More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them.
It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems.
My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress.
But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.
“When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited.9 If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place.10 But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests.11 For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
“When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid.13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Luke 14: 7-14
In the unspoken hierarchy of what makes a church function, I’m a kitchen lady and always will be. I remember those very women from my childhood church of the fifties and sixties– their tight-knit ability to function as if one organism, swarming in aprons among tables set up in the fellowship hall and bustling around in the back by the stoves with steaming pots and pans and the occasionally dropped plate.
They kept the rest of us alive, those church ladies, by feeding us efficiently and plentifully and never ever sitting down. I would occasionally see them eating standing up in the back of the hall, chatting amiably among themselves after the rest of us were served, but I knew they carefully wrapped up the leftovers during the clean up to deliver to shut-ins who couldn’t make it to the church supper.
I knew I was destined to become a kitchen lady, shy and introverted as I am, hiding myself behind huge plates of food and piles of dish cloths. For me, it is a place of comfort and clean up filled with plenty of leftovers for anyone who needs them, and that just about perfectly describes the kingdom of God in my book and His Book.
May my eyes see, my ears hear, my heart understand. He prepares me with parable.
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees takes off his shoes.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Yesterday, on a beautiful Sabbath evening, some fifty folks spent a few hours here on our farm for worship and potluck for this summer’s first of our Wiser Lake Chapel’s long-running “outdoor church” tradition at various farms in our county. Over the many years we have hosted this wonderful gathering of our church body, we have met up on our farm’s hill pasture and also under the shade of our front yard walnut trees. As lovely as it is to meet on the hill with so many vistas and views, there are many manure piles and mole hills lying in wait to sully the bare toes of our active church kids.
Indeed, our children are more apt than the grown ups to follow the instruction of the Lord when He told Moses:
“Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
There have long been cultures where shoes are to be removed before touching the surface of the floor inside a residence or temple in an intentional act of leaving the dirt of the world at the door to preserve the sanctity and cleanliness of the inner life.
Yet we as Christians wear shoes into church every Sunday, having walked in muck and mire of one sort or another all week. We try our best to clean up for Sunday, but we track in the detritus of our lives when we come to sit in the pews. Rather than leave it at the door, it comes right in with us, not exactly hidden and sometimes downright stinky. That is when we are in obvious need for a good washing, shoes, feet, soul and all, and that is exactly why we need to worship together as a church family in need of cleansing, whether indoors or outdoors.
Jesus Himself demonstrated our need for a wash-up on the last night of His life, soaking the dusty feet of His disciples.
And then there is what God said. He asked that holy ground be respected by the removal of our sandals. We must remove any barrier that prevents us from entering fully into His presence, whether it be our attitude, our stubbornness, our unbelief, or our constant centering on self rather than other.
No separation, even a thin layer of leather, is desirable when encountering God.
We trample roughshod over holy ground all the time, blind to where our feet land and the impact they leave behind. Perhaps by shedding the covering of our eyes, our minds, and our feet, we would see earth crammed with heaven and God on fire everywhere, in every common bush and in every common heart.
So we may see.
So we may listen.
So we may feast together.
So we remove our sandals so our bare feet may touch His holy ground.
Thank you to Bette Vander Haak and Kerry Garrett for sharing their pictures of outdoor church on our farm.
…when I experienced the warm, unpretentious reception of those who have nothing to boast about, and experienced a loving embrace from people who didn’t ask any questions, I began to discover that a true spiritual homecoming means a return to the poor in spirit to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs.
~Henri Nouwen from The Return of the Prodigal Son
Today is the 100th anniversary of Wiser Lake Chapel‘s building dedication ceremony and picnic — a special celebration is planned with information found here.
Back in the early days of Whatcom County, the little church on Wiser Lake had been constructed through “contributions of the people” in a rural neighborhood only a few miles from where we now live. $600 in lumber was provided by a local farmer whose trees were cut and milled and brought by horse drawn wagon to a building site adjacent to a one room school house along a corrugated plank road. The total property was “valued at $1800, but of even more value to the community.” The dedication ceremony was held on Sunday, August 27, 1916 followed by “a basket dinner—come with well filled baskets for a common table, under the direction of the Ladies Aid”. This was to be followed by a “Fellowship Meeting, special music and fraternal addresses” and the day ended at 8 PM with a Young People’s Meeting. So began the long history of the “Wiser Lake Church”.
For reasons unrecorded in the history of the church, the original denomination closed the doors thirty years later, and for awhile the building was empty and in need of a congregation. By the fifties, it became a mission church of the local Christian Reformed Churches and launched a Sunday School program for migrant farm and Native American children in the surrounding rural neighborhood. No formal church services started until the sixties. By the time the building was sixty years old, so many children were arriving for Sunday School, there was not enough room so the building was hoisted up on jacks to allow a hole to be dug underneath for a basement full of classrooms. Over the course of a summer, the floor space doubled, and the church settled back into place, allowed to rest again on its foundation.
