The cool early light filtered through the screen door to the balcony while the dogs and the husband snoozed. I had a full cup of coffee in one hand and the New York Times in the other. Time was slow and I made the most of my opportunity to gaze out the window, watching the birds boss one another, amazed at the utter lack of either human or auto traffic. I read lazily and greedily, allowing the thoughts presented by the stories to swirl around my head, making me smarter, kinder, more aware. We weren't on vacation. It was Sunday morning.
To me, this was both a gift and a revelation. As a priest, and a traveling one at that, most of my Sundays involve being up well before dawn, calculating which places open for coffee at what hour and how close to my route they might be (bless you, Dunkin Donuts!). Sundays are about church - liturgy, Sunday school, coffee hour, vestry meetings - not just for me, but for my family. Jeff also gets up almost every Sunday morning, heads out to whatever committee meeting there is, whatever special event, in addition to regular worship. He then takes the kids to lunch after church if they are with him, and then sometime Sunday afternoon, we all meet up back at home, and collapse on the couch. And yet, this is the way it is. There is no Sunday morning without church, and all that goes with it. And we love that.
Except this past Sunday, because of a scheduling miscommunication, the church I was due to serve was suddenly not in need of my services, which we didn't figure out until Thursday afternoon. And so when Sunday rolled around, I had nowhere I needed to be. Jeff had no meetings, and we didn't have the kids. We talked vaguely of local 8:00 services, and suddenly it was past 9:00 and we were still enjoying the kind of silence and luxurious relationship with time that usually only exists on vacation. Church did not happen, but after a late breakfast we said Morning Prayer, just the two of us, enjoying that intimacy. We worked out. I finished the paper. Naps were had.
No one needs to tell me that fewer and fewer people go to church these days. Or that even among those who do, attendance is not as frequent as it once was. I know, I live this reality every day as a priest, and I struggle with it as someone devoted to the church. And I am devoted - nothing gives the joy, structure, grounding and meaning to my life that liturgy and sacrament do. Nothing fills my heart the way being around church people does, as imperfect and unpredictable as we often are. This is my tribe, and the life that orders my days.
And yet, the gift of the rare, perfect Sunday morning, the kind of rest that allows excitement at the coming week of tasks and events, makes me understand, too, the lure of not being in church, not being anywhere, responsible to nothing, one morning a week. Can I begrudge this of my neighbors? Can I claim to not understand how even a very faithful Christian can sometimes, even often, long for no alarms or showers or shoes or any claims at all? How can I not start looking at church statistics and wondering, not how to get these people into church on Sunday, but what are they telling me about the current state of their lives and what they need? How can I not listen to this in a new way?
I believe in God, and I believe in church, in the faithful body gathered. I don't think you can be a Christian alone, or with only your closest friends and family, because Jesus himself gathered and called disciples from all walks of life, from all manner of being, and broke bread among them. How we treat one another, how we love one another, and how we worship God with one another is fundamentally important. I have always and will always believe this.
But where we worship, when we worship, even to some extent how we worship, that is different. I am not sure that Sunday at 8, 9, or 11 is the exclusive answer to this. We already know it does not work for an increasing number of people. Maybe because of lack of faith. Maybe because Sunday morning is one day when they can get any rest. Maybe these two things are related to one another.
Next Sunday I will be back on the road. But my mind will play back to this week's blissful anomaly. And I will wonder.