Back to the Rectory Porch

When I first interviewed with the St. George’s search committee – now, wow!, nearly nine years ago – they took me on a tour of this campus, a tour which of course included the rectory.  The rectory is a beautiful, stately, Cape Code-style home – grand and simple, while, at once, elegant without being too big.  Simply put, I love the house.

“What a beautiful front porch,” I mentioned, pointing to the broad covered porch that overlooks the church and churchyard, the belltower and parish hall.

“Indeed,” said one of the committee members, “many wonderful prayers have been offered here, and many sermons developed, too, I’m sure.”

When it came time to kickoff my own digital ministry, via this blog, the title instantly came to me: From the Rectory Porch.  (I seem to remember a Milton quote, somewhere in Paradise Lost about a porch, and try as I might — though I haven’t gone so far as re-reading it! — I haven’t come up with anything.)  But for those who might’ve been checking this site, here and there, for any new news or good gossip or, well, anything you’ve no doubt noticed a lull.  It’s not that little is happening in my life and at St. George’s.  Quite the opposite!  Little time has been spent, however, writing about my more situated ministry, pondering Milton, like I just tried to, above, or Herbert or any of those more quaint aspects of ministry in this place.  For one, I’ve been blogging – and blogging regularly for the Episcopal Church Foundation’s Vital Practices series. I submit a blog for them every other week, and you can read behind most of those blogs to figure out what’s on my mind and what might be going on at St. George’s.front porch rocking chair

For another, St. George’s is in the midst of some very significant and holy conversations about who we are and what God’s future for this congregation might be.  You probably think I should’ve written “what our future is” – that being the obvious corollary to who we are – but I think identity and calling are not always the very same thing; connected, just not one and the same.  St. George’s is at a moment, right now, where we’re asking fundamental questions of our current operating model – namely, why does this one congregation, which has been and continues to grow, year after year, still operate with the assumption that we need to have one (full-time) priest, and should we, can we come up with a different, broader, more mission-focused model?  All the while, we’re also trying to invite God into this conversation so that our answer is not a dollars-and-cents fix, but a Gospel-based call.  Creating that space to discern, to wonder, to talk, to remain open to what God is calling me and us to become has taken a lot of focus and energy on my end.  It’s made me to set aside the writing and strategizing (which I confess is my go-to, maybe sometimes my ‘get-away’) and spend time in prayer and conversation with God’s people, one on one.

So that’s where I’ve been, in a nutshell.  Feeling excited and hopeful and, honestly, really optimistic about who we might become, if we lean into God’s future.  And, at the same time, still crazy busy trying to keep up all of these structures we’ve inherited and which I, personally, have also created.

By way of illustration, I’ll close with a slightly more amusing tale.

Yesterday, something came over me to write again for the Rectory Porch.  Maybe it was the rain and the chill; maybe that it was Ascension Day, after all, and I wanted to say something about the Ascension.  (That blog is halfway done, and still sitting on my desktop.)

I was deep into a fun little post – fun to me, mind you; not everyone thinks the history of liturgical observances of the Ascension in western Christianity is ‘fun.’  Like I said, I was about halfway through when the call came.  Iman had come down the night before and we made tentative plans to go out to lunch.  “A half hour,” I said to her, just after I said hello to the pest control guy who was out for his quarterly check on this campus. “Just a half hour, and I’ll be done.  Oh, by the way, the pest control guy is coming over to spray in and around the rectory.  Just let him in.  He knows what to do.”

Shortly thereafter, the phone rang.  It was Iman.  Looking up, across the churchyard, I could see Iman on the phone, her red rain jacket, outside, walking around with the dog, Phoebe.  “Greg, you need to come home right now,” she said.  “Phoebe got into something in the guy’s truck, and ate it.”  (If it were me talking, I’d have added lots and lots of exclamation points, but Iman is great under pressure and she’s not an exclamation-point kind of speaker.  If I could’ve better emphasized the periods in that statement, I’d have done so.  Come. Home. Now.)

Here’s how the rest of the afternoon felt:

Phoebe to the vet.  Iman back to the house so she could get her car (which we left there, not checking the time) so she can get to her afternoon appointment. Me back to the vet: pacing, worry .  “She should be fine,” the vet tech says. “Give her some of these pills…”   Something about blood work.  Something about rat poison inhibiting Vitamin K.  Note to self: Google ‘Vitamin K.’

