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May 31, 2017 | The Rev. Gini Gerbasi

How do We Tell the Stories of God

We had 225 Harry Potter Sunday bulletins—with color covers. It would be super wasteful to toss them, and just do a “regular” Sunday. But I was tempted. On one side: the bulletins, the music the choir had rehearsed (Double Trouble for 9:00, In Noctem from The Half-Blood Prince for 11:00), the Hufflepuff stole someone had made for me, the kids’ excitement. On the other: my rising panic. “It’s going to be lame and no one’s going to come. What was I thinking?”

I had felt this panic in 2015, when we had our first themed service—Frozen Sunday—an effort to interject some playfulness into the long, dark winter. It was two years since the release of the Disney animated musical but its characters, Anna and Olaf, were still everywhere, and the theme song, “Let it Go,” was still on the radio. A Frozen-themed Sunday would not only be fun, but the pedagogy was solid. Letting kids dress up and play is a fantastic way for them to learn. (Why do we only do it for Christmas pageants?)

The church has long used prevailing mythologies to tell the stories of God. And I knew that kids would remember a church that spoke their language, sang their songs and turned things upside down for them. So we hung snowflakes from the balcony and recruited choristers, and I borrowed a fur hat. The weather that morning was a record-breaking 5 degrees which I interpreted as God’s hearty endorsement. My goal for the service was modest: for everyone to enjoy themselves while I told the story of love melting frozen hearts. By that measure, it was successful, and as a bonus, I learned a lot.

Harry Potter Sunday was two years after that frigid morning. With two additional themed days behind us, we had learned to be even more playful and ambitious. We made an invitation video, sorted ourselves into houses and wore Hogwarts robes. It would be the first of our themes to extend into coffee hour. The photo booth, butter beer and chocolate frogs were ready. I had learned from Frozen that we needed to be in-theme for the whole Service of the Word, including the procession, so our amazing organist expanded his repertoire to include Hedwig’s Theme. Even the Collect and Prayers of the People were in-theme. At 9:00 our focus was discovering our gifts (“You’re a wizard, Harry!”), and I edited film clips to accompany the sermon our deacon and I would preach. At 11:00, our focus was one of the two Bible quotes in the books (“The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.”) so the music and readings were deeper and darker. I invited a colleague with a book coming out to preach that service. My goals for Harry Potter were ambitious; the stakes felt higher. I ran through these details in my mind and decided the services wouldn’t be lame. But what if no one came?

I eyed those 225 bulletins and the recycle bin. I recognized this panic. This is what happens when I’m taking risks and being creative and feeling vulnerable. So I left the copy room and remembered the spell to banish Dementors: Expecto Patronum! We ran out of bulletins.

Gerbasi is rector of St. John’s, Georgetown (Washington, D.C).

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