Last week I confessed that I have fallen into expecting things to be just so at St. John’s without really appreciating them. Maybe you sometimes feel entitled to certain things and become ungrateful. One of my character flaws is that I look ahead to what’s coming next without fully being thankful for the present. So this is the second piece in a series on Practicing Gratitude in the hopes that I, and you, might become more grateful.
21 years ago I walked into St. John’s for the first time. The Search Committee had visited me in my parish and now Mary Ward and I were to come here to see this place. The Senior Warden and a member of the Search Committee opened the door beside the pulpit and I entered the nave not knowing what to expect. I walked past the pulpit, up the chancel steps, and faced the altar and Ascension Window. I began to get a little excited as I sensed an invitation to the holy.
Then I turned around and looked out over the empty pews into the nave. My eyes took in the organ loft and the Crucifixion Window. My heart started beating a little faster. Then I saw the ceiling, which I hadn’t yet noticed, and goosebumps rose all the way up my back causing me to shiver. It felt like a space in which prayers had been uttered and answered for a long, long time. But even more it felt like a space where something big was about to happen. In that moment I began to hear the call that was being offered to me: Do you want to be part of this place where so much has happened and so much could happen?
My first Sunday here was another chill-bump kind of day. As I presided and stood to face the congregation, I was taken aback. The dull, dying place I had heard about was not that way at all. The congregation was energetic and excited, eager for what was to come. And the music – the music was glorious. As we sang, my eyes welled up. I had given a lot of thought to what I was called to bring to this place as its new rector but almost all of that was already here waiting for me. I merely had to join it with my own gifts.
Over the years I have become accustomed to being overwhelmed by the awe and wonder of our corporate worship. The space is as beautiful as I have ever seen and so many people work to maintain its beauty. The music is still glorious. How in the world has this congregation been so fortunate to have Harald Rohlig serve as Organist and Choir Director for 50 years and then find Joel Gregory to follow Harald and not miss a beat? Abundant grace accounts for that. The clergy that we have been able to attract to serve here have been quite remarkable. To have such different but complementary priests to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments is a luxury now become necessity.
The congregation itself is an expression of awe and wonder. On one of my first Sundays, I observed an aura around about a dozen people as they worshipped. They were literally glowing as they took in the various aspects of our worship. Each Sunday that is repeated as people soak in the good news of the gospel and take that into the world. Honestly, I’ve never seen such spiritual depth anywhere else.
For all those things I am deeply grateful. Here I experience awe and wonder on a regular basis. But sometimes I’m just not as appreciative as I know I should be. Recently I sat in another Episcopal Church, one like ours in many ways. It’s historic, beautiful, and has great resources. As I worshiped, however, everything seemed flat. It was clear that some of the intentionality that I observe at St. John’s every Sunday had not been devoted to that time of worship. As I participated I kept thinking this wasn’t nearly as good as what you and I have. But I also had to examine my own heart as I critiqued that place. Even at St. John’s I sometimes look for what I think needs to be better instead of appreciating the goodness of what is provided. And God finds a way to jostle me back into gratitude. A tear in the eye of a parishioner, a purple ray of light beaming through one of the stained glass windows, a line in a hymn that brings out something I just heard in the gospel lesson and the sermon, an excited little child, that warm feeling of the sacrament going deep down inside me. It’s amazing what will bring me back to that place of awe and wonder.
As I express gratitude for our many blessings in our worship – our music, facility, leadership, staff, and congregation – I hope you’ll pause to give thanks. Those who came before us provided us with so much. And together we provide so much for each other and for those who will follow us. It leads us to know what is solid and stable. Like all human endeavors, though, it is tenuously dependent on our faithfulness.
Next week, I’ll continue the series of Practicing Gratitude. What are you grateful for in your church? How have you fallen away from appreciation? How might you return?
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.