Here. But not yet. A TJP Advent-ure: Week 4
Did you miss weeks 1-3? Check out the rest of our seasonal series here.
I remember walking aimlessly around the department store – long since closed and replaced by another with a slicker logo and better lighting – clutching an item I wasn’t sold on. I was there to buy a Christmas present for a friend of mine, but I kinda liked her liked her, and I wanted to say something with my gift. I wanted to say something the way any high school boy wants to say something without having to actually talk about his feelings, either to her or to my father who had dropped me off at the store for a while, alone. I’ll see you in an hour, my Dad said, mercifully, without asking any questions.
I had picked up a silver colored jewelry box, fashioned in the shape of a moon, with a cheap burgundy-colored felt lining, but I remained unsure. What does this gift say? Perhaps I like you. Or You’re special to me and I’m thinking of you. Or perhaps simply and lamely, I’ve noticed you wear jewelry and could probably use a place to store it. Oof.
I found that shiny lunar-themed jewelry box in the first 10 minutes of my solo shopping sojourn. I spent the next three-quarters of an hour circling the store looking for something else as if the merchandise would somehow miraculously multiply, or I’d stumble upon a crew of workers offloading some phantom shipment of a new – and perfect – item. Alas, no dice. And so, with a wad of sweaty cash in hand, I reluctantly took my gift to the register and checked out. I met my father back out on the curb, gift in hand. I had bought the box, but I remained unsold, for I didn’t think the gift said what I felt. Few gifts do.
I still find myself aimlessly wandering about, but not in stores and not buying gifts for girls. These days, I’m shopping around for churches, trying to find a parish where I want to worship here in California, where I’ve recently moved.
I’ve been to a local neighborhood parish where I have been surrounded by both families and single people at their morning Mass – a good sign. The music is surprisingly well prepared and last time I was there one particular woman sang loudly (and badly) just a few seats down from me, making everyone uncomfortable. Another parish in the Hills felt like a congregation of Ethel Kennedy lookalikes, complete with pearls and a heavy cloud of liberally atomized perfume all around. I couldn’t wait for Mass to be over – not a good sign.
The student parish is closeby, but it looks like a concrete bunker. The Saturday evening Mass gets me in and out in less than 40 minutes, but utilitarian is not what I want my relationship with a community to be, so, still, I shop around.
The parish I’ve been to most consistently is also the one that is least like any I have ever been to in my life. It’s a wildly diverse parish in Oakland, where people of every stripe come together for a common celebration. The music is good, the preaching is thoughtful, the space is beautiful and the members of the community share in the work of the parish. It’s a lively place, but still, I find myself antsy, still filled with that urge to look for something else, to be with other people.
In that department store, the gift was in my hand, but I wasn’t entirely sure it’s what I wanted to give. In those various churches, I find communion in my sweaty palm (instead of a wad of cash), but I’m not sure I want to receive it from this place or that community. But why not? The old Christmas tune goes, “I Wonder as I Wander”…but for me I wonder why I wander.
Gifts frequently fail to communicate what I want to convey; places fail to live up to all that I want them to be. But I’m slowly realizing that neither the gift nor the parish stand for much in my life until I invest in them, until I give of my time, talent, and treasure with and for others. The gift or place simply ‘is what it is’ – just a token, or a building – until it will be what it will be, transformed by my participation: a place of community or a sign of care and connection.
Only with my heartfelt investment can a gift say what I most want it to say about relationships in my life: that I desire to be in them. And that’s where real community begins: with the gift of self, first and foremost. Indeed, if I want to find the gift I’m looking for, I have to stop shopping for something and start sitting with someone.