Monday, March 31, 2008

Article from Christian Century: Handshake Ritual

I just read a very 'on' article in Christian Century, written by Martin B. Copenhaver, called "Handshake Ritual." Reflections on the practice of greeting the congregation at the door after worship.

"Worship is over and I am standing in the doorway shaking hands. In front of me is a couple I do not recall seeing before. I say, "Good morning! I'm Martin Copenhaver." By my manner and my tone of voice you might think that I am greeting long-lost friends, rather than introducing myself to these people for the first time. The woman of the couple responds, "Good to meet you. We are Jill and Bob Townsend."

"Welcome. So good to have you here." I think, Focus on their names. Catch the names before they simply drop to the floor. But while I am chatting with the new couple I see out of the corner of my eye the person next in line, whose grandmother just died. I give a nod in her direction to let her know that I want to speak with her, but not yet. I need to be attentive to the new couple for at least a few more moments: "Are you new to the area or just new to us?" What is their name? Townsend! Whew. Still got it. My thoughts spin back toward the one who is next in line and I begin to second-guess myself. Wait, was it her grandmother who died or her grandfather? Actually, I think it was her grandfather. And then my mind lights ever so briefly on the person she is talking to, a parishioner I have not seen in worship in some time. I think, It's been, what . . . almost a year? I wonder why she is back today. But I need to stay focused on the new couple. Quick, file away their names before you lose them. Townsend. I can remember that because they are "new in town." Jill Townsend says, "We've lived here for years, but we're looking at other churches." OK, Townsend, as in "not new in town." I say, "Well, I hope you can stay for some coffee." She smiles and says, "Not today, but I'm sure we will be back." I look for someone to introduce them to, but they are out the door before I have a chance.

Next is the woman who lost her grandfather. Or was it her grandmother? I say, "I'm so sorry to hear about your loss." She says, "Thanks. I so appreciate that. But it was a blessing." I ask, "Was your whole family able to gather for the service?" It's a rather lame question, but I am stalling for time, hoping that she will drop a personal pronoun. Before she can respond, my teenage son comes up behind me and drapes his arms over my shoulders: "Dad, you know you want to give me money so I can get something at the bake sale." Normally I would remind him that this is no way to ask me for something, but I don't have time for a lesson in manners. "Sure, Todd, here." I give him a ten-dollar bill. It's all I have. "Thanks, Dad."

I turn back to the grieving grandchild. She says, "Yes, the whole clan gathered. He would have been very pleased." I should have remembered that it was her grandfather. I say, "Well, I know you were very close to him. We will continue to hold you in our prayers." She responds, "Thank you. And you know Mary, don't you?" indicating the member of the flock who has been missing in action. And I do remember her very well. I say, "Of course. It's great to see you, Mary." Mary says, "Yeah, well, I haven't been around for a while. There's just been a whole lot going in my life." I think, OK, there's something to follow up on. I say, "Well, it would be good to catch up when you have a chance." She says, "Sure. Any time." Using a common pastoral way of closing a conversation, I say, "I'll call you." And then I hope I remember to call.

A teenager approaches with a cast on his right arm. I search my memory: Did he have that cast on last week? I playfully extend my right elbow and he does the same. As our elbows touch we share a little laugh. I say, "How are you hanging in there?" He responds, "OK. I broke it playing soccer." So the cast is something new. I ask him how it happened and he tells me the story. When he is finished I put my hand on his shoulder and say, "I'm so sorry. But you should see the other guy, right? I'm just glad you play soccer instead of tennis so that you can keep at it."

A man about ten years younger than I, who has been waiting in the wings, suddenly steps forward for his moment: "You don't remember me, do you?" He does look rather familiar, but in the way a person can remind you of someone else you know. He bails me out: "I was in the first confirmation class you taught, 25 years ago." I say, "Of course I remember you. Absolutely. But I have become very bad with names in my old age. Help me with yours." He replies, "I'm Scott Harrison." Shaking my head in contrition, I say, "Of course you're Scott Harrison. Absolutely, I remember you. That was a great confirmation class. How have you been?" Then, after a few more snippets of conversation, I offer him my hand again as a way to draw this conversation to a close.

Someone else approaches who says, "I really have to take issue with your sermon today." I say, "The sermon is just the beginning. Then comes the conversation, which often is the best part." He says, "Well, maybe that's a conversation we'll have." I say, "Great. I welcome that. Will you call me?" In this instance I want to put the onus on him to call.

Oh, I so relate!
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