Welcoming the stranger—even when he forgets to knock

Dear Father John: Yes, you’re welcome to stay at the rectory while you’re in town for your father’s funeral, but I should warn you that they are redoing the floors downstairs, so there is no living room, no dining or, even, kitchen table.

We’ve all done it. Felt pressured to extend an invitation, which we then whittle down into something no one would accept. It didn’t work. Father John responded that he felt better staying at the rectory, where he would not need to retreat from his family to say his office.

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The night before the funeral, Father John was at the mortuary, leading the wake. Miss Coco Chanel and I were walking around the parish grounds, so lovely with summer flowers. I was saying my own office, while Miss Chanel performed hers as a well-fed Chihuahua.

Jamie, the parish secretary who does everything in the parish, pulled up in pick-up with her son Joss. “We’re going to give the church a last minute cleanup for the funeral tomorrow.”

“Okay. Kent’s already locked the church.” I knew that they had their own key. I only proffered this to suggest that I had some small idea of what happens around the place.

Our duties, ecclesial and canine having been discharged, Coco and I were sitting down in the rectory to enjoy a new history of the Spanish Civil War, when the phone rang.

“St. Joseph. Father Klein.”

“Father, it’s Joss. We think there is someone in the choir loft.”

“Okay, I’ll be right there.” I hung up the phone and immediately asked myself, “Why on earth did you say that?”

I had an answer. “Because I’m the pastor and that sounds like the sort of thing that a pastor should say.”

How about, “Get out of there and call the police?”

I hate to argue with myself so I cut it short by putting one foot in front of the other, entering the church by the nearest door, that of the sacristy. A part of me was still sounding off, “Do you have any idea what it feels like to be shot, or stabbed?”

Walking towards the back of the church, I did indeed see someone moving in the choir loft. “You there. I see you. Come down from there.” My interior critic concurred. “Excellent, at least this way you won’t be stabbed, or shot, way up there where no one can help.”

“Oh, this is very embarrassing. Yes, I’m coming right down. I will explain.” A young man, of college age, descended the stairs. “I’m Logan.” If he proffered a last name, I don’t recall. “I’m bicycling across the United States, from Washington State to Boston. I’m doing it to raise money for Nepal.”

“And you’re in our choir loft because…?”

“Because I’m not used to this hundred degree heat and relentless sunshine. I’ve taken to biking at night, and sleeping during the heat of the day. Someone downtown said that the church would be unlocked and cool. I’m planning to head out around two this morning. That’s my bike, locked to the fence outside.”

Stabbing still seemed possible but unlikely. I had already gone paternal. “Do you really think that is safe?” I meant biking at night. He thought that I meant resting in any place that seemed cool.

“Oh, yes. Last night, in Missouri, and man let me wash up in his home. He even fixed me supper.”

“And do you think that is safe?” No Kansan will stay with a stranger in Missouri. Not since Quantrill burned Lawrence.

“Oh, he was very nice.”

Jamie and Joss were scurrying around us at the foot of the choir loft stairs, like they were employees of the Hotel Budapest. The hotel manager having been called for the guest, they had returned to their duties. They moved flowers from one table to another, put out Kleenex, dusted off a statue, all the while following every word.

“You can’t stay in the choir loft.”

“I was going to move on at two.”

“But we have to lock the church before two in the morning.”

He showed me his Facebook page, with pictures of his aunt joining him to bike through Missouri. He was going to volunteer for a year in Nepal before he entered med school. He had just graduated from Dartmouth.

“The university, not the grain elevator.” I said this for the benefit of Jamie and Joss, who were still busily looking uninterested. The Dartmouth grain elevator is a Barton County landmark, which unfortunately eclipses the luster of the school for folks out here, for whom the word “Manhattan” means, “home of the Wildcats.”

Father John was already staying at the rectory, which has five bedrooms. Logan wasn’t a minor, and he wouldn’t be the only guest. “Get your stuff and meet me over at the backdoor of the rectory.”

