I knew something was wrong when I walked into the sanctuary of the First Presbyterian Church of Waverly on May 16, 2010. The organist was playing the prelude and folks were giggling and whispering loudly to each other – but more loudly than usual. Something wasn’t right but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I admit, I was a bit preoccupied. I was preaching that Sunday and made some last minute notes in my bulletin.
When I looked up to greet everyone, it hit me. The sanctuary was a sea of red. There were red carnations on the communion table. There were beautiful red paraments on the pulpit and lectern. The women of the church were decked out in silky red blouses and bright red dresses. The men had on red ties. Little girls had red ribbons in their hair that matched their red socks. The teens were wearing red polo shirts and red t-shirts.
Everyone it seemed had gotten the memo to wear something red to church that Sunday. Everyone, that is, except me. I was wearing green, a Granny Smith apple in a bushel of Red Delicious.
I was wearing green, a Granny Smith apple in a bushel of Red Delicious.
If only I was Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, I thought, I could click my ruby red slippers and disappear from the sanctuary. Heck, if I had a pair of ruby red slippers, I would at least somewhat match the rest of the worshippers.
I felt weak and nauseous – and sort of hoped that I might throw up or faint right then and there because at least it would take the focus away from my fashion faux pas. How could I forget the date of Pentecost? It’s sort of like forgetting Christmas or Easter. My mind was reeling. “What is the matter with you, Cynthia? How could you be so stupid?”
But at the same time, I kept thinking, “But Pentecost is next Sunday. May 23. There’s got to be a mistake.” I looked more closely at the cover of the bulletin. There it was in black and white: Pentecost Sunday, May 16, 2010. Darn!
That explained what the whispering and giggling was about. There I was, standing in the pulpit wearing my green stole amid all that red. I bit my lip and fought back the tears.
I wondered what to say during the announcements. Should I say, “Happy Pentecost – or not?” I was still totally confused. Somehow, I got through the worship service – I have no idea what sermon I gave – but I can tell you with certainty that it was not about Pentecost.
I have no idea what sermon I gave – but I can tell you with certainty that it was not about Pentecost.
After the service, I dashed back to my office and checked my official church calendar and hallelujah, I was right: that Pentecost was indeed the following week—May 23. I wasn’t going crazy. But if Pentecost was really the following week, why was everyone wearing red on today? It was a mystery. But in my heart, I knew I had screwed up, but how?
I soon found the problem. I had emailed my secretary the wrong date for Pentecost. I told her it was May 16. And she, being the efficient secretary that she was, forwarded my incorrect date to everyone in the church. Moreover, she thoughtfully reminded everyone to wear red. God bless her. She even sent it in to the local newspaper and it was listed on “The Church Chimes” page of local church happenings: Waverly Presbyterian Church Celebrates Pentecost on May 16. Great! So I not only confused our church, I confused the whole community.
One of our older members, Frances stopped me in the coffee hour and asked me why I was wearing green. (I think she was elected to find out the real story behind the Pentecost mix-up.) I explained my mistake to Frances and she laughed and said, “Well next Sunday can’t be Pentecost because I only have one red blouse and I won’t wear it two weeks in a row.”
By the time the coffee hour was over, almost everyone knew that I had made the mistake that caused all the confusion. Most folks took it in stride. But not everyone. I explained my mistake to the personnel committee. It wasn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last of the confusion that was overtaking my mind and my ministry.
Trust me, when I left the parish the following year, there were many more stories to tell of my memory lapses and gaffs, including the time I got lost on the way to the cemetery. I tried my best to cover for my cognitive problems. I didn’t know then what I know now, that my brain was changing and I was in the very beginning stages of Alzheimer’s.
I tried my best to cover for my cognitive problems.
Whoever would have guessed that when I left the Waverly church because of my memory problems that God would give me a new ministry to those living with Alzheimer’s? This Pentecost Sunday, I will be leading a sing-a-long with the Faithful Friends Singers, which is comprised of people living with dementia and their care partners. We will make our stage debut in a community concert and event for Alzheimer’s. God is good.
My Alzheimer’s hasn’t prevented me from pastoring, but it has changed things. Last Pentecost, I preached at a little church not far from my home – Central Christian in Elmira. I double checked the date before donning my red dress and red stole. My sermon was about how the Holy Spirit empowers us for ministry in uncertain times.
And it was an uncertain time as that church was preparing to close its doors for good. I was there on its very last day to help folks say their goodbyes, mindful that I was presiding at a funeral of a church. In spite of the pain, there was great gratitude in the air – for one another and for the years of ministry in that holy place. As we dried our tears, hugged each other, and walked out the doors, we felt stronger knowing that God’s Holy Spirit was upon us.
My sermon was about how the Holy Spirit empowers us for ministry in uncertain times.
And that’s what the Pentecost story is really about: being empowered and open to being used by God in new ways. It doesn’t really matter if you wear red or green on Pentecost. What’s important is the question it asks of us: Are we willing to go where God sends us? Are we willing to use the circumstances of our lives – even memory loss, even the death of a church – to share and show God’s amazing love?