It was a milestone celebration at a church a plane ride away from my home. It’s an outstanding church, and I was part of it a long time ago. The church has long been known for its active involvement in social justice. Sunday morning is big, but it’s a seven-days-a-week church. It contributed to my theological education for two years.
Part of my role was on-the-job training in campus ministry at an adjacent prestigious university. More visible to the congregation was my guitar playing regularly in “folk worship” and occasional other times. One Sunday a month, the Sunday worship service was one I helped plan. Two other musicians — a pianist and an upright bass player — and I led it. I also participated in myriad meetings, retreats and anti-war protests. I think I was a brash enough young adult to speak my mind in most gatherings. Shortly before I completed my degree and moved away from the area, I preached there one Sunday morning. My “License to Preach and Administer the Sacraments” was granted by that congregation.
I enjoyed the recent celebration. It was good to be back in the building. The liturgy and other activities were appropriate and meaningful. As the history of the church was recounted, a good chunk of it was presented by some of the very people with whom I have a history. They covered a lot of that shared history.
At this point, the cynical reader might expect the insertion of a “But.” Not here, though. It’s more of a “That said. . . .”
I went with hope but not delusion. There were several people still in the church that I remembered from my time there. It would’ve been great if many/most (all??) had greeted me like a long-lost friend. Yet I had visited a couple of years ago, and only two of those remembered me. One was someone with whom I had been close. The other was someone I knew, though not as well as a couple of people who seemed to have no recollection of me. I expected it would be the same this time, while holding out hope that the occasion and my being there for much of the day would jog some more memories.
It was as expected. Everyone was friendly and welcoming. The same two seemed to be the only ones who remembered me, though when I spoke to others, I made a point of saying when I had been there.
Countless times, I’ve heard someone say about some service opportunity in which they’ve participated, “I got more from them than they got from me.” I guess I always realized this to be true about my time at this church. I just wish the score hadn’t been so lopsided.
I knew going in that I was at most a blip on the screen in the long history of a church filled with dynamic individuals. I had just thought — wished rather — that the blip were less imperceptible. It wouldn’t be honest not to admit to feeling some disappointment, yet I wasn’t blindsided.
Still, it was good to be in a place with a lot of great memories. To see faces still recognizable despite the years, even if mine wasn’t recognizable to them. To recount the illustrious history of the congregation and to see that the characteristics that drew me to them are still at work today.
I enjoyed the personal memories that flashed through my mind. I was able to share a couple of these verbally with one person or another. Yet feeling more like a welcomed guest than a returning family member, I found I was taking in the festivities primarily from a third-person point of view. I know and appreciate that for many there it was first-person.
To resort to an overused cliche, it was the hand I was dealt. So I played it. I was just glad to be in the game. It was a learning and a growing experience.
Note of possible interest: This is the church to which I referred in “Wearing Your ‘Sunday Best’” when I said, “I was a young adult, in a church where people wore anything from jeans to suits or dressy dresses, when I realized that one of the negative things about Sunday morning in the past had been the hassle of getting dressed up.” For this recent occasion, I was the most dressed up I have ever been in that church building — dress pants, button down shirt and sports jacket, along with my black sneakers and, of course, no tie.