Jamie sidled up to me, much as Barney Fife used to do with Sherriff Taylor. “I guess we could have called and got him a room at the Wolf Hotel.”

“I didn’t think of that.” The Wolf Hotel has only three rooms, all of them haunted. “But it’s only a few hours, and he’ll be on his way.”

Joss helped Logan carrying his air mattress, backpacks and supplies into the kitchen. He was staying with this Hotel Budapest stick. All he needed was a bellboy cap

“I had leftover pizza for supper, but I could make you a sandwich.”

“That’s very kind of you. Wow, what great bread.”

“Thanks, I’m teaching myself to bake it.”

“And here are some tomatoes a parishioner gave me, but you will…” He plucked one in his mouth and made a face, “wash them before you eat them.”

“Yes, they’re a little dirty tasting. Wow, garden tomatoes. I don’t think that I’ve ever had them.”

Just then, dressed in his rumpled black cassock, Father John came in from the wake, with a friend.

“Father Terry, this is Jonathan Hogg. Is there a place where we might visit and renew acquaintances?” John really does talk that way. I’m thinking that it’s part of being in the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter and saying Mass only in Latin. John is very kind, gentle and humble. He just doesn’t speak much Kansan anymore.

It’s a big rectory. I remembered that the room, which I call the parlor, hadn’t been torn up. “You can visit in there.”

“This is Jonathan Hogg. His father Wilber, taught at the high school for many years.” You’ve got to admire someone like Father John, standing there, with Coco yipping at the fringe of his cassock, still seeing to societal niceties.

“Yes, Jonathon. Nice to see you. I believe that you took pictures for the paper, 30 some years ago at my ordination.”

“No, that was my brother, Dale.”

They both looked at my “guest.” “This is Logan. He’s on his way to Nepal.” How much was I supposed to explain? The niceties depleted, I asked, “Can I get you something to drink?”

“Perhaps some ice water,” Father John suggested.

I asked Logan to excuse me, while I got the ice water.

Logan politely responded, “No, Father Terrance. Please, see to your guests.”

Coco put her paws on over her head, like Eddie, the dog on Frazier. She had had enough.

I wanted to say, “They’re not my guests. You’re not my guest. A few minutes ago, I wasn’t expecting any of you.” Instead, I said, “How about some garden cantaloupe, and I have some homemade ice cream to go with it.”

“You make homemade ice cream and bake bread?”

“Logan, it’s a small town. I like to keep busy.”

Those who would reduce Jesus to the role of a wonderful human being, someone who could guest star on Sesame Street without making any demands upon human life, must needs ignore an injunction like this:

If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother,
wife and children, brothers and sisters,
and even his own life,
he cannot be my disciple.
Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me
cannot be my disciple (Lk 14: 26-27).

 

But the command is not an exception to the anodyne Christ of modernity. Quite the contrary, it expresses the core of his Gospel message, which is the revelation of his own self as the Son of God. The Son comes forth from the Father, because the Father is unbridled love. The Son comes among us—born in a stable, arms stretched wide on the cross—because of who God is, in self and to us: gracious gift, unmerited largess.

Those who would survive in the world look out for themselves and for their own. And, let’s be honest, some people in the choir lofts are dangerous. Yet Christ calls us forth from comfort. He tells us to forget ourselves and to look to those who do not belong to us, to be unbridled in our love. When we deny ourselves for others, when we take up his cross, we do more than engage in asceticism. We participate in the very nature of God. In God to be, to have and to give are one.

The next morning Father John had prayed his office and left to join his family. Logan had locked the back door of the rectory on his way out, just as I had asked. Coco and I again peacefully strolled the grounds of the beautiful Hotel Budapest.

Wisdom 9: 13-18b Philomen 9-10, 12-17 Luke 14: 25-33

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Mary Nolan
2 years 3 months ago
Fr.Klein, I love reading your stuff. :)

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