David Shearman gaffed while marrying the church organist’s daughter. “When I came to pronounce the couple as married, I named the bride’s sister and the groom as husband and wife. The mother of the bride, sitting at the organ bench, shot bolt upright and let out a very loud ‘What?’ I apologized and got it right the second time.”

Rev. Greg Smith-Young takes the prize for the biggest newbie nuptial blooper. “It was my first wedding, and I was terribly nervous. I wrote the names of the bride and groom on a Post-it note and put it on the inside cover of my service book.” Unfortunately, Smith-Young’s penmanship isn’t great. “I announced that we’d gathered to celebrate the wedding of Melody and Mike instead of Miles. The awful part was that Melody’s ex-boyfriend was Mike. Praise God, the Holy Spirit inspired a quick-on-my-feet response. I said, ‘But since Mike isn’t here today, Miles is going to marry her instead.’” 

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