Ask, seek, knock – and get a stone

seek_knock_askToday’s Gospel from Matthew offers this wisdom from Jesus:
“Ask and it will be given to you;
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you.
For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds;
and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
Which one of you would hand his son a stone
when he asked for a loaf of bread…”

My work as a parish secretary has changed me. Not that I was not welcoming before, but I don’t think I opened doors in the same way, literally and figuratively, that I do now. One of my passions about my work reflects this from The Rule of Benedict that says, “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, ‘I came as a guest, and you received Me.” (Matt. 25:35). One thing that I try to do is to never, ever, ever say to someone who has a request, “are you a member here?” Those are the worst words in the Christian language if you ask me!

20130313nw544-300Today is also the one year anniversary of Pope Francis, who has very clearly called us as church “to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries.” Are we doing that? Or is the question, how exactly do we do that? The Bishop of Rome seems to understand that when we wall ourselves in with a misunderstanding of rules and the letter of the law, but not the spirit if the law, the Church is diminished. How can we transform the world if we are apart from it? And if we keep everyone out? I’m pretty sure that we can’t. And to do so is to give stones instead of bread. So much for asking, seeking, and knocking, so much for the transforming power of Christ.

71761641_e5f3a60973How many people call or visit a church or encounter “churched people,” only to feel rejected or demeaned, even if unintentionally? When people seek out the church, for whatever reason, they should not get “a stone” instead of bread. I am reminded of this past Sunday’s Gospel with Satan taunting and tempting Jesus to turn stones into bread.

This quotation from Henri Nouwen says it all for me:

“Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.”

Whether one is a church secretary like me, (the fancy title is Pastoral Associate for Administration) or a parishioner, or anyone involved in the life of any church, we are called to remember the Benedictine rule of welcoming all as Christ. If people are supposed to know that we are Christians by our love, and we act like gatekeepers to the emperor instead, disdainful gatekeepers at that, then Christ is literally not served.

church_do_not_enter_004_2How have you been treated at church, regardless of the denomination? Do you have stories to share? Good stories are welcome, but please share the regrettable horror stories that are out there as well. You can leave a comment with the story, or ask me to email you, and I will do so.

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15 thoughts on “Ask, seek, knock – and get a stone

  1. Fran, I am going to use the quote you gave from Nouwen in my talk this Saturday- The Pastoral Musician and relationships! Thank you!

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  2. I think I’ve shared this with you before. We were meeting with our priest to ask permission to marry in NY, where my parents live. We lived together. I know, not supposed to have been. But he went on and on about it. We needed to live apart, needed to confess. It was humiliating. Here we were, with great news! We were getting married. In the Church. But this is what we were greeted with. My husband has rarely attended mass since then.

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    • You have told me that and it embarrassed me to hear it then, as it does now. This is not the first such story that I have heard. He did have to address it in some way, but not that way, and no shaming. I’m not surprised about your husband either. Who can blame him?

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  3. I recently joined a Jesuit parish. Before the Sunday liturgy, the cantor tells us that there may be new people here and invites us all to welcome each other. After two months of pew-sitting, I learned new names, got invited out for coffee following Mass and was invited to sign up for various parish activities, met many more people, have people cross the aisle to exchange “peace” with me, and the list goes on. During the Sunday liturgy, our pastor asks us to turn to our neighbor and ask each other what intention we might pray. All this and more fosters such a warm sense of belonging…I also attend weekday Masses in the parish’s basement chapel, and often they are celebrated by what my mother-in-law calls “visiting firemen” (for some reason!). One such priest does not speak or read English very well. But he smiles, and is truly interested in giving us his best thoughts during his sermon. He pauses often, searching for the best English words to convey his ideas. After Mass yesterday, before blessing us all, he smiled shyly and thanked us for our patience. I was so happy when our parishioners startled him by erupting into applause. My community here sees God in all things. There is a prevailing sense of freedom and happiness and, yes, hospitality. Sometimes I cannot get to my new parish. It is about 30 minutes away, and so I often attend weekday Mass at my neighborhood church. When the pastor distributes Communion, he stands at altar level, which is about two steps above communicant level. He towers over us and we lift up our cupped hands to receive the Eucharist. It a strange feeling receiving Communion this way. When the sign of Peace is exchanged, most turn away from me to greet their known neighbors first. One Mass, I exchanged “peace” with one person. I am currently up to two. I find myself involved in this Eucharist as a lone stranger. And the “Our Father” is “my father” and “their father”. I pray at these Masses for the grace to see these folks as God sees them, His people–and me one of them.

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    • Jan, welcome to the blog and thank you for this rich comment! So much of what you said struck me, but particularly this: “I find myself involved in this Eucharist as a lone stranger. And the “Our Father” is “my father” and “their father”. I pray at these Masses for the grace to see these folks as God sees them, His people–and me one of them.” Very powerfully put!

