Monday, September 17, 2007
The country parish
Welcome to my new parish to which I have been assigned for "Teaching Parish." Behind these doors lies a country parish built on land from someone's farm. There is probably only one farmer left now. Life has changed. To the right, if I had used a wider angle, you would see the sprawling cemetery for the saints triumphant which is still actively used.
Behind the building is a new addition that houses class space, the pastor's office, restrooms, and downstairs, the social room and kitchen. Since the parking lot is around back as well, many people do not come in the "front door" anymore which says "Welcome", they come in the back or side doors which do not say anything.
The congregation worships on average 80 people at one service. Many folks are "from here" although that has started to change. Many people used to come from neighboring farms to this parish, but now they come from developments or home scattered throughout the community. The town actually has three Lutheran churches.
Our parish on a winding country road, off of the beaten path. Some very large new homes have been built nearby but the people in these homes want a church that looks like their home, new, and contemporary. Which may be too bad. For people who will miss out on a great experience here, and for those who wonder what the future will hold here if folks do not come.
Amidst this are people who take awhile to warm up to a new face. Once I was introduced and "installed" many people wanted to meet me at the door, at the sharing of the peace, and during fellowship. Before that I was a face they did not know. Alone. I experimented with their reaction to a total stranger. One person said "Hello" in the parking lot and asked me if I was visiting.
Not one other person said a word. I tried making eye contact, and smiled. I said,
" hello" to people who kind of smiled and kept on. No one sat in my pew even though I sat in the midst of the congregation. Not until it was clear that I was someone they will be seeing and it was clear why I was there. I had the chance to worship in a new place without family ( they were at our home parish) and to be new and "single."
This group of people is pleasant once they connect with me. There is a list of people signed up to take me out to lunch, or home for lunch as the case may be, now that they know who I am. I guess I passed the test, in fact I was even asked what I like to eat.But if they wish to thrive into tomorrow, they will need to grow a little into connecting with the random visitor if they want to continue on. I know they can, and I hope they will. Evangelism is scary.
I sat in on the middle school Sunday school/confirmation- three boys.I confess that while I found teaching 20 middle school students a challenge in the past, three seems...like a different challenge. The class is taught by a high school student and the pastor. Next week I will be teaching with the pastor as the high school student is away.
I will be assistant in worship in a new setting and with new worship practices ( as in this is not how "my church " does it), and intoning the liturgy, but for all of this I will not have a single familiar face. And so the presence of a friendly supervising pastor and the sustaining power of God will have to carry me through. For the first time in my entire life, I am embarking on a journey without a single familiar face, not one connection to prop me up. It's just me and God. I am sure God is up for it. In fact, it sounds really foolish for me to limit God by saying "just God." I am the only one with limitations in this equation.
I think there are many stories to hear and to share. I think that aside from my fears about " getting it right " which is just about me, I suspect that the people here have fears as well. Fears about letting people in who might "change things" or about losing identity, or about what others might think who come here. Maybe a little defensive. Thoughts about what will happen to "my/our church" and maybe if we keep it all the same it will feel right.
But this is surely not the message of Christ for them or for me. This church needs to reach out not just to those who are "like them" but those who are decidedly not. And to eat with the "sinners" whatever that may conjure up. After all aren't we all just a little self-righteous from time to time when we see someone who looks or acts in a way we think is not "right"? And do we not then need to see Christ in those we meet and cast our fears upon God and be about God's mission?
And if this conversation is to happen, it will not be because I or any other person "tells it like it is." If it is to happen, it is because we make connections, build relationships, and understand how each of us got to this place and time. And I look forward to hearing theirs hopes, joys, fears and concerns and pray that they will discern, as I will, where the future will take each of us from the crossroads in our lives. And I am eager to take this journey with them and grateful they have been willing to receive me.