My sister called me this past Saturday evening and invited me to go “church visiting” with her and a friend. My sister loves to visit other churches and she visits not only other Christian denominations but other faiths as well. She loves to learn and so she visits to get educated about other denominations and other faiths. Right now, she is taking a conversion course at a Jewish temple, but she made it clear to the rabbi that she has no intentions of converting, that she just wants to learn about Judaism. The rabbi, who my sister said is so nice, told her they don’t try to force people to convert and that my sister is more than welcome in the class.
My sister and I are cradle Episcopalians. We’ve attended the same Episcopal church we grew up in for over 50 years. Our parents quit attending regularly when we were still quite young and so we became sporadic church goers. I started attending more regularly while I was in college and that’s when I was confirmed. My mother started attending regularly again not long after that. And then about three years ago, I stopped going to church for reasons I don’t care to discuss. I decided I wanted to visit other churches too. Like my sister. Be more open to learning.
Last year I did some church visits in another denomination that I will admit I was totally not familiar with. I think I wrote in a previous post how out-of-my-comfort-zone I was in doing that. I was not used to the Broadway lighting, fold-up chairs, live singers on a stage, drums, guitars, ministers in tattered blue jeans, and a slew of video cameras in the back. I was used to wooden pews, organs and traditional hymns. I was used to Holy Communion every Sunday with real wine and a common chalice. I was used to priest robes and choir robes, acolytes, crucifers, and Holy processions that gave me goose bumps and sometimes made me weep. I was used to kneeling benches and quiet reverence. In a nutshell, I didn’t like the “Broadway production churches” and my visiting ceased.
My sister called last week and asked if I wanted to go visit an old friend with her at a church not far from here. So we went to this church.
The interim priest there is Father Peter Whalen, who was our priest for 18 years at the church I attended for so many years. We’ve missed him. He ministered to my father and our family when my father was dying of cancer. He presided at his funeral services. He left our church in 2006 to take a part-time ministry at another church– where he planned to slow down and wind down towards his retirement. He was at that church 10 years. My mother passed away right after he left our church but he came back to do her funeral. We were so grateful. We knew him and loved him. This same sister’s husband died four months ago, and he came back to assist with his funeral too and we were grateful again. He has made two attempts at retirement, but always seems to come out of retirement to help a church in need.
He baptized both my sons on April 3, 1999 at the Easter Vigil service and administered their first communion. We dearly love him and his dear wife, Barbara. Nicest people you’ll ever meet. They are good people, they are.
My sister and I enjoyed hugs and visiting Peter and Barbara before the service. It was good catching up.
Episcopal Church of the Epiphany is a very small church. There were around 29 in the parish when Father Whalen came in January and now there are around 49. They first asked him to stay for one month. When that month was up, they asked him to stay two more months. Now they’ve asked him to stay a year. Already, people don’t want him to leave. He’s a people person and people flock to him.
I enjoyed the church service and felt right at home. It was nice to hear familiar hymns. Peter told the congregation that he had dear friends from his previous church visiting and joked that we had come to make sure he was still doing his job right. Since it was Mother’s Day, there was a nice blessing said for mothers after all the mothers were asked to stand. And then each mother was handed a small gift.
At coffee hour after the service, the parishioners warmly welcomed us and invited us back for outdoor Pentecost services next Sunday and a barbecue celebration. I might just take them up on it.
At our church, Peter Whalen used to teach a “Welcome to the Episcopal Church” class (also called confirmation class). I took the class as a refresher. I was totally amazed and blown away at how much I learned. The next time it was offered, I took it again. And then again. And I learned something new and different each and every time. I was reaffirmed twice in the Episcopal Church. Peter Whalen had an amazing gift for teaching. I “got” things when he taught.
I remember Father Whalen saying one time that ministers don’t have all the answers and that people needed to realize that they are just humans too. I never forgot that.
Peter Whalen started his ministry as a Catholic priest. But he felt an emptiness and decided he wanted to marry. So he left the Catholic priesthood for the Episcopal priesthood where he’s remained ever since. He said he knew that God had given him the grace and the talents to serve Him in the Church and at the same time called him to the state of marriage and he’s been able to fulfill both of those in the Episcopal church. He is 78 years old, still happily married to Barbara, and still sharing his ministry gift. He would tell you he’s slowing down, but you wouldn’t know it.
Yes, I think I will start visiting churches again. I’ll keep you posted and I might just share my journey along the way.