A particularly long walk

Chester and I went walking on Saturday’s still morning.  The earth seemed to be holding its breath awaiting the coming storm:  a dead gray sky, the creek with a black sheen, the monotonous damp penetrating one’s bones.  Thus, the dry leaves were made all the more brilliant in their contrast–bronzes, russets, crimsons, yellows—as they collapsed onto fading grass or scratched their way along the paved road.  They had my full attention for awhile, knowing their time was limited;  the hurricane on its way would see to that.

It was a particularly long walk.  It took time for me to begin to notice the stray, rather unremarkable life tucked here and there. One flimsy strand of goldenrod drooping among brown stalks.  One periwinkle blossom five months tardy.  A thin queen anne’s lace over-extended like an umbrella.  A few brown-eyed susans in a field.  One dandelion.  A pink clover flower, and a small white one too.  Honeysuckles blooming on a branch hugging the ground.  A small campion on the roadside.  A little fleabane and pale aster among stiffened siblings.  Soon it became the morning’s game to discover what still lives and could still invite a bee or two to eat.

Little did I know how much I would need that walk.  The next day, Sunday, was a glorious red festival of worship.  The early service celebrated  “Reformation Sunday” with two baptisms: one a teenager whose two friends in her confirmation class stood as her sponsors.  I had worked hard to make the message about God’s grace as simple, clear and full of gospel as possible.  The seminarian played the trumpet with the choir anthem.  It was good.

But suddenly I knew it would be a particularly long morning when I walked into the second service and less than a dozen people were there.  A few more arrived at the last minute so that the four worship leaders processing, along with the organist, made up a quarter of the congregation.  I sang a thin sounding “A Mighty Fortress is our God” with discouragement penetrating my bones, hope collapsing and energy fading.

I would like to say otherwise, but the heartache of scarcity never left me during that worship. Nevertheless, I had to preach through it and ultimately know that the message coming out of my mouth about grace—that one’s trust itself is an unearned gift of God’s grace—was a message directed to me.  I kept aching, even while little one-year-old Ava, standing in the pew, became a spontaneous illustration for the message.  Aching while I shared the peace with two guests who somehow keep returning to this sparse (but usually not this sparse) service.  Aching even as little Maura, receiving a blessing at communion, announced to me that she knows Jesus loves her.   As you can see, there was plenty of life tucked here and there which simply took some extra concentration to notice.  My questions and doubts and self-judgment, however, remained noisy.  Fortunately God’s promise shouted louder:  wherever two or three are gathered in Jesus name, he is there.  And so I had to walk through the second service by grace noticing where faith still lives and Jesus invites the few to feast on his meal.

Of course, I am aware that, in the larger picture of North America, Christendom is waning.  That my colleagues and their congregations are going through similar struggles.  That the Church, nevertheless, will “reform” once again.  That “God’s word shall forever abide.”  That although, in the informality and secularism of our culture, liturgical “mainline” congregations are feeling it particularly hard, “decline” is not the final or truest word.  But that is for others, probably those much younger than myself, to write about and lead the way.

This is what I know to write:  what is important is not success as defined by statistics, but a faithfulness and openness to God’s call both in the dying and the living.  And so I continue to love and serve this small group of God’s people where, on most days, I notice life and believe God still calls me to be.

But I am going to need to keep taking lots of long walks.