Being a Minister of Hospitality with an Inhospitable Heart

I had an Uncle Les who was one of the kindest men I ever met. Always smiling and ready to shake a hand, he appeared constantly happy – always approachable and utterly charming. Fittingly, he was an Usher at our Parish Church. Never a Sunday went by that he didn’t hug our kiddos, give Deb a peck on the check and offer me a pat on the back. It remains one of my greatest joys about attending mass at our old parish. And Uncle Les didn’t reserve his hospitality for his nephew and family. He greeted everyone in the same manner. “Welcome!”  “Good to see!”  “How are you?”

Fast-forward about forty years and now I’m an usher (we’re called ministers of hospitality today) and I try to be a friendly face and welcoming presence like my dear uncle. Usually I fall short of that goal.

I have a secret: I became an usher (oops – minister of hospitality) because I didn’t like most of the people I encountered at Mass. Ours is an upscale, very conservative parish where I often feel out of step with most of my fellow parishioners. I thought that if I could stop judging and start greeting people I would learn to love them as they are and let go of my need to have everyone think and act like me. Some days are easier than others.

But it’s working.  S L O W L Y –  V E R Y  S L O W L Y.

usher-pic_origI smile and shake hands and offer the occasional hug or pat on the back. I’m the ‘Minister of Hospitality’ but in truth I’m the one being ministered. These folks that I’m greeting, that I know I would have never engaged in conversation before, are also welcoming me and greeting me and loving me. I’m certain many are misogynists, and racists, and xenophobes, and all manner of despicable human. But isn’t that why we gather? Aren’t we at Mass to be changed? Aren’t we building the “Body of Christ” in our flawed human way?

So I continue to show up on Sundays and do my thing. I smile. I greet. I welcome. I especially enjoy the ‘late-comers’ – the folks who try to slip in unnoticed. They often have a look that’s a mixture of shame and astonishment (“How did this happen? I’m sure I left my house on time!”) I greet them with a special smile and knowing nod – “It’s okay; you’re here; you made it; welcome.” I particularly love our “back of church” officially called the “Gathering Space” It’s an amazing and wonderful place.  Normal ‘Mass behavior’ can be abandoned there; beleaguered parents can allow their children to run and giggle; crying is completely acceptable; teenagers can skulk about like parolees.

In all of this, I see God’s love. Jesus is greeting me with each smile and kind word. I’m beginning to look at the “Body of Christ” in a whole new light. And little by little my stone cold heart is being chipped away.

Some Sundays I even feel Uncle Les smiling down on me.

Peace,

Denis

Full of Grace

I learned how to read in first grade. I know of course today that kids are reading in pre-school and kindergarten but back when I went to kindergarten I was just playing with blocks and finger paints and trying not to pee my pants. But now that I can read, one of the things that I do as an adult on occasion is proclaim scripture at my church. Because we are a large parish and there are many volunteers for this ministry, I probably only read at mass about eight Sundays per calendar year. Yesterday was one of my Sundays to read.

Lately I’ve been struggling to find my spiritual center. Our country seems more divided politically than at any other time in my adult life. Social media is filled with hateful rhetoric and falsehoods. Neighbors, friends and families are torn apart as fear becomes more prevalent and communities seem to remain in constant turmoil.

Thinking that perhaps reading Saint Paul’s Letter to Philemon on Sunday might lift my spirits, my hopes were soon dashed as I encountered our ultra-conservative priest and deacon in conversation. Ugh – even in the sacristy the politics sounded narrow-minded and judgmental! Furthermore the other reader was a no-show, so now I had to fill in for her, which I wasn’t prepared to do. My annoyance was at full throttle. Church suddenly seemed like a waste of time and my being any part of it completely ill-suited. When it came time for me to read it felt perfunctory and disingenuous. The priest’s homily didn’t help matters, I just kept thinking, “I thought God is love?” “What does any of this have to do with loving God or one another?”

img_1818But grace comes when we least expect it (and perhaps when we most need it). My daughter and her family had joined us for mass yesterday, and just as I was feeling the most anger and disillusionment, my granddaughter Anna wrapped her arm around mine and leaned her sweet head on my chest. A simple loving gesture. Maybe she just wanted to let me know that I was loved. Maybe she just needed to feel loved. Whatever the reason, that moment was sublime. I felt my anger and frustration dissipate as her love flowed over me. I came to mass yesterday to read scripture and to hear the Gospel. Turns out it was spoken to me without any words.

The name Anna means “full of grace” and she is. And then I was, too.

Peace,

Denis

 

Make A Joyful Noise

My son-in-law is not a very good singer. No, that’s not quite accurate; he’s a really bad singer. Poor guy couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. But you what? He sings. He sings out loud. He sings with his kids. And most importantly, he sings in church. He makes ‘a joyful noise’!

Sing out your love!

Travis is an example of how children learn by modelling their parents’ behaviour. Both of Bess and Travis’s children love music and grandson Noah really loves to sing. He loves to sing in church just like Daddy. In fact, he so loves church singing that while he was in England every time we entered a church or abbey or cathedral Noah would sing Alleluia. Of course at 21 months old his ‘alleluia’ sounds more like al-lay-loo-la. All the more beautiful and endearing! Somehow a baby singing al-lay-loo-la at the top of his lungs has a transformative power. And Noah has brought joy to many with his vocals. Recently at Mass back in the U.S. he asked the song leader (and our good friend Tracy) for “more loo-la; more, more loo-la!” And together she and Noah made ‘a joyful noise’.

So God bless Travis for singing his heart out heedless of being off-key and for remaining confident that God loves all voices; perhaps especially those that struggle with melody, lyrics, tone and rhythm.

Granddaughter Anna likes to say “that’s the way God made me” or “I’m still learning.” Usually she invokes these sentiments when she has failed to meet some challenge or doesn’t want to try to learn something new. Example: “I’m sorry I didn’t pick up all my toys but I’m not as good at that as you are because I’m still learning” or “I can’t reach the pedals very well on my bike because this is way God made me” (meaning short). But Travis doesn’t seem to care if he is singing is off-key and maybe he celebrates his singing because that’s exactly the way God has made him.

Regardless, his example of ‘joyful noise’ has reverberated in our worship and made an impression on my grandchildren that will last their lifetime. And I thank God for his gift to them and to me. I’m not a good singer either (although I’m better than Travis) but I now sing out  loudly in church, too. Travis and Noah have taught me how to ‘make a joyful noise’, and let go of my fear of not sounding good enough. I’m still learning to love my own voice (warbles and all) and I’m reminded that it’s okay because this is the way that God has made me.

Al-lay-loo-la!

Denis