Over the past year, since the release of Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, I’ve heard hundreds of stories from people who’ve shared how the rhythms of the ancient liturgy are sustaining them in community and igniting imagination for collective action in the places where they are. In her new study, Living into Community, Christine Pohl names gratitude as a foundational practice for sustaining community in a culture of individualism. I’m grateful for this testimony from Shannon about how gratitude abounds in a community where Christian hope is real.
By Shannon Britton-Schaefer
I confess, I don’t remember my first Tuesday night Adoration service in our little community. After almost three and a half years, many of them are beginning to blur together in memories of gentle candlelight, gospel homilies, peace-passing and glory music. And the blurring seems right.
But I do remember the first time I asked someone I barely knew if he’d be willing to carry the cross as part of our gospel procession. I was a new liturgical intern for a small ecumenical evening service at the little stone church nearby. Among other things, my job was recruiting for service participants, and I was nervous of failure, introvert that I am. But he said yes.
And then, he said yes again. And again. Over and over, when I couldn’t fill a particular spot, he was there saying “do you need anything for tonight?” Usually, I did. He never once turned me down.
One Tuesday night, after about a month long break, we stood in the foyer of the little stone church where we gather. The bread and wine waited by the gospel book, people waited in the dimmed sanctuary, and I was lighting processional candles as the music started. I turned to see this young friend visibly moved, his face radiant. I asked if he was alright. “I’ve really missed this,” he said.
Spring came. Now he was the intern, and I was being asked to squeeze into last minute spots on Tuesday nights. He was showing up at Monday evening Eucharist and potluck, then Wednesday afternoon Eucharist and lunch. Soon he was returning for Compline after Adoration. Rumor had it he was also at Morning Prayer. He was everywhere. When we’d see each other outside of prayer, we were frequently talking about what we were doing in our prayer times and how this mattered. Small gatherings, yes. But something was happening.
Last night this young man and I got together for coffee. Conversation, as usual, turned toward these beloved people in our little gathering, and it wasn’t long before we chuckled about his intense loyalty to the group. But then I became serious and sincerely thanked him. So often when I think about our friendship and how it came to be, I cannot help but think of my own story, my own seemingly accidental entrance into this community. It was through friendship and invitation that I ended up here. It was through wise others being the gentle voice of God, naming my gifts, asking me to explore them, and inviting me to risk and offer. I remember once pouring out gratitude to a wise older friend for the opportunities to be involved, a friend who was quick to turn around and say that though I probably couldn’t see it myself, I had been hope to those around me and he was grateful to God that I had come into this community.
He was right – I couldn’t see it. At the time, I couldn’t understand. His face told me it was genuine. But I looked around me and saw beauty that was vital and life-giving, people who were deep, who lived crucifixion for one another, who were deeply committed to friendship as a sacrament and vow of stability, who were being poured out for the church in their commitments to ecumenism. I wondered how they could need more hope and why my presence would elicit that kind of heartfelt gratitude.
But maybe it wasn’t that they needed more hope, as if hope were lacking. Maybe the reality is that wherever hope is present, gratitude is a natural response. They were grateful for me simply because I was there with them, participating in their hope. Their hospitality still stuns me.
My young friend is a flame of hope for me – not because I lack hope, but because he’s here, a gift to us testifying to something about the character and goodness of God, a mouth which blows Spirit-breath upon our shared fire. Most of the time, I struggle to figure out whether I can remember a time without him or not. I remember the beginning of his story with us, and yet it seems like he’s always been here. And maybe this is right, because in a real way the Spirit in him has always been here with us. He is hope we didn’t know we needed until he was given. In that way, he is a true gift of abundance from the Spirit to us. And our shared fire burns more intensely in gratitude.
Shannon is the mother of a seven year-old who keeps her life Lego-filled. She lives in East Tennessee, where she is part of a community that gathers for daily Eucharist and common prayer.