I was born into an Anglican church.
And I do realize that my childhood stamped me in very certain ways.
I was also born into a small Maine coastal town.
Which accomplished even more of the stamping.
A number of times a year the rector (chief priest) sat at our dining room table and chatted. It was an expected visit. I won’t say it was exactly an anticipated visit. But it was a given.
The curate (lesser priest) was expected to keep lonely widows and struggling families, the shut-ins and church discontents regular company. Holy Communion was distributed to those who had not made it to the rail to receive it.
I grew up knowing to my bones that church was not just something that happened inside a particular building.
All the clergy of the surrounding towns, except the Roman Catholic priest, formed a row, facing the rest of the people gathered, at every public milestone. There were no formal public celebrations without them.
The Men (there were only men then) of the church made their presence known.
We knew who they were – with the exception of the Roman priest – and they knew us.
It was an understanding that soaked deep into my soul.
In spite of my problems with priests, even as a growing girl, I knew that when the time came, That Man was there and I could go to him.
No matter what.
And I did.
Although it was a priest who once reached into the closet where I had passed out after seeing the body of my just-killed brother.
Another time, it was a priest who reached into the increasing physical violence in my home and led me to serene living.
Priest and pastor watched. They cared. They ministered.
They were there.
The Bible that calls itself The Message expresses John 1:14 as, The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.
Which is exactly what Jesus did do.
And he was part of ordinary life.
He sat at tables with prostitutes, he healed sick people on the road, he stood up among people and taught them.
He was one of the people in the neighborhood.
I think we forget this.
As we sit, snug, warm, safe, in our pews, we forget that this is not the kind of place where Jesus worked.
He healed in a public bath. He healed as he walked about. He healed in a house that was so full of people that they had to cut a hole in roof to lower in the sick man.
When Jesus did heal in the Temple, he got into trouble.
(I guess some things never change.)
Mother Teresa not only walked the streets to find people to help, she dug about in the local dumps to find those who needed food, a good wash, perhaps some medical attention, and a clean place to sleep.
She based her ministry on her visions of Jesus Christ.
And, very much like Christ, her buildings were never in want of bodies.
As I grew older, I became convinced that clergymen should be required to know each and every person in his district. Or, at least his own neighborhood.
He should know everything about his neighbors: the names of all the family members, the sufferings that the family was currently enduring, and the celebrations that the family was preparing for.
I came to believe that a priest or pastor should be required to find a stool somewhere in his neighborhood, somewhere where people came and drank coffee slowly, and see if any conversations arose. They didn’t have to be about Jesus, or even The Church. The talk could focus on the other person. What he was thinking. What he was looking forward to. What he wished he could avoid.
Which may be the strongest healing force on Earth.
Yet is almost completely ignored in most churches.
It is only seen as a necessity when it is time for confession.
But all that a heart needs to say isn’t necessarily about confessing what we have done wrong. It could just be a story that needs to be told.
Or a knot that needs help to untie.
Life is like that.
To my mind, priests should be required to be out of their church or rectory, in the fresh air, walking the streets of their diocese. And when that is unrealistic, then their neighborhood.
Jesus walking, we could call it.
Being Jesus in the neighborhood.
It would be a relief just to have the people of the church itself looked in on. Actively cared for.
One year, not that long ago, because of cancer treatments, I rarely made it to church for a good portion of the year.
I never received a visit or even a call from my then rector.
And it was well known in the church that when he did get pushed to visit someone who was ill, he rarely bothered to bring Holy Communion with him to administer to the ailing congregant.
I will admit that experiencing this neglect by the minister of my church hardened my heart a bit.
I noticed it.
I counted the days.
It was tangible.
Because of how I grew up, I do expect those who are ordained to do their whole job, and not just limit themselves to sermon writing and bickering with vestry members. Scooting between church and home so quickly and quietly, doing their best to avoid being tapped on the shoulder and asked for something.
Avoidance is not pastoral care.
A course that is becoming less and less stressed in seminaries these days.
There should be a pastoral care rulebook that requires priests to meet and shake hands with at least a dozen new people every week.
Evangelization is not standing on street corners and praying aloud with a desperate voice.
It’s not waving printed material with a picture of Jesus or a saint on it in a person’s face, or trying to force it into someone’s hand.
It is what Jesus did.
He sat down with people.
He listened to them.
And he taught them.
And when he could, he healed them.
Imagine us as sheep behind the clergyman who is our shepherd doing just that in the world.
Not making our work only in the church building, but in the streets and alleys, grocery stores and coffee shops, of our neighborhood.