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Asking the Clergy: What strange things have happened during worship?

The Rev. Linda Anderson of the Unitarian Universalist

The Rev. Linda Anderson of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Stony Brook, Rabbi Alysa Mendelson Graf of Port Jewish Center and the Rev. William McBride of the Interfaith Community Religious Education Program, Brookville Multifaith Campus. Credit: Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Stony Brook; Leo Vatkin; Interfaith Community Religious Education Program

Religious worship generally goes according to plan and long-standing tradition, but there’s also room in the sanctuary for the unexpected. This week’s clergy discuss surprises that have caused laughter, a sense of wonder or a teaching moment — for the clergy member.

The Rev. William McBride

Religious director, Interfaith Community Religious Education Program, Brookville Multifaith Campus

It was the first day of April, a Sunday. I had decided to play a little April Fools’ Day joke on the congregation at the announcement time in the Mass. I would mention that the other parish priest, Father Tom, had been transferred to another parish. Since it was April and transfers were usually made in June, I felt confident that even the most gullible parishioners would realize that I was speaking tongue-in-cheek.

However, the minute I made my April Fools’ joke, a profound silence came over the assembly. Some people started to cry and hold each other. “Oops,” I said to myself. Although I immediately cried, “April Fools,” it was too late. Even the most skeptical in the parish had bought my line. One woman eyed me after Mass, pointing her finger and admonishing me with the words, “Don’t you ever do that again!”

I had expected to give the congregation a mild surprise, but I was the one who received the unexpected lesson. In that moment of surprise I learned three lessons: I can be a real fool, Father Tom is really loved, and I will never do that again.

Rabbi Alysa Mendelson Graf

Port Jewish Center, Port Washington

I was leading a Shabbat service on a beautiful, crisp autumn Saturday in the late afternoon. The congregation was especially happy to be together. Just two weeks earlier, superstorm Sandy had struck our community. Like so many other towns, ours was long on downed trees, flooded roads and homes, and short on electricity. In fact, electric service had only been restored to the synagogue a few days earlier.

We looked on with pride as young Sam, our bar mitzvah boy, ascended the bimah to read from the Torah. As the Torah was being passed to Sam, our cantor lost his footing. Fortunately, just before the Torah dropped on the floor, Sam caught it — and we all caught our collective breath. After the tense days following Sandy, nothing would dampen our first communal celebration since the storm. We all took a few moments to enjoy the feeling of calm that descended over the sanctuary after Sam’s save.

And then … the building alarm was triggered and it announced, “Attention, there is an intruder in the building. Please leave immediately!” After such an extended period with no power, the backup battery for the alarm had worn down. Consequently, the clock had the wrong time and the alarm, which normally automatically resets at midnight when no one is in the building, was set off by the motion sensor on the bimah. Luckily, we figured things out quickly and we were able to laugh at the irony of it all. No matter the difficulties we experience, there would be no intruders in our sacred space. Just friends with open arms, there to catch whomever (or whatever) needed saving.

The Rev. Linda Anderson

Affiliated Community Minister, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Stony Brook

In 27 years of ordained ministry, I have led many worship services and any number of strange things have happened during them. One of the most delightful occurred during a blessing of the animals service.

Each year in October we invited members and friends to bring their animals, or photos of their animals, or even stuffed animals, for a service of blessing. It was our way of acknowledging, honoring and thanking the beings who live beside us as companions, workers and providers. We recognized our responsibilities to them and for them, and we atoned for our cruelty and thoughtlessness.

So once a year folks would bring their dogs and cats, birds and turtles, ferrets and iguanas and what-have-you into the sanctuary. The first miracle is that we never had an accident; nothing unwanted ever appeared on the rug. The second wonder happened during the service. This congregation was used to meditating in silence for seven minutes and that meditation was included, even with squirming cats, over-curious dogs, loud cockatoos and terrified ferrets. The wonder was when the congregation settled into the silence, so did the animals. They relaxed and breathed with us. And we sat, living beings together in peace.

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