“Oh, and continue to monitor her for any loose blood or vomit.”

Back at the rectory, Phoebe and me.  On vomit / loose blood watch.  Call from the lady who lives down the lane.  Something about her grandson, a tie, a presentation.  “I’m over at the rectory,” I say.  Moments later, a white truck pulls up.  Grandson gets out, on his way to make a final presentation for a business class he’s taking in college.  He forgot to how tie a tie.  (I’m afraid after all these years of wearing a backwards collar, I might’ve forgotten, too).  Necktie instruction in the rectory living room.  The dog is asleep, exhausted.

Neighbor lady, the grandmother, shows up in her golf cart.  We chat, something about gravestones.  Another truck pulls up.  “This the rectory?”  “Yes.”  “Need to mark phone lines before the perc test.”  Rectory septic went out, or is going out, or at any rate is going to be investigated for what’s wrong when the health department perc test happens Thursday of next week.

Iman and Carter back home; Iman picked her up from school, and they went to the grocery store.  Carter’s working on a mother’s day gift for Iman, who is not (yet, officially) her mom, of course, but whom Carter has come to adore and truly love, and for whom Carter is looking forward to the day, which is soon coming, when she is, officially, ‘Mommy.’

Carter and Iman
The finished project at this morning’s breakfast, Carter’s painting for Iman.

 

Friends come over for dinner.  It was going to be a 6 o’clock conversation at the parish hall about youth group, and the great work they’ve done and how we can work together to build it stronger next year and in coming years, but with Carter’s project and her shower and our dinner – you get it, I’m sure – the ‘meeting’ is moved to the rectory, and to the rectory dining room table, and to dinner.  It’s a much better meeting than it would’ve been, anyway, and even more wonderful to spend time together with friends, fellowshipping, praying, playing, eating, talking.

Even Carter got to stay up a little later than usual and play the second hand of a fun board game.

We all said goodnight.  Carter upstairs, saying our prayers, kisses and off to sleep.  I sat down in the living room chair.

I never even made it to the rectory porch.  It was too dark and cold last night, but also some kind of birds, back in March, made a nest in the one front porch light that’s missing a glass pane, so I left them alone for the past five or six weeks. Their bird babies are all grown and they flew away, just this week, so I went up there two nights ago and cleaned out the light fixture and removed the old nest — now ready to take the rocking chairs up from the basement, wash them, maybe paint a fresh coat, and set them up in prime porch position.

Just this morning, however, I saw a few more twigs and branches back in that same porch light, the one missing a pane.  I reached up and took them out.  This time, I’ll get ahead of those birds.  One round is enough.  I’m about to reclaim that porch.

 

And many a new, fresh prayer will be offered.  And the beginning of, I hope, many good sermons and stories will emerge.  And I know that God will continue to reveal His grace and goodness, His will and His hope for me and for us.  Right there, among so many other holy places, from the rectory porch.

NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE WITH GOD, AN ANNUNCIATION PRAYER

On this end of the parish hall, where my office sits, things are quiet once again. There’s some coming and going down the hall, in the kitchen; folks getting ready for the fish dinner Friday: bustling, cleaning, prepping. And I, for my part, am supposed to be working on any number of things connected to Holy Week and Easter, not to mention a few bits of diocesan work I’m wrapping up and, oh right, summer camp and General Convention, both of which will be here before I know it.

Late yesterday afternoon, I dumped in a box a bunch of loose papers which had becoming nothing more than an annoying pile of clutter; it’s now titled “Open & File after Easter.” I told myself I was going to focus on the people and projects and things which God was placing in front of me right now – not yesterday, not even tomorrow.  I said I’d be more present in these hectic days, more present to, well, being present. And I’ll let God fill in the spaces I might leave open, which I seldom do anyway.

I will get around to the paperwork and these other things. I will, I told myself.

And then I worked until 9:30pm.

I’m not such a good learner.

