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Last Sunday, my wife and I entered the side door of the old church building. The small entryway had a few steps that led up to two vintage oak doors. The one on the left led to the back corner of the sanctuary. Next to it, the right door led to an overflow room that people walked through to get to the offices and classroom building.
As we opened the left hand door, it creaked. The floor creaked under our feet. Light streamed in from the bright winter day outside through the large stained glass windows set above the sanctuary. The room had been designed in a rather unique fashion. Square, the pulpit area was set in a corner and the pews fanned out and up from it in auditorium fashion. I walked to the platform and noted the ancient chairs and the pulpit with its small velvet-covered top. I looked out over wooden pews and surveyed a sanctuary that was over a century old.
It brought back memories.
At the tender age of 22, still single and only a few years into a whirlwind time of life-change that included moving east with my family from Chicago, finishing high school, undergoing a tumultuous adolescent storm and a spiritual awakening, cutting my hair and going off to Bible college, getting my first car, serving my initial pastoral role as an assistant to the ailing pastor in our home church, getting my first exposure to the wider world on a mission trip to Haiti, meeting and becoming engaged to the love of my life, and then leaving home for good — packing all my belongings in my little black ’74 Super Beetle to go to Vermont — I heard news of a church in the hills that needed a pastor.
The little Baptist church was in a small village in southeastern Vermont, just over the mountain from one of the most popular ski resorts in the region. The church building was one of those “calendar” churches — white clapboards, steeple, tall side windows, front steps. They rang the bell in the tower when it was time for church to begin. Years before, congregants had attached the town’s old one-room schoolhouse to the rear of the building for a Sunday School room. The church proper was nearly 120 years old. Set close to the road that went up over the mountain, it was one of the few public buildings in the heart of the village, along with the volunteer fire department, the post office, and a small general store that went in and out of business over the years. A small fellowship hall, used infrequently and maintained by the Ladies Aid and Missionary Society, sat across the street.
The congregation had first incorporated in 1814, just about a generation after the Revolutionary War and the founding of our nation. You can still go to the town hall and read records that stretch back to its beginning, when the village had a grain mill on the brook that ran down the mountainside. Amid the perfunctory accounts of names, finances, and business meetings, you can read about such events as when the church officially disciplined a young man accused of stealing from the mill, actually holding a trial in the church to take testimony, examine the evidence, declare a verdict, and pass sentence.
The church used to practice closed communion, dismissing non-members after the main worship service, so that the members who had professed their faith openly could gather at the Lord’s Table. One of the longest disputes in town, between two families, grew out of an incident when a man took objection to being excused from taking the ordinance.
And so they have carried on over the years, struggling to be God’s people among neighbors who live close, know your secrets, and probably heard you take the Lord’s name in vain when you smashed your finger with the hammer. Throughout various seasons, they made it through without a pastor in the pulpit. Every year to this day, they have “Old Home Sunday,” when they send out invitations to anyone they can find who has ever come to church there, encouraging them to come back for worship and dinner on the grounds.
Someone once wrote a brief history of the church. For its theme, the author chose Luke 12:32 — “Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Over the years and decades, the Father has done that. They have always been, and probably always will be a “little flock.” But of such are the kingdom of heaven.
The parsonage, also across the street from the church, was built just before the house of worship. It was a plain white wooden two-story affair, with an old garage/barn attached. It became my home, and soon our home when Gail and I were married. It had big square rooms with high ceilings, wooden floors, a nice big country kitchen, a small study that became my office, an oil furnace (in the midst of the “energy crisis” no less), and — get this — no heat upstairs. In Vermont. A round hole in the upstairs bedroom floor marked the spot where a stove pipe had come through when the house was heated by wood. It provided the only opening for warmer air to rise into the second floor. Not much rose, let me tell you, especially on subzero winter nights in New England. It might have provided the ideal situation for newlyweds to snuggle close at night, except that we wore more clothes to bed than we did during the day!
The congregation had been without a pastor for several years when I showed up. With little more to offer than a pittance of a salary (without benefits) and a 120-year old manse with no heat in the bedrooms, set in a village of 200 people in the mountains, ministers were not beating down the doors for the opportunity to serve there. Apparently the denomination wasn’t helping the church much either, believing the setting to be unpromising. That was a source of irritation the church leaders felt perfectly free to scowl about. The New England states also had a reputation as spiritually barren. People were cold there, like the weather; that was the scuttlebutt.
In other words, it was the perfect place for me.
When we returned there recently for a visit, a lady told me she had visited the church soon after I became the pastor. When she saw me up front at the pulpit that morning, she thought it must be youth Sunday. I was so wet behind the ears it wasn’t funny. What was funny was the fact that I apparently didn’t know it. I had enough youthful chutzpah and ignorance to think I could be a pastor. Hey, I did great in school! People liked me well enough. I’d had a little experience preaching and singing and standing in front of people in college. I knew absolutely nothing, including the fact that I knew absolutely nothing.