Over seventy years after its dedication ceremony, our family drove past the boxy building countless times hurrying on our way to other places, barely giving it a second glance. It had a classic design, but showed its age with peeling paint, a few missing shingles, an old fashioned square flat roofed belfry, and arched windows. The hand lettered sign spelling out “Wiser Lake Chapel” by the road constituted a humble invitation of sorts, simply by listing the times of the services.
On a blustery December Sunday evening, we had no place else to be for a change. Instead of driving past, we stopped, welcomed by the yellow glow pouring from the windows and an almost full parking lot. Our young family climbed the steps to the big double doors, and inside were immediately greeted by a large balding man with a huge grin and encompassing handshake. He pointed us to one of the few open spots still available in the old wooden pews.
The sanctuary was a warm and open space with a high lofted ceiling, dark wood trim accents matching the ancient pews, and a plain wooden cross above the pulpit in front. There was a pungent smell from fir bough garlands strung along high wainscoting, and a circle of candles standing lit on a small altar table. Apple pie was baking in the kitchen oven, blending with the aroma of good coffee and hot cocoa.
The service was a Sunday School Christmas program, with thirty some children of all ages and skin colors standing up front in bathrobes and white sheet angel gowns, wearing gold foil halos, tinfoil crowns and dish towels wrapped with string around their heads. They were prompted by their teachers through carols and readings of the Christmas story. The final song was Silent Night, sung by candle light, with each child and member of the congregation holding a lit candle. There was a moment of excitement when one girl’s long hair briefly caught fire, but after that was quickly extinguished, the evening ended in darkness, with the soft glow of candlelight illuminating faces of the young and old, some in tears streaming over their smiles.
It felt like home. We had found our church.
We’ve never left.
Over the past one hundred years this old building has seen a few thousand people come and go, has had peeling paint and missing shingles, a basement that floods when the rain comes down hard, toilets that don’t always flush, and though it smells heavenly on potluck days, there are times when it can be just a bit out of sorts and musty. It really isn’t anything to boast about.
It is humble and unpretentious yet envelops its people in its loving and imperfect embrace, with warmth, character and a uniqueness that is unforgettable.
It really is not so different from the folks who have gathered there over the years.
We know we belong,
such as we are,
just as we are,
blessed by God with a place to join together.
As a celebration of harvest time, our church shared a harvest meal together this weekend, and this beautiful Hopkins poem came to mind. Hopkins himself wrote, “The Hurrahing sonnet was the outcome of half an hour of extreme enthusiasm as I walked home alone one day from fishing in the Elwy.” And how else can we approach the gift of harvest than with “extreme enthusiasm”?
Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks rise Around; up above, what wind-walks! what lovely behaviour Of silk-sack clouds! has wilder, wilful-wavier Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?
I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes, Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour; And eyes, heart, what looks, what lips yet give you a Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?
And the azurous hung hills are his world-wielding shoulder Majestic – as a stallion stalwart, very-violet-sweet! – These things, these things were here and but the beholder Wanting; which two when they once meet, The heart rears wings bold and bolder And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet. ~Gerard Manley Hopkins “Hurrahing in Harvest”
We celebrate end of winter’s overlong stay,
And find a respite from embittered mood,
Ignore our sagging incomes for a day,
With shared potluck communion of comfort food.
Beef stew stocked with veggies and potatoes,
Drizzled bread cubes over macaroni and cheese,
Salted nachos dotted with ripened tomatoes,
Meat loaf topped with ketchup to please.
Home made bread from the oven, steaming and soft
Fresh hot chocolate and coffee provide reason to stay,
Remember the smell of shared food will lazily waft
So welcome and hardy with no debt to pay.
When the job is lost or the family is sour,
Too many nights lonely and aching in pain,
Fellowship together for only an hour,
Nurtured and nourished, is never in vain.
Once gratefully finishing up the last crumb,
When life’s feast is done, the journey’s end near
Hang on to your fork awaiting dessert that’s to come
Instead of clinging to worry and unknown fear.
Keep your fork when uncertain about what comes tomorrow
It will remind you of what you can not yet see;
The meal’s not quite over, there’ll be sweetness, not sorrow:
We’ll celebrate together, the best yet to be.
Perhaps it was celebration of the end of a long cold winter month
Possibly a need of respite from a month of dieting
Likely a response to economic bad news day after day:
A potlatch, a potluck, a communion of comfort food.
What to bring? What soothes stomach and heart?
Macaroni and cheese, with drizzled bread cubes on top
Beef stew chuck-a-block with vegetables and potatoes
Meat loaf topped with catsup
Spaghetti and pizza
Home made bread, steaming, soft
Whole chocolate milk
And ice cream sundaes
Or requiring debt to pay.
It was the beginning
Of an evening of games and laughter;
When times get tough
And jobs are lost, savings dwindling
It is time for reconnecting community,
For huddling against the storm
Forgetting worry for a night
And sharing comfort, all together, smiling.