Nov 18, 2019

Beyond the Numbers

This past week, we ran out of room in the Register of Church Services that has recorded every public
liturgy at St. John's for the past seven years.

If you're not familiar with this book -- and unless you're clergy or serve on the altar guild, there's no reason why you would be -- it's been a staple of church sacristies for generations. At the conclusion of each service, the priest who conducted the liturgy, dutifully enters in the date, time, day in the liturgical year, type of liturgy, the number who attended, and then signs or initials it. There's also a spot to add additional information like the name of the deceased for a funeral or the fact that there was a blizzard that day, which might account for the fact that only four people showed up.

At one level, the service register is simply a bunch of numbers. It's used to fill out the annual parochial report which is sent, in our case, on to the Diocese of Massachusetts, before being compiled into attendance figures used by the National Episcopal Church to track trends across the country and beyond.

For clergy who equate their self worth with church attendance figures (and we're all guilty of this to some degree), the service register is either a source of pride or shame. But of course, the register only tells part of the story. It can't measure spiritual growth or depth or discipleship -- these more ephemeral statistics can't be quantified or recorded. And I'm pretty sure Jesus never once filled out a service register ("Last Supper - 13")

As I filled in the final liturgy, a Wednesday Eucharist with 15 of us present, I took a moment to flip through the book one final time before sending it to join the other service registers that have been faithfully filled out since the parish's founding in 1883. And in so doing I recalled a number of profound moments in the life of one particular worshipping community in one particular slice of God's kingdom. Funerals of parishioners I dearly loved; baptisms of children who have since grown up in the church and now play an active role in Sunday School; baptisms for families who never again stepped foot in the church; the joy of serving with former and current assisting clergy, the occasional bishop's visit; services of home communion before a death.

But what really stood out for me was simply the regular rhythm of the Church's worship. God was praised and adored and Christ was preached in this place long before I arrived, and will continue long after I leave. And there is solace in this. A sense that we are all merely temporary stewards of the Good News of Jesus Christ. We don't own any of this. We are simply invited to share it and hand it on to future generations, to the best of our ability.

One of the roles of the bishop in a diocese is to examine the service register whenever he or she makes a visitation. In the Diocese of New York, where I served for seven years, the bishop would sign the register in purple pen, indicating that he had examined it and found it all in good order.

I remember my first visitation as a young rector at All Saints' in Briarcliff Manor. Bishop Sisk, who had been my seminary dean at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, took a moment to go through the pages before signing it. And as he did, something I assumed would just be a perfunctory administrative duty, he reverently and prayerfully gazed upon the pages. It was after the service and after the celebratory reception in the parish hall -- just the two of us in what I used to refer to as "the tiniest sacristy in all of Christendom." And I'll never forget what he said. He mused that people often think clergy are out of touch with reality; that they live lives far removed from everyday life. "This" he said lifting the register, "reflects reality." And to this day, I appreciate and value that wisdom.

On Sunday, I filled out the first three entries in the new register, adding the information for our three Sunday services at 8 and 10 am and 5 pm. Who know where I'll be or where the people who showed up that day will be when this register is completed? But what I do know is that through faith in Jesus Christ, each one of us has been meticulously entered into God's Book of Life. And that is a good and joyful thing.

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