Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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This week my “Practice of Christian Ministry” class will be reading a selection from Duke professor Richard Lischer about his early years of ministry in a small, rural Illinois community. He tells about a couple, Ernie and Darlene, whose only son was killed in a highway accident while in college.
It took Ernie and Darlene a long time to come back to church, and when they did Darlene spent most of her time helping in the nursery, counting offerings in the parish hall, or preparing coffee in the kitchen. Ernie took up residence in the last pew on the lectern side, as far removed from the word of God as is physically possible, and never moved. He became an expatriate in his own church while his old pew remained empty. (Richard Lischer, Open Secrets: A Spiritual Journey Through a Country Church, 2001).
An expatriate in his own church. Most pastors will immediately recognize a parishioner or two behind this arresting phrase. Most pastors will also confess that they don’t quite know what to do about these newly estranged members of their flock.
Sometimes, as in the case of Ernie and Darlene, it’s a death that seems to alter one’s sense of holy citizenship. A couple may have inhabited this space, perhaps even a particular pew, for decades, and sitting there alone may be more than a widow can bear. Sometimes it’s a painful change in life circumstances either imposed, like sudden unemployment, or taken on with at least partial complicity, like a divorce, engendering not only grief, but guilt and shame. “Has my right to citizenship here been revoked, leaving me undocumented in the land of my baptism?” Sometimes the words and actions of the liturgy just sort of stop working, stop conveying the rich meaning they once did; going through the motions gets harder and harder, and the almost bewildering loss of a lifeline just becomes too sad. God’s absence can be as real as God’s presence.
What’s a pastor to do? Do I allow them space and time to heal, to allow the comfort of citizenship to return? But what if it doesn’t and they withdraw further into some kind of lonely exile? Do I confront them – gently of course – with my worries, my concern? But what if that merely makes them defensive, even more awkward and uncomfortable, pushing them further away? Can I do more than stand at the gate like the waiting father, praying for the prodigal’s return? Good pastors struggle with this; I’ve never found there to be easy answers.
In my congregation in Easton, Pennsylvania there was a group of older women who went out together every week for Sunday lunch following worship. (They honored me once in ten years with an invitation to join them!) Most of the women were widows, some had never been married, and a few had been divorced. Other than being female, single, and “mature,” I never knew how one qualified for membership in this lovely circle. I’m pretty sure there were no initiation ceremonies! But the group never felt cliquish, and over the years as I watched the membership of this group evolve, I began to notice a pattern. Fairly consistently, within a few weeks of a husband’s death, the widow, especially if she didn’t have adult children in town, would begin heading off after church for lunch with the group. It didn’t really seem to matter whether the new “initiate” had been a long time member or even a close friend of those in the lunch circle. A quiet invitation was extended, and what may have begun simply as a way to avoid the pain of going home to an empty house for Sunday dinner, turned into a community, and the community perpetuated itself by becoming a ministry, a liturgy after the liturgy if you will.
Our churches all have these “expatriates” whose spiritual, or familial, or even moral documentation seems to have expired. Skilled pastoral care can be enormously helpful in sustaining someone who suddenly finds him- or herself on what feels like foreign soil. But my experience in Easton suggests that the real restoration of the rights and privileges of citizenship comes from the community itself, and from unassuming mentors who can accompany the slow relearning of the language and the custom and the ritual of this once and future homeland.
John H. Thomas
John Thomas will be leading Advent Lectionary Workshops at three locations in Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan in September and October. Learn more about the workshops and register today!