Kathryn Lester-Bacon: House blessings help bear witness to real life

Photo illustration by Jessamyn Rubio

An associate pastor discovers the joy of accompanying people across actual thresholds with liturgical loving care.

It took us more than three tries to light the candle. The flame sputtered, caught.

Dick let out a long breath, while I took one in. After many phone calls, emails and failed attempts to find a time when other family members could attend, Dick had decided to just go ahead and bless this house.

For over 40 years, he had lived in this place. Tomorrow, it was going on the market. Today, we were blessing it and saying goodbye. Right now, he and I stood in the middle of the empty foyer.

I have led house blessings several times now, most often with young adults who are making their own homes for the first time. These parties are a delightful mixture of awkward giggles, earnest questions and grateful glasses of gifted wine.

The blessing services are works of joy and invitation, as well as a gentle education in the art of hospitality. Often, I need to coax participants to share their names and their thoughts, something they are not used to doing in a worship service of any kind.

This house blessing with Dick was a different act of worship. Here we were witnessing the close of a season, the end of an era. Dick was saying goodbye to the home he had shared with his wife of 50 years, as well as his two daughters. The daughters had long ago grown up and left home; his wife had died a year before.

Dick and I entered an alcove off the kitchen, where the ghost of a dinner table was exposed by four precisely indented circles in the carpet. The walls glistened a bit, still lightly marinated in layers of cooking oil and conversation.

“Let’s name something that happened here,” I encouraged Dick. This is a part of the liturgy where a pause often balloons through the gathering until one voice punctures it. But not here. Dick adjusted his candle, sighed deeply and started rattling off memories. I could not have halted them if I tried: “Sitting with each other, sitting with our dogs, cooking, hosting the church council, burning the pot roast, burning the popcorn, feeding the dogs with scraps off the table, pretending that we didn’t see the girls doing the same thing ...”

The words tumbled out of him, a stream of blessings that kept flowing. No action was too menial to be celebrated, no moment too vulnerable to be shared. We continued through the rooms, and when it came time to name what had happened in each place, Dick’s words poured out and pooled around us, filling the room with memory and meaning.

He did not hesitate or hold back. He took the liturgy seriously. Where it invited him to share, he shared. Where it invited him to pray, he prayed. He teared up, chuckled and chatted throughout the 30-minute service.

As a pastor, I read a lot about “meeting people where they are.” I have discussed this with colleagues as taking our ministry out into the world, meeting people in innovative and creative gathering spaces.

Indeed, I meet people in coffee shops and restaurants, at street festivals and brewpubs more than I meet them in their homes. And yet my pastoral ministry suffers when I do not value the thresholds -- physical, emotional, spiritual -- that my parishioners cross every day of their lives.

Pastoral ministry is still essentially about bearing witness to the shadowy thresholds of life -- birth, death, new jobs, new schools, new disabilities and more. House blessings create space to accompany each other across actual thresholds with worshipful invitation and attentive love. They offer the chance to honor what houses our bodies and spirits.

Even if the square footage is small, even if the paint is peeling, even if the owners are actually renters who are excitedly claiming this space as their own, those who accept a blessing on their homes often appreciate being reminded that this most familiar of places has worth and beauty in the eyes of God. So often, our homes come gleaming with hope and promise; inevitably, they will be burnished by both grief and joy. People need someone to bear witness to the Spirit in this place.

I first experienced the liturgical loving care of a house blessing from my mom, a pastor for over three decades. As I have gone deeper into my own ordained ministry, house blessings have become one of my favorite ways to care for others.

While I believe that God shows up in many places, working through humans in surprising ways, I must confess that I am still surprised and moved when I encounter the Spirit amid musty carpet, peeling paint and beige-on-beige outlines. Here, too, Christ is made known.

At the end of Dick’s house blessing, he asked for a photo looking out over the yard, one last memento of the space he had loved so fully. I took the picture, his red sweater the brightest thing in the echoing, darkening room.

After that, he asked for a photo of the gas meter so he could send the reading to the utility company. I took that photo, too.

Sometimes pastoral care means witnessing to a Spirit who breathes through our going out and our coming in. Sometimes it means naming a cloud of witnesses who fill a place with memory and meaning.

Sometimes it means crouching over the gas meter outside the old home that has housed a beloved, cherished child of God.