ON NORWICH AND VISIONS
When I came to Norwich I decided that I would stand outside the church for a half hour before my first service each Sunday. This gives me the opportunity to greet people coming to the service, of course, but also to say hello to all who are out and about in Colegate on a Sunday morning. “Good morning! Why don't you come in and join us?” I'll say and they always smile and say, “Maybe next time vicar!” And even if next time doesn't happen I feel like there's been a connection made somehow, and if these folks ever are in need of a vicar they just might think of me.
The people are almost always friendly. I'm well aware that some who pass are non-believers who probably think I'm deluded or silly for clinging to the story of Christianity like I do, but they're always very polite. They always say hello back and frequently stop to chat – especially dog walkers. Maybe they sense I'm a dog person and worthy of a chat, I don't know. But even without dogs I have found people to be generally lovely and polite.
That's why what happened a couple of evenings ago – in my usual place in front of the church greeting people – was so remarkable. Someone came in who wasn't a stranger at all, but rather someone who worships there. “Good evening,” I bellowed as I always do and the most extraordinary thing happened: this person did not respond. I'm pretty sure I was heard (I'm not exactly a shrinking violet in the volume department) but for whatever reason this person did not feel a need to greet me back, rather just walked on by and went into the church. I later found out that someone in the church greeted this person as well and was also ignored.
At first this made me angry – I have to admit. I mean, really, it doesn't cost much to say hello to someone, does it? Even if someone doesn't like me – it can happen; I get it – I still don't think there's any need to be discourteous. So, yes, I was a little miffed, partially because it seems inappropriate not to greet someone when they greet you, but especially because we were ready to go into a church to celebrate the Eucharist which is, of course, a thanksgiving and a communion.
But then, standing on that cold street, watching my breath float up into the darkened Norfolk sky, my anger turned to sadness. I imagined that “Good evening!” almost as a lovely bird, flying around trying to be beautiful and not finding a place to land where the joy of its song could be heard and loved. I imagined it flying all over the city, desperate to find someone who would receive it.
But then, someone on the other side of the street who was shuffling with what appeared to be alcohol-influenced steps shouted at me, “Cold enough for you, vicar?” And I said, “Just about. It's warmer in the church. Maybe you want to come in?”
“Not tonight, vicar. Maybe next time!”
“Absolutely! We're always here. You have a good evening.”
“You, too vicar.”
And then I had a different thought, a vision, if you will. (Maybe I've been in Norwich too long, where people like dear Julian having visions is not out of the norm.) In my vision my unreturned greeting didn't fly away and not find a place to rest, it instead went out all over the city to all kinds of people. I imagined it going out to those whom I've seen sleeping rough in doorways. I imagined it going out to the boy who was being mercilessly bullied. I imagined it going out to the girl who had been abused. I imagined it going out to the guy who got 28 months in jail for stealing the lead off our roof. I imagined it going out to the transgender girl weighted down by sadness because of the judgement of others. I imagined it going out to the woman trapped in slavery. I imagined it going out to the man who had lost his wife. I imagined it going out to the terminally ill. I imagined it going out to a family who did not know how they were going to make it to the end of the month. I imagined it going out to the lonely, the frightened, the misunderstood, the hungry, the weak, the alienated, the searching.
Across the city and across the world I imagined that simple yet beautiful greeting flying, and for every person who ignored it there were perhaps ten upon whom it landed, letting them know that at that moment they were important, considered, connected, not alone.
After I went into the church and celebrated the Eucharist, caught up in the beauty of Scripture, architecture, music, and people. And as I saw the faces of those gathered (even the face of the one who refused my greeting) I was overcome with the idea that all of them, too, could unleash these greetings on a city and world so very much in need of them. And I could almost see them all, swirling around the church like spiralling smoke above a candle. As the Eucharist ended and I walked once again outside, I could almost feel the greetings woosh past me, making their way out into the cold night.
Maybe some would be refused. But they would not be silenced. Grace and love never are.