Half of the seventy people scheduled to attend the Clergy Quiet Day were not yet there when I arrived, just fifteen minutes before we were scheduled to begin. Hmmmn. Stuck in awful traffic, I learned, because of black ice and snow on the road and a jackknifed tractor-trailer on Rte. 295. A trip that ordinarily took forty minutes was taking two hours. It didn't affect me - I had taken the train. That's okay, I said. We can just have more coffee and doughnuts and socialize until they come.
This was the diocese in which I was ordained, and in which I spent the first few years of my ministry. I was already seeing familiar faces. It was good to catch up. Some people looked older -- a few didn't at all. Some peoples' hair was white. Mine might be, too, if it weren't blonde -- no telling what's under the L'Oreal these days. The three women in the diocese who were ordained before I was were all there -- admirable older sisters from a hard time when our ministries were new and frightening to some people. A predecessor at St. Clement's, one of the few other people who know how hard it is to leave that funny place, was there -- she serves in this diocese now.
It got too late to wait, and so we began. I was just beginning to explain the most important thing I had to say -- that prayer is not a job, but a gift -- when all the latecomers walked in. More beloved faces. Rick and Larry and Ron. Some eMo recipients whom I knew only by their screen names; nice to have faces to put with them. My old boss. His son, also a priest: it was spooky to glance up and see him, looking like his dad looked when he was his age. Muriel, who used to be a member of my parish and now serves one in the southern part of the diocese. Margaret, with whom I went to seminary. Men who were young Turks when I was here, still here but different now, their faces lined but still their faces. Early deacons. Recent ones. And many people I didn't know, younger men and women. A new bishop.
It's not easy for a cleric to take a day early in Advent. So much to do -- extra services mean extra service leaflets, extra music, extra buying of things you only buy once a year, extra visits to people who feel extra sad at this happy time. Secretaries and sextons who feel the extra load of work, and must be supported and thanked. Pledges that have not yet come in, tugging at your sleeve with unspoken crazy questions: will we make it this year? Is this some kind of referendum on my performance? Am I doing a good job? And extra duties at home: children whose desires outstrip the buying power of most clergy and who must be talked down into the realm of reason. Children who have Christmas concerts at school that must be attended. Children who want to shop for gifts, and who want you to help them decorate the tree and the house. Spouses who feel the pressure of all these extras and need some attention. Or no spouses or children at all: an empty rectory every night when you come home late. Supper out of a can. Muttered prayer. Exhausted sleep.
But here we all were anyway. Talking and thinking about God, about the prayers in which we promised to be faithful, all those years ago to say faithfully. Listening to each other. Listening to me read stories about all my failures. Some of them were funny. Some of them weren't.
The church is our job, and it's an odd one. But prayer isn't a job and life with Christ isn't a job, not for us and not for anybody else. It's a gift from God. All you have to do is ask for it, ask God for the life with Christ God wants you to have. It's not rocket science. Yesterday we pulled off the road for a moment and opened the gift again. Then we drove on.