Like I said though, I had found a perfect place. Patient people dwelt in these hills. These folks had lived in the green mountains and along their ridges, forced to eke out a living year after year for generations. Handymen, tradesmen, laborers, all hard workers, many served the flatlanders who came up periodically to enjoy vacation homes with spectacular vistas, ski down Vermont’s renowned slopes, and visit the quaint tourist villages and shops throughout the area. Many of the women cleaned houses or inns, cooked, and took care of elderly neighbors. Others drove school buses, helped at the school or library, or worked in shops and offices in nearby towns.
Most were self-sufficient to one degree or another. They filled their freezers with meat from hunting. They had woodpiles the size of small barns to keep them warm through the winter. They planted big gardens and raised animals. They tapped trees for maple syrup to use and sell. They fixed their own cars and made their own repairs on their houses and property, often making use of a neighbor’s expertise in matters where one lacked skill or knowledge. They figured out a way and kept going.
Lord knows, they were patient with me. I don’t know about you, but I had all the answers when I was 22. When you add to my youth the fact that my entire life had changed dramatically in five years, catching me up in a tempest of spiritual fervor, rapid change, and the adventure of launching out into adult life with all its boundless possibilities, it was a heady time in my life. So our wise God in his providence slowed me down.
He set me behind a velvet-covered pulpit in a 120-year old church building with an old Regulator clock ticking away on the wall. He had me lead hymns accompanied by Rose and Leone, the octogenarian musicians, who played at such a painfully slow pace that I think we still have a verse or two to sing. He called me to sit in on board meetings where we quibbled about literal dollars and cents. I thought I had to wear a suit. I should have toned it down a bit. I should have joined the volunteer fire department, like my successor did, but I was too “separated” at that point in my life to do that. Oh God, I didn’t have a clue.
So God was kind enough to do things like giving me a second job as a school bus driver. That humbled me. I arose on those frigid mornings at 5am and went up to the neighbor’s house so he could try again to show me how to put the snow chains on the tires. I never did get it right. In that church I met Harold, the old Vermont farmer who couldn’t accept that the Bible called him a “saint” or that we ought to pray when there was work to be done. I had to swallow my pride and grudgingly admit that he and a lot of the other men there knew Christ far more deeply than I did, even though I knew the Bible better. And I wore a suit.
I did more funerals than I can remember. Many of them were graveside services overlooking spectacular scenery. Spread my ashes there, please. Evangelism was tough and I wasn’t very good at it, though we had a few notable successes. I drank more cups of coffee and tea and ate more pieces of pie, cake, and pastry on visits to homes than I care to admit. I learned to listen, I tried to speak the right words, and I came to be profoundly convinced of the importance of forbearance and forgiveness. I needed it so often, you see.
It grieves me to recall one particularly painful failure when I walked into the post office one afternoon to get my mail. I greeted a lady with a smile and perfunctory hello and walked out without talking to her. Only later did I discover she had just lost a child in an accident. She was a neighbor and I didn’t know it. You’d better believe I heard about it from the postmistress who was her friend and a member of the church. I slunk up to my neighbor’s door and apologized so fervently my head almost came off.
God is so good. He called me to serve (and mostly to learn) in that little congregation and parish of people with weather-worn skin and calloused hands who knew how to survive. If they could wait out the long winters, they could wait out a young buck like me. And so they did.
As I sat last Sunday on the platform in a historic brick Presbyterian church in central Indiana, in the ancient chair, covered like the pulpit top in red, velvety fabric, I sank low into a cushion that had upheld generations of pastoral posteriors. I looked out on a congregation that had many elderly people in attendance, though on this day it was encouraging to see a good mix of families joining them. I thought some of the faces looked familiar. Not that I knew the people personally, but I knew the faces. Most of them were small town folks and some had been in that church all their lives. They sat in creaky wooden pews. The order of service probably hadn’t changed much in years. The choir consisted mostly of older men and women, and they and we sang accompanied by a white-haired organist. We used hymnals. I wore a suit.
I felt at home, though by now I’ve traveled enough miles and been in enough different settings that I can have a sense of being “at home” almost anywhere. Whether it’s in a well-appointed sanctuary, a megachurch “worship center,” seated on the rug on a floor in Kyrgyzstan, on a rooftop gathering with youth in India, at an outdoor rally in Brazil, or in a rec center classroom with a small church plant, God has graced me with such a wide variety of experiences with his people that no place seems out of place to me for his presence or service. He is here, and there, and everywhere. “Let us join our hearts together in worship…”
Still, there is something about the scent of old wood, the creaking of doors, floors, and pews, the sound of shuffling hymnal and Bible pages, the feel of the velvet on top of the pulpit and on the cushion into which I sink, and most of all, the sight of the wrinkled faces of those who have learned to survive.
I too will survive. There is a place for us all. Fear not, little flock.