Maybe it’s because we’re in a new place, in some ways like Blanche Dubois and xxx the kindness of strangers, but I keep experiencing how body language and hospitality are linked.
Our vacation began with a put-upon clerk at the airline counter. She didn’t quite eye roll, but close; her voice was curt and clipped, with a tight smile. Even her posture spoke clearly: I don’t want to be here. And I wish you weren’t either.
My mom needs a wheelchair for the long walks in the airport. The first attendant was convivial, chatting about the trip, offering helpful tips, and a friendly shoulder pat. The second huffed and grunted, clearly annoyed with the work..
Body language matters. It matters when we greet people at the open red doors. It matters when we pass the peace. It makes a difference during coffee hour and the potluck. How we engage with people with our eyes, our faces, our hands, even our posture is part of hospitality.
In some ways, this is a hard lesson to put into practice. Some of our gestures and actions are almost instinctive, and we act without being consciously aware of what we’re doing. But I believe that we can also train ourselves to behave differently.
Does your church have a theology of gratitude? Is this “attitude of gratitude” more platitude than practice?
The state of Kentucky held its primary election on Tuesday. Signs in patriotic blues and reds littered most street corners. Pamphlets were tucked under windshield wipers and into front-door handles. Our home phone got some action in a mostly cell-phone world.
On Wednesday I noticed a curious sight. A few of the people who had been elected added a note to their signs: “Thank you.” These notes weren’t highly branded in fonts that focus groups said would evoke confidence in the candidate. Rather, they were handwritten, some in all caps, on slices of white poster board and duct taped to the original sign.
And even though this might be contrived too, and perhaps I’m a Pollyanna in the world of politics, seeing those homemade thank you signs made me feel good, like the candidates meant it. Like they were truly grateful.
I'm not at all certain that church is competing with soccer, as I’ve heard it argued, or any number of Sunday activities (where, once upon a time, nothing was open or scheduled). Church, especially Sunday morning Christian worship, especially for young adults, I believe, is competing with the relationships in which people find meaning and their honest quest for peace.
Exhibit A: Sunday brunch.
Sometimes breakfast isn’t just breakfast. It’s about who we want to be sitting down at table with. It’s about those relationships that matter and the ways people find peace and meaning, especially if both members of a couple are working and the week that looms ahead is way too stressful. I suspect the reason so many people and, especially, young adults are “doing brunch” every Sunday morning – and not “doing church” – is because they’ve found, at those tables, a community, a family, a source of refreshment which is not merely bodily.
At St. George’s, Valley Lee we offer breakfast on at least one Sunday each month. Obviously, it’s not such a new idea (people do tend to eat in the mornings), although the fact that a lot of us aren’t doing it may be one of the reasons people have such a hard time coming to worship on Sunday mornings. I’m not talking about coffee hour or nice people; that kind of goes without saying at churches (hopefully). I’m talking about a breakfast café, not just putting out food, a place with the same level of excellence and attention to people’s relational and spiritual needs as is found in those frequented brunch hot-spots. Yes, on a Sunday morning. Yes, in a church.
If you want to know how much food it takes to feed two hungry college basketball teams for nearly three weeks, just ask the people of St. Timothy’s, Iola. They can tell you, because that’s what they did in early January for the men’s and women’s teams at Allen Community College.
Sue O’Connor, who is co-chair of the parish’s Outreach Committee, said they were approached by the men’s coach when he found out that the dormitory cafeteria wouldn’t be open during the time players would be on campus for games and practices.
He knew to ask the church because in recent years members have provided some meals for the college’s cross country team when they are in town for early conditioning drills before the start of fall classes.
But O’Connor said that experience hardly prepared the church of 31 members for the challenge of feeding so many meals to 50 athletes.
Jesus knew: food brings people together.
Breaking bread together plays a central role in many passages of scripture. Most importantly, of course, is The Last Supper, when Jesus lays the foundation for the Eucharist.
