What did you come to see?

Aug 4th, 2010 | By | Category: Spirituality

Rushin, Redcastle, Cappagh South, Ballaghmore.

The townland names roll off the tongue like a railway station announcer’s litany, but have also a poetry of their own.  Each conjures images of farms and the dwelling houses, of narrow lanes and high hedges, of ancient trees and long memories.

The names appear on the headstones in the freshly mown churchyard. The smell of the grass adding a timeless quality to the moment’s contemplation of each one.  The intended house call not possible because the person was out, wandering the churchyard becomes an opportunity to fill in time.

Eleven weeks in the parish and there is a realisation that the names recorded are familiar names; they are the family names of those who are in church Sunday by Sunday.  These were the parents, siblings, and, sadly sometimes, the offspring of the faithful who gather each week.

In the brief inscriptions there must have been stored pain beyond the imagination of a passing stranger.  How would anyone ever come to terms with losing a child?

Suddenly, there is a moment of fear.  Those who come through the doors of the church each week come in expectation that they will hear something that makes sense of their experiences; something that will help them cope with the sheer anguish of grief.  The young woman who has lost her dad does not want platitudes or ecclesiastical jargon.  There is no desire for exposition of arcane doctrinal points; there is a wish for meaning, for words telling that it’s all going to work out in the end.

They deserve not to be let down.  They are good people, faithful people; they look for encouragement, for assurance.  It is intimidating to contemplate.

Leading the midweek service at which a couple of dozen people have congregated, the thought occurs that this is 5% of the parish population.  One person in every twenty has come to a service on a Wednesday night; it is a proportion unimaginable in a big urban parish.  They have come in expectation; they have come not to be let down.

Ministry has become almost frightening; these people matter too much for it to be casual.

The preacher reminds us this evening that we have nothing to boast of except Christ.  It is all we have to offer; there is nothing else.

The lines of headstones, the expectant congregation; the only response is a story of a Galilean carpenter who is killed – and comes back to life.  It seems odd, strange almost.  Perhaps that’s the nature of grace.

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  1. Ian,
    Some may come in hope that they will hear something which touches them, but few I suspect in expectation! But when they do they will remember it. More I suspect come desiring to reconnect with a sense of the holy they experienced perhaps long ago – familiar words & hymns, a sunbeam falling on a seat where a loved one once sat, a memory of apt words preached half a lifetime ago. The Galilean carpenter touches people in ways the minister cannot know. Do not be afraid. It is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom!

  2. Joc,

    I agree. I think my greatest fear is unwittingly treading on that sense of the holy.

  3. We’re all passing through and doing our best

  4. M’lud,

    Sometimes that is the problem. The desire to make one’s ‘mark’, to shape things according to one’s personal theological perspective seems sometimes to add to the pain that is present.

  5. Hold on a moment … did I say that? I thought I was gently suggesting that we are simply passing through – or as the body language of my former parishioners used to say so eloquently, ‘You, Rector, are a butterfly.’

    The desire to make one’s mark is long gone in favour of survival with a reasonable measure of integrity. I shall spare you a ‘blow by blow’ of my meeting this morning with a group of Vestries…..

    But the reason I called back – as it were – was just a passing interest in where you are now in terms of ‘club Church of Ireland’ Your admirers get the impression that you are finding the rural Church of Ireland somewhat more congenial, authentic and impressive than the Dublin suburbs. My reason for asking is that I ponder the experience of dealing with the Scottish equivalent – let’s call it ‘club Piskie’. Club Piskie is found where people appropriate the church as part of their cultural identity but do not buy in spiritually. It is identifiable by a number of indicators. For example, it survives by fundraising and not by stewardship. It has no concept of being part of the church beyond itself.


  6. I think ‘Club Protestant’ may be discernible in some places, probably more in south Co Dublin than in rural Laois.

    There are no ‘big house’ families in my parish. Children attend the local schools. People belong to the GAA and all the other local organizations. Fundraising is not part of the culture – parishes are assessed on a per capita basis and then ask parishioners to pay an annual sustentation payment equivalent to the assessment. It works out at about €250 p.a. for every person over 18. One of the prime objections against proposals in the diocese to form unions instead of groups voiced by one of my own parishioners is that it would turn the focus of individual churches away from engagement with the local communities in which they exist towards some vague and remote entity which will henceforth take decisions regarding the lives of local congregations.

    No yellow corduroys or tweeds and no West Brit accents here!

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