Monday, September 6, 2010

I Went to Church Today

I went to Church today in the congregation where I was baptized and confirmed and in which I grew up.  The faces were mostly all familiar, some younger folks who probably think me an old timer and some older folks now even older.  The book in the pew is Lutheran Service Book (when I was little, there were no books in the pews at all and folks brought their hymnals from home) so change has come even to the Nebraska prairie.  Many of the folks I grew up knowing are buried down the hill in the cemetery.  It was one of those many homecoming moments filled with emotion as I sat in the same old pew I sat in growing up.  It was not the first time back and it will not be the last but it was a poignant moment, nonetheless.

As I sat there I looked and listened and learned.  This was not just a congregation but an extended family of people.  My Dad had both knees replaced and I watched my mother as person after person came up to ask how he was doing.  This was not just good manners -- this was the caring, compassionate love of Christ at work.  I looked a couple of pews ahead and there was my Dad's cousin from the nursing home, faithfully brought to Church by her son and daughter-in-law.  Her memory is fading but the place in the pew clearly was a deep connection that seemed to by-pass the span of time.  I saw another cousin, now remarried, he in his late 80s and she just 80 and he made his way over to make sure I met his bride.  I spoke to a woman about her sister, my classmate, now struggling with ALS and we spoke with tears of the toll this terrible disease had taken and the good spirit with which she faced it all.  I watched in surprise at the many children in this congregation and of the oldest who carted around the youngest in this family of five siblings.  I looked at the deep and abiding faith and the sacrificial love exchanged in evidence of Christ's presence there.  As I walked up to receive the Sacrament, I watched as older brought the young and the younger helped the older so that they might be together at the Table of the Lord.

It occurs to me that this is both what is missing from so many congregations and what people are looking for in all the wrong places.  Whether size or diversity of people or short tenures of those sitting in the pews, too many congregations are assemblies of strangers.  Many of us are attracted by the very anonymity afforded by these larger congregations -- we sneak in and sneak out as strangers among strangers.  Certainly amid some congregations it is impossible to be known or to know others simply because of the size and scale of the assembly.

Yet the closeness that I observed in this small congregation remains the desire of most folks.  Large congregations organize in smaller groups to make for the kind of connections impossible on Sunday morning.  The people who love to slip in and slip out anonymously are often the very same people who complain that no one knows them or cares about them.  We like it when the bank teller or dry cleaner or check out person knows us or calls us by name.  We seek out those intimate connections which seem so few and far between in our mobile and impersonal culture.  Though we act as if anonymity is freedom, it is a freedom we seem willing to sacrifice for the warmth and personal connection of others who share our faith and values.

I wish I knew how to create this closeness where I live and work as a Lutheran Pastor in Tennessee.  We struggle to connect new people to the established congregation and we struggle to keep people connected as changes and chances press upon our harried lives.  We struggle to maintain a familiar identity in a community of strangers and to help people learn and practice the love and compassion of Christ in ways that seem natural and easy where I grew up.  It occurs to me that this is perhaps a better barometer of success than mere numbers that assume much about the individuals we count for attendance numbers on Sunday morning.

I like living in a larger community and I like the things a larger congregation affords (in part due to finances) but I really do miss the casseroles dropped off when someone is sick, the funeral luncheons for hundreds who come to remember and give thanks to God for the dead and their salvation afforded by Christ.  I miss some of the intrusiveness of those close connections where there are no secrets or privacy.  I miss the earnest prayers and the acted out prayers of the works of those who believe not just in the theory of community but its practice.  I wish my children had grown up with this atmosphere... And maybe at some point in time I might return to it... but for now I am visiting and enjoying the blessed ties that bind.

1 comment:

Billye said...

I regularly read your Blog and find it an anchor and also thought provoking.

My husband and I moved to a new community and new church a few years back. My husband was born and raised in that church and community and we knew all of the members and their families well. The pastor in our new church regularly prayed for congregations in the district. I will never forget the day our former congregation was mentioned in the prayers. It brought tears to my eyes as the picture of all the members, sitting in their regular places, was very clear in my mind. We knew the pain and trials all of them had and continue to go through. But they were there, each Sunday, receiving the gifts of Word and Sacrament. Small churches with faithful pastors are a blessings to all who attend. I miss that closeness.