But throughout the Old Testament, the Hebrew people gathered at the table for meals as an expression of hospitality and relationship. Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine at the wedding of Cana, surely to accompany a scrumptious feast. We have the feeding of the 5,000 in Matthew, and Martha likely was fixing dinner for Jesus and the other guests when she complained about what she perceived as indolence from Mary.
In Acts, we hear about the lives of early followers: “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts."
For the second time in about a month, I was visiting a church and was asked to stand up so that the congregation could welcome me. This time it was a large church. Afterward, someone came by to give me a flower. I was slightly uncomfortable, as I usually am at moments like this, but I also appreciated the effort. I'd rather be asked to stand up than completely ignored.
Of course, those aren't the only choices. I liked the flower because it made me easily identifiable as a newcomer in the large church, where it's not always easy for parishioners to tell who is new.
I’ve heard of a practice at another church (I haven’t been able to confirm if they’re still doing this in time to post this blog) in Rhode Island, where they keep a basket of votive candles for visitors to take so that they can remember their visit and that the church is praying for them. This gives newcomers a chance to identify themselves in a low pressure way as they grab a candle from the basket.
On Saturday morning I went to a coffee shop to write. Or possibly it was a Turkish restaurant. Or a patisserie. It was one of these things, or maybe all of them. It was mostly empty.
It could have been the dreary weather, but I think one of the reasons it was empty is related to the fact that I couldn’t tell exactly what it was. There was a little food, a little coffee, some wines and beers, and somewhere a bunch of people were baking, but it wasn’t clear that they did any of these things well.
It seems to me that a successful organization needs to know what it is, what it does, and needs to make this clear to visitors.
This past Sunday I went to hear my friend preach at a very small Episcopal church in Manhattan. They had me fill out a welcome card and during the announcements they mentioned my name and everyone clapped to welcome me. This was probably unnecessary because there were fewer than thirty people in the church and it was pretty clear who the new guy was, but it was sweet in any case.
The Peace was long, as it is in so many small churches, because everyone wandered about the Sanctuary shaking everyone else’s hand. I stayed in my seat and about two-thirds of the congregation stopped by to welcome me.
Growing up in a small church, I loved this. I wasn’t entirely comfortable, yet I felt genuine warmth. And, I certainly was noticed.
I used to be a skeptic, but Hallmark might be on to something. Getting a card in the mail (the snail kind) matters.
Normally the trip to the mailbox is perfunctory, a time to collect bills and throw out the junk. But in the weeks before Christmas, there are delightful surprises. Each day, cards arrive. Even the ones with only a signature are fun. For a moment, I think of the person or family, how our lives intersect(ed), and I give thanks. But the ones that are a real joy come on photo paper, with pictures of the kids (my, how they’ve grown) on Santa’s lap, the vacation photo from Mount Rushmore, the white-shirt coordinated beach pic. It’s a delight to see these images.
Right about now, leaders in congregations are putting the finishing touches on Christmas liturgies and sermons, finding a part for everyone in the pageant and giving equal attention to clearing the office calendar so we all can take a well-deserved break after the Big Day. Up until just recently, though, there was also a lot of work on the pledge drive and the stewardship campaign and the 2014 budget …. oh, yeah, the budget. And then all that work stopped. Christmas is coming, after all.
I want to say that we’re mising the fundamental connection between what’s about to happen on December 24/25 in most every parish church and that other, somewhat less holy process called budgeting and raising money.
The principle is simple: the vast majority of those who fill the pews on December 24 are your congregation. They are. They may not be your ‘base.’ They may not be as active as the few who serve well and faithfully in leadership roles. They may not have your ear all the time. They may not give as much or as regularly as others. And, yes, some of them are out-of-towners. But the vast majority are your congregation. They live right there, they don’t go to any other church, and when high holy days and life’s tragedies come around they come to you.