Earlier today, we gathered, as we regularly do, for mid-day healing prayers and Holy Communion in the church. Generally, it’s a quiet half-hour of contemplation and prayer, occasionally interrupted by someone coming forward to the altar rail.  I lay hands on them and ask God to heal them. Communion follows, a simple yet intimate and holy gathering. Joking, as per usual, JoAnn said I should put up a sign that read, “Handicapped ONLY on Wednesdays.” She was referring to the average age of those who show up, mid-day.

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, the day Gabriel announced to Mary news that would change the world; March 25 being nine months – the time it’d take a baby boy to grow in the womb – before Jesus’ birthday. The gospel reading for today is a scene from Luke’s first chapter, the story featuring that lively conversation between Gabriel and Mary, herself a young, confused but by no means unassuming girl.(Lk.1:26-38)  I love the back-and-forth, the give-and- take; it’s kind of like a bargaining session. For some reason, today, what stood out for me was Mary’s own “Huh?” when Gabriel shows up. What gets her going is not merely the fact that an angel is in her room; it’s not bafflement, but that she’s puzzled, perplexed at his strange greeting! (Lk.1:29) The conversation ensues: he has a promise, she has questions; he has wisdom, she has strength.

“Well and good,” she (kind of) says, “but how is this supposed to happen?” To which Gabriel says: “For nothing will be impossible with God.” (v.37)

Nothing.

Will be impossible.

With God.

Nothing.

I said these words to Kitty, to Charlotte, to JoAnn. Kitty’s the oldest of those three, Charlotte and JoAnn are quick to point out; she’s 90. The other two aren’t far behind, though, and they’ve all lived fascinating, rich, full lives. They are also, one to another, dealing with their limitations and their struggles, confronting their own mortality in ways which are, somedays, difficult; other days marked by at least a hint of a smile; better: a smirk.

“’Nothing will be impossible with God’ scripture says. Do you believe it?” I asked. One shrugged a halfway answer; it seemed to sit heavily on all. No one gave me a straight-up “Yes!”  Good.  At this point in life, no one’s studying for the test. It’s time to get real. Time to take off the masks and be honest: “Lord, I don’t know what you’re doing and why I’m even here. I don’t know why I’ve outlived my own husband,” I could hear the prayers at night; “I know my life is filled with good things and that all is in your hand but …” These are real thoughts, real prayers, real lives. That’s why we pray, not because we have the answers or because we once had the answer but we’re afraid we’ve drifted too far from it. We pray because we know no other way to live. We pray life. We pray our lives, as rich and textured and, sometimes, bumpy and perplexing as they may be. We pray our lives.

“Nothing will be impossible with God” is precisely such a prayer, in and of itself. When you do believe it, pray it: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” And when you don’t believe it, especially when you don’t believe it, pray it: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” When you don’t know the answer or what the plan is or what you might even hope to have God do, if ever God was going about doing what you were asking God to do, pray it: “Nothing will be impossible with God.”

Their lives, JoAnn’s, Kitty’s, Charlotte’s – yours and my life, too – are probably, more often than we care to admit, caught up in this prayer. Most likely, we’ve been praying this prayer, day in and day out, even though our lips may not utter the words and the thought may not even cross our mind.  “Nothing will be impossible with God.”  Our life is its own offering to God, and a constant journey toward the One who reveals Himself to us, just as with Mary, time and time again.

With Kitty back in the summer of 2012
With Kitty back in the summer of 2012

St. Augustine said as much, I reminded them, way back in his day, preaching to the people in northern Africa that “God created us without us, but he did not will to save us without us.” (Sermon 169)  This may be one of those things we see a bit more clearly at the end of our life, when we are facing the limits of our mortality head on, but I, too, see glimpses of it, faintly and sometimes, at the end of a day.  I, too, see this mystery when I remember that I’m also a partner with God in this gift called creation; that I have a responsibility and a role to play; that I am asked to bless and heal and love and share; that I, too, have a role to play in my own salvation and that salvation is not mine, alone, but ours, only ours, a collective returning to God in Christ. “God did not will to save us without us,” the good Doctor preached, which is nothing more than yet one more invitation to make our lives a prayer – a richly textured, very real, heartfelt prayer, not only with our lips but with so much more.

Here we are, gathered for a simple lunch on Annunciation afternoon - March 25, 2015
Here we are, gathered for a simple lunch on Annunciation afternoon – March 25, 2015