It always amazes me that very simple, seemingly routine, events can have a huge impact. By the time most of us get to our current stage of life, we have usually experienced numerous occasions of what I call “ordinary grace.” Maybe the event is not something that is dramatic or visible from an objective, outside point of view. Still, those events are life changing. They can change the way we look at ourselves and our lives, even if our external circumstances do not change.
Recently, I had one of those “ordinary grace” experiences. A cousin, my last living relative on my mother’s side, had several sequential catastrophic medical events. She lived in Pennsylvania. I ended up going to say good-bye, helping to make sure her last days were as peaceful and as beautiful as possible, arranging for her cremation, and, as executrix of her will, starting the administrative work necessary to settle her estate. A few weeks later, I made another trip to Pennsylvania to retrieve the cremains and bring them to the church for the funeral.
Most of us have been through events like this once we reach a certain age. There are always challenging circumstances. There are also many opportunities to experience ordinary grace. I could tell you many stories about my time in Pennsylvania- I could tell you about sleeping under a feline-fur-encrusted cat tower that was twice my size. I could tell you about the six hundred cans of cat food I found in my cousin’s house. I could tell you about determining, for the first time in my nearly 64 years, that I have a cat allergy. I could tell you about finding the cremated remains of her last dog in a drawer in her closet and burying said remains. I could tell you about sitting at my unconscious cousin’s bedside, praying, singing, and talking to her- certain in the knowledge that I was doing exactly what God called me to do. I could tell you about trying to negotiate cremation and funeral arrangements that my cousin’s friends could respect.
Today, though, I am going to limit my ramblings to one lesson I learned through my trips that I think might be helpful for me in the future.
During my first trip to Pennsylvania, there was a lot of conflict and a lot of judgment. I had traveled to Pennsylvania partially because a friend of my cousin’s, whom she had appointed as her medical POA, begged me to come. She did not feel she could cope with the responsibility. Once I got there, though, I was about as welcome as a new mutation of COVID19. I was doing everything in my power to solve problems and identify solutions that would respect everyone’s interests. At the same time, I was saying good-bye to a much-loved family member and walking with her as she came to the end of this life.
I thought it would be nice to attend mass at my cousin’s church the Sunday after she died so that I could get a sense of connection with the community. I wanted to experience what worship was like for her. After almost an entire lifetime of being an observant Roman Catholic, I expected to feel a sense of nostalgia and homecoming.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. I never realized how Protestant I had become. Actually, it is more accurate to say I never realized how Protestant I was even before I became a Protestant. Not only was this not the emotional and spiritual space I cherish in my current church community, it was not even the emotional and spiritual space of my Roman Catholic youth. I felt out of place when I attended mass. A significant portion of the women came draped in lace mantilla head coverings. No one touched me, not even a handshake during the sign of peace. No one even spoke to me or looked at me. At communion, I went up for a blessing, with my arms crossed over my chest. The priest did not even put a hand on my shoulder. He muttered “God bless you,” in a rather surly tone, as if I had sneezed at an inconvenient time. Then, he looked at me pointedly- expecting me to toddle off out of the way, past the chalice bearer where communicants were sharing the communal cup. At the end of the mass, they prayed directly to St. Michael, the Archangel.
I decided that, perhaps, I would not attend the funeral because I did not feel connected to the Church or the people. This decision caused some mayhem amongst my cousin’s friends. Several contacted me to tell me that they would welcome me and “protect” me from any potential drama. One lady who seemed to be the key person arranging the funeral at the church called me and talked to me for at least 20 minutes trying to convince me to attend. She kept telling me how wrong it would be for me not to come- that I should fulfill all the sacrifices I had made by attending. She told me it would be a sin for me not to attend. I tried to explain that I felt no need to be there because I had been at my cousin’s bedside during her last three days of life and would be able to say a final good-bye at the internment ceremony at my own church. I told her that the funeral mass was really for the friends. I told her that the mass was for her and “your peeps.” She hastened to assure me that everyone would shower me in love and support, and she wanted me to include myself in their passel of peeps.
The day of the funeral, I decided to put on the black dress, place the cremains at the church, and then sit in a pew for a few minutes to see how it felt. As I was sitting in the pew, the deacon and the priest were readying the altar. Neither greeted me, even though both met me in the hospital on the day before my cousin died. I opened the program for the service. All four readings were different from the ones I selected and sent to all the involved parties. One of the readings they did select, I considered and rejected for some specific reasons… one of which is that it is from the Book of Wisdom, which not is even included in the Protestant Bible. Suddenly, I thought- “How clear does God have to be to let you know you do not belong here and do not need to be here?” I got up and walked out of the church.
I am blessed that I got to go home and worship with my own peeps at St. James Episcopal Church the next Sunday. Not everyone in my situation would be so fortunate as to be truly connected to a church. In the situation with this funeral, the people certainly invited me. They welcomed me, almost to a fault. However, they ignored my voice. By ignoring my voice and not respecting who I am in my relationship with God and my spirituality, they alienated me. If I had been a person who was not truly connected with God and His Church, I probably would have gone away alienated not only from this particular parish or this particular denomination, but from God.
It was a good reminder that growing a Christian community does not end once we get people in the door. It is important to not only welcome people, but also to respect and value their perspective and their gifts. Some of you may remember that my church was involved in an INVITE, WELCOME, CONNECT weekend presented by Mary Parmer ( The Episcopalian Card – Terri LaBonte- Reinventing Myself in Retirement ) In her presentation, she reminded us that it is critical to be a truly “friendly congregation” rather than simply a “congregation of friends.” My experience in Pennsylvania was a good demonstration that a truly “friendly congregation” doesn’t just invite and welcome. We also need to make sure we truly connect. God gives us all part of the wisdom and gives none of us all of the wisdom. If we behave in ways that seem to always be giving wisdom and never accepting it from others, our little red church door will start swinging out as often as it swings in.
Ordinary grace. Thank You, God.
Have you experienced moments of extraordinary grace? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a grace-filled day!