Several nights ago, I was startled by a knock at the door. While we are used to a steady stream of visitors at our house, this knock was startling as it came at nearly one o'clock in the morning. As I drew back the curtain to see my visitor, I knew who it would be. Sure enough, it was him.
I met him two days earlier when a well-spoken, well-meaning, over-churched neighbor brought him to my door. This neighbor had encountered the man on our diverse street and engaged him in conversation. In the fifty or so words of English he knows, the man – I can't use his name – told my neighbor that he had been brought to this country from Darfur, Sudan. He told my neighbor that Muslims had killed his whole family and that Christians brought him here and because of this . . . he wanted to become a Christian. My neighbor, well spoken and well meaning as he is, is done with just about all things Church (though he did make an appearance at last year's Easter Brunch and Lamb-B-Q), so he brought the man to me.
At the time, we talked briefly and I told him I would follow up with an Episcopal priest in our area who speaks Arabic. I’d be in touch.
This weekend I was at a retreat with Judson Memorial in Connecticut. While not my usual church, which is St. Lydia’s, it is a place I am somewhat connected to. On Sunday morning we sat in the chapel, overlooking the lake, as the congregation named people who were not there. Some of those named were sick, some had moved away, some had been at the retreat and had to leave, others were preparing to have a baby. This was a lovely way of remembering and praying for all those who were absent.
At St. Lydia's, although we are a young congregation, it has already changed significantly. I've been attending the church for a little over three years, and already the majority of the people who I knew three years ago have moved or stopped attending for one reason or another. The congregation at St. Lydia's includes many students and people in their twenties, which accounts for some this high turnover, but any church will change over time as people move or die or find a new community.
A community is always made of those who are present and those who are not, near and far, living and dead.
The story he told was simple: The first time that he and his wife came back to the church in which they were married, they were worried. Their kids were young. The service can seem long. As semi-first-timers, they wanted to make a good impression. They didn't want people to think their kids were ill-behaved.
Yet kids are kids. And their kids, like mine and so many others, started to wiggle by reading of the first lesson. They shushed and separated the kids, they probably squeezed their shoulders a bit, a friendly warning. They may have tried goldfish crackers. In just a few minutes, I suspect they would have started thinking: This is a bad idea. The kids aren't ready for church. We won't be back until they're older.
Instead, there was a tap on the shoulder. Here are two children's activity bags. This might help. It does with my kids.
What do icebergs and churches have in common?
I recently spoke with the Rev. Eric Law, founder of the Kaleidoscope Institute, which helps churches communicate across cultural boundaries. During our conversation he introduced the idea of church and personal icebergs.
An iceberg has the visible portion, which he equates with our conscious behaviors, but the majority of the iceberg is beneath the water. As individuals, our unconscious behaviors and beliefs are ‘beneath the water,’ and they often bump into others’ behaviors and beliefs.
Churches also have their own icebergs, those unconscious patterns and norms that we often don’t recognize, and all of this is going on beneath the water. If you’ve been going to an Episcopal Church for awhile, there are few things you know how to do without thinking too hard: take communion, find the hymn in the hymnal, find your friends at coffee hour. It’s easy to forget that these are not intuitive. Still, we’re usually aware of these barriers to visitors, which is why so many churches offer instructions in the bulletin.
Beyond that we may be unintentionally ‘knocking others about’ without realizing it. Your church might lean to the left or right, and drive off those who aren’t. It may value those who are outspoken as leaders more highly than those with a more quiet style of leadership.
I haven’t thought much about customer service since I was making book – and beer – money in college at the local deli.
Sure, in my career, it’s been important to treat people well. But I hadn’t thought about it as customer service, per se, until I began at Forward Movement. My work is focused on the editorial content, but each morning the full staff gathers for prayer and conversation. Inevitably some of the talk centers around customer service.
I’m amazed and impressed by the commitment to quality customer service. Of course the staff sometimes drops the ball, and a customer is rightfully disappointed. But most of the time, I witness the staff going out of their way to accommodate the needs of the customers.
