Surprised by Jessie

May 12, 1999

In a pleasant little twist on circumstances, it happens that my devotional guide, which usually provides fodder for this space, prompted yesterday’s piece in the “general matters” section of my journal. Today I find myself writing in the “spiritual matters” section something born of a prompt in my more secular writing guide, Prayers to the Moon.

Make a list of simple pleasures, it suggests, and provides a “starter list,” in case a particular reader might not be able to recognize one when she sees it: a peaking blossom, a cloud splashed by the setting sun, a letter from a friend, unexpected praise or recognition.

It’s good weather for noticing the first two sorts. I recently wrote about letters received and sent, and have taken great joy in the responses those pieces elicited. And it happens that a recent experience of “unexpected praise and recognition” continues to fill me with warmth three days after its occurrence.

Sunday was Mother’s Day, but it was also a “Slump Sunday” at church. Both pastors and their younger children had traveled to Georgia to attend the college graduation of their oldest child. Although the supply pastor we had was warm and had a preaching style not unlike that which we are used to, many parishioners regard such a service the way many of us regarded the presence of a substitute teacher in our favorite class at school, and take a weekend off.

To tell you the truth, I might not have been there myself if I hadn’t agreed to teach the second grade Sunday School class for a friend who has moved away, and if my daughter had not been scheduled to be the acolyte at the late service

So I sat alone in the pew, my mind more on the activities I planned for the coming week than on the prayers or the sermon. I sang along with the hymn before the creed because it used the Hyfrodol tune, one of my favorites. And I did become aware during the Prayers of the Church, where we mention aloud or in our hearts our special intentions — I rarely let an opportunity pass to make God aware of those concerns of mine he needs to be looking after.

And then came “Sharing God’s Peace.” This is where you turn to those around you, extend your hand, and verbalize a greeting. In a friendly, outgoing congregation like ours, this feature of the service means you get out of your pew, walk around, hug people, perhaps even bestow and receive a genuine kiss.

I’m very much an introvert, and this feature of the service is still difficult for me, even after twenty years, so much so that I still sometimes use this moment as a bathroom break. (I have one friend who so dislikes “that kiss thing” that it was the deciding factor in making her a mailing list member of her congregation rather than an active one. Another friend, also a Practicing Introvert, describes the way they do it at his home church in conservative Johnstown, Pennsylvania as “the glance of peace.”)

Part of my difficulty with “that kiss thing” is a suspicion, rooted somewhere in a painful past experience, that no one really wants to greet me, that I’m part of the wallpaper and it’s best if I just don’t call attention to myself. These bits of poor self-image and a tendency toward self-deprecation can be surprisingly hard to overcome, despite a life situation full of  joy and affirmation.

I shook hands with the people sitting in front of me, and those behind. Sitting at the far end of my pew were a man and his daughter. Jessie is a year ahead of my daughter at the same school. I’ve been on committees and in activities with her parents, but I wouldn’t say I  know them, or Jessie, well.

I reached over Jessie’s head to greet her father. I was about to fold myself back into introvert mode when Jessie slid over, put her arms around me, and said, “Hi! Happy Mother’s Day!”

It was a gesture so genuine and so unexpected that tears welled up in my eyes. I joined this congregation in part because it was a neighborhood congregation, full of kids my daughter’s age who went to her school — sort of a recreation of the best of my Catholic upbringing, where school and church were the same thing. In doing so I’d left, with reluctance, a group where my spiritual needs were being served, but not necessarily Lynn’s.

It is rare that we get exactly what we bargain for in making a life decision. Rarer still do we get more. Today I thank Jessie for showing me that.

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