A good sign of health and vitality of a priest and congregation is how much they miss each other when they are apart from one another.
This past Sunday, I went to my niece’s confirmation. Of my 13 nieces and nephews, only two of them are Episcopalians. I am blessed to be the godfather of my oldest niece Anna and the baptizer of her sister, Erica. I had to make a difficult decision to go. It was one of those moments where you’re torn between work and family, where you want to be in two places at once, and I’ve learned that unless it’s physically impossible, one should always choose family, even if you pay for it at work later.
Every time I’m gone from St. Nicholas, I miss being here. But this time was a bit different for a couple of reasons.
First, when I got back to the office today, I was listening to the superb sermon by the Rev. Wendy Porter Cade, my dear friend and colleague. Wendy accidentally left the voice recorder running after her sermon, so I got to listen to her beautiful singing, her humming with the hymns, her whispers to the acolytes, and her gentle graciousness in receiving compliments as she greeted the exiting congregation.
But something else hit me as I eavesdropped on Wendy being the excellent priest she is. As she was distributing communion, and said the words “The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven,” I heard the individuals say “Amen.” It’ was a beautiful moment that even when we experience it, we can miss. Sometimes it takes us stepping away and looking at it objectively to see how truly moving the giving and receiving of Holy Eucharist is. I sat in my office and missed my congregation, and wept. Yep, I got choked up. But it was a gift to have Wendy record that part accidentally, and I’m grateful to her.
The other reason I missed St. Nicholas this Sunday was because I worshipped somewhere else. I rarely get to sit in the pews (I don’t know how you folks do it) and experience the service as not-a-priest. This is hard for me for a lot of reasons. One, I was meant to be ordained, so leading a service is where I’m most comfortable. Two, I tend to be a little (read: a lot) over-critical of the way other Episcopal churches work. I don’t always verbalize these critiques, but I often think them. In fact, in seminary, when choosing a field education site, we were taught how to objectively critique a worship service, not to put the church down, but to learn why churches do what they do. Often, churches don’t know why they do what they do.
I did not wear my collar on Sunday since I was being the godfather and not the priest (that was something Father Tom Jones taught me when he was here at St. Nicholas). So here were the six Jacksons along with my sister’s family and my parents. I thought since the Bishop was there that folks would be going overboard to welcome people. However, this particular church, I’m sorry to say, got an F on hospitality. Few people spoke to us at all. We obviously sat in some lady’s pew because she came and snatched her bulletin out of the hymnal rack which I guess meant she had dibs. She didn’t speak to us.
After the service, during a potluck, I sat next to one of the lay leaders of the church. I knew he was a leader because he made an announcement about their recent successful fundraiser. I sat down right next to him, and he never spoke to me! So I started a conversation with him about the fundraiser and once that was done, he clammed up again! He didn’t seem to care that I was even there.
The interim rector was friendly, but didn’t have much time to talk to me since the Bishop was there. I could see him moving on before he could say, “Come visit us again soon.” I didn’t even have the time to explain that I wouldn’t be back because, like him, I was a priest. Interestingly, the person who spoke the most to me was the Bishop.
I’m not trying to be mean, but honest. There could be a million logical reasons why I wasn’t received by these individuals. They could have been having a bad day, or perhaps they were in a hurry. Or perhaps the truth really resides in the fact that at the core, it wasn’t really their fault at all, but that I missed my own church. I was expecting one thing and got another. Certainly there have been people who haven’t felt the warmth that I receive at St. Nicholas. We’re not perfect and no church is. But I do know that oftentimes the people who stay say it was because they were received warmly by us. We can’t take hospitality for granted! Maybe we can learn a lesson from this church and remember how important it is to speak to people at church, whether you know them or not.
I think a good indicator of vocation, as well as the health of the priest, is missing your congregation when you have to be away. Sure, it’s easy to miss them when times are good, but even during disagreements or troublesome times, it may be a good indicator of the priest’s emotional health if, despite the trouble, they miss their congregation. Perhaps when you are absent and you don’t miss them, it’s a sign that God may be calling you elsewhere.
For today, I’m grateful that God hasn’t called me elsewhere. Thanks be to God!