Clearly Forward Movement’s relationship with customers is different in many ways than that between a church staff and congregation – or diocesan staff and the churches. But there also are some significant similarities, some customer service principles that we all should adopt in our faith communities.
Often, it seems, we want every event that we offer to have some deep, soul-wrenching message, something that will cosmically connect.
We try to stretch allegory and metaphor like Silly Putty, so that our event has meaning. But sometimes it’s OK just to have fun.
The bishop visited our congregation yesterday. Being the first Sunday in Lent meant that some of the usual brouhaha surrounding a bishop visitation would have to be set aside.
Fortunately, the congregation already had plans. For many years, a family has hosted an event called Pretzelmania. The family preps bags of flour and pockets of yeast. They create a concoction using a few drops of lye and warm water that somehow magically transforms the dough into scrumptious snacks. Folks in the pews are invited to bring a cooking sheet, wooden spoon, and bowl.
When we married, my husband suggested we have a themed Christmas tree. He liked silver and blues, maybe round globes and icicles.
I quickly disabused him of that notion.
Decorating the Christmas tree was a rich tradition in our house, with each ornament telling a story. There’s the clay candy cane I made for my dad when I was 8. The styrofoam Christmas shapes my parents hung on their tree in Germany, when stationed there during the Vietnam War. We have my pacifier covered in red felt, and the delicate glass balls from my great-grandmother’s tree.
I wanted to pass along this tradition to our children. By the steely look in my eyes, my husband knew I could not be dissuaded.
And so for 15 years, the night of Christmas tree decorating has become a living scrapbook, each ornament a snapshot of significant life moments. As our children have grown, we have tried to imbue in them the same love and joy of decorating the tree, slowly enough to tell stories about each ornament.
They mostly moan and groan, anxious to throw up the ornaments, turn on the lights and return to the TV. Until this year.
The teasing started almost as soon as the box arrived.
My husband, a strapping 6’3”, would be wearing knee socks. And a kilt.
My stern admonition: he must wear something underneath.
Yesterday, we participated in our first Kirkin’ of the Tartans at our congregation, aptly named St. Andrew’s. My husband had long pined for a kilt to honor his Scottish ancestry, and with our arrival at this congregation, he finally had a reason for one.
In the past, the service had been held on Sunday morning, during the regular worship time.
Why not, thought my husband, make this a community event? Let’s not hide our light under bushel or the kilts under the robes. Bring the bagpipes down the main street, with a parade and flags and Highland dancers. Invite people to participate. Give them a chance to do something interesting and fun. Offer Scotch eggs and haggis and scones.
Let the congregation and community have a chance to mingle.
I enjoy church crashing.
Or, to put it differently, I enjoy visiting different churches for Sunday morning worship. I love to worship through the unique lens a community has developed to seek and know God, to find out what mission and ministry they are engaged in, and to hear what makes them excited about being part of their faith community.
I refer to these jaunts as “church crashing”, a play on the phrase “crashing the party”, which means showing up when uninvited. Far too often I have encountered places that are not as welcoming as they purport to be and I have felt more like an itinerant interloper than a welcomed guest. That is, I have felt like I was crashing their party. Still, the good outweighs any negatives and I have always felt like I’ve gained more from the experience.
My church has made coffee hour unavoidable, and that’s going to make all the difference.
This past Sunday marked the beginning of an experiment at St. Luke and St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, the congregation that my partner and I have been attending since this past Easter. When we entered the sanctuary, we noticed the back pews were gone. I have no idea if the pews are being stored somewhere or if they’ve been destroyed. What I do know is that this has created space for all sorts of things.
There’s space now, for instance, for an exhibit of local artists’ work, hung from a temporary wall within the sanctuary. There’s less space for hiding in the back of the church; congregants are pushed closer together and closer to the altar. But perhaps most importantly, there’s space for building community. As of last Sunday, coffee hour will now be taking place at the back of the sanctuary.