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      • Me, again. I must warn you: I think I woke up on the wrong side of the bed. I went to my “Lone Stranger” church this morning earlier than usual. I hoped to have some quiet time to pray for a dear friend who died suddenly yesterday. (He was young, just in his 40s, and a very generous, cheerful soul. I am shocked and sad beyond words and I wanted to ask God to hold this dear man close to him, to give him pardon and peace, to comfort his family and friends. My friend was not a church-goer, so I wanted to make sure God gave him special attention. [I know that sounds silly or “untheological”]. Anyway, 20 minutes before Mass, the church contains several dozen people, all respectfully silent–maybe in prayer, maybe in a daydream. THEN, this older woman, who I crankily label a busy-body, visited all her friends, loudly chatting and gossiping about who-knows-what. THEN the pastor comes out about 10 minutes before Mass and is booming from the altar “Hey, Joe! How’s your hip?” “Hey, Mary, how are the knees?!” To my (by this time) distressed mind, it sounds like the pastor thinks the church is HIS church, his bailiwick. It’s not like any of these people cannot visit with each other in the gathering space after Mass. I am aware that the Eucharist is a community celebration, but there are so few moments for silent prayer in a church these days. They are all, sadly, locked up. My (Jesuit) parish posts a sign that asks folks to respectfully keep silence in the chapel before weekday Mass. Sunday Mass in the upper church is different. People whisper greetings and news to each other, and after Mass they are all over the church in small groups visiting. For some reason, I seem to tolerate this “culture” better–maybe because an effort IS made to provide people with quiet time. And, I know all the rosary-saying people are going to hate this, but can they not wait at least 10 minutes following a Mass before beginning their aloud recitation (for all four of them)? My pastor once gave a wonderful homily and the words I remember and repeat to myself each day are: “Don’t condemn. Don’t judge. Forgive. Give.” What a failure I am today!!!

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  4. After mioving house I went to the local parish church for a number of years. When my daughter was a couple of months old I took her when she was teething only to have the ladies of the parish hiss at me to keep her quiet, I never went back after that.
    I have trouble with the whole – that’s my seat’, we don’t do that here’, if Father says so’. ‘has she looked in the mirror this morning’ comments that i hear. Even the division between the 9 oclock and the 11 oclock parishioners!
    On the other hand we have taken people in and under out wings and nutured them. We have helped with charities for those in need and are very generous with collections.
    In my management training we were told the adage ‘you only get one chance to make a good impression’. How true that can be.

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    • So true! One of the things that I bring from that same kind of training, which may be even more important ministerially,is this… when we are uncharitable, even inadvertently, the receiver of such treatment remembers it forever. The priest, the secretary, the lay minister – they likely forget it within minutes. Ouch.

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  5. A very important topic. Here in our winter home in northwest Florida, the closest parish is a large church with an immigrant pastor and one assistant, ordained for just a few years, order priests. Many snowbirds fill the pews during the winter months. One Cursillista from Minnesota would bring his guitar and play it and lead song at weekday Masses, also share his musical gifts with the children at the Early Childhood Education Center in the parish on a regular basis. He asked for permission to have use of the parish hall for a Cursillo Ultreya twice a month on Saturday mornings, and was allowed to do so for a few years. Last year when he tried to make arrangements for these meetings, he was refused permission. This involved, caring, albeit part-time parishioner was turned away because he was not to be trusted with a key to the building, and the pastor would not assign a custodian to open and close the center for the gathering of the faithful from many states and Canadian provinces. Needless to say, our friend no longer shares his God-given gifts at this parish, and we attend a church farther away. How sad not to feel welcome in the Lord’s house!

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  6. Thanks for starting such a good conversation on a very important topic, Fran. Yes, Francis is reigniting the faith for many but the light is so quickly extinguished if a true welcome doesn’t greet us at the church doors. Our new pope is calling for reform in the greater church, but this reform MUST take place at the parish level. It’s sad if folks take that first, courageous step to come back only to find the same dismal liturgies, parish pettiness and bickering, sorry little power struggles, authoritative pastors, etc. Old, stale bread is as good as a stone.

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  7. When I read the title of your piece, I took it in a completely different way, so was a little surprised (but happily!) by where this post went. Here’s how I came to it: “Ask, seek, knock — and get a stone, so that if they don’t let you in when you ask, seek, and knock politely, you can batter the door down with your rock, or at least break some windows and let in some fresh air.” (I’m in that kind of mood these days about a lot of things.) Vis a vis the actual topic of your post, my husband refers to the church as a “club” – if you follow the rules and say all the right stuff, you get to belong. That is often how it feels in my experience in our archdiocese, although it is much better at the parish where we attend Mass (and sing in the choir) than in our own neighborhood parish. Things were OK there; then our wonderful pastor got pulled away to the seminary (and from there to another diocese to be bishop, yay for him but boo for us) and the meanies came out in force — exclusionary, judgmental, and anything but welcoming, particularly to a couple like us who are both in our second marriage sans declarations of nullity (and so excluded from the sacraments, which we respect but others seem to see as a reason for judgment instead of an opportunity for kindness).

    Keep up the good work, Fran! People like you give me hope for our church.

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    • Oh Piglet my dear, how you touch my heart. Your faithfulness knocks me down, despite the fact that you are clearly not welcome at the table. You keep singing and showing up; you and your spouse are lights of faith, rich loaves of bread at a table of stones who await there transformation.

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