One Sunday morning recently I set forth on the long drive to one of the churches where I often attend Sunday morning meeting with the Old German Baptists--actually almost on time, for a change! It had been a couple weeks since I'd been able to get away from the farm on a Sunday morning, and I was really looking forward to the spiritual gifts that invariably come from the nealry two hours of clear, practical bible study that is what passes for a church service with the OGB.
The 45 minute drive to the "8 Mile" meetinghouse is, in itself, a good meditation. The path lies clear across Lawrence and out the other side, then through miles of hilly farmland. It's good to get out of the river valley now and then, for a change of perspective. Seeing other farms always teaches me something about farming...and sometimes there's a special gift, like seeing a calf born just as I'm driving by. Besides, just driving on the open road has been a "therapy" thing for me for decades.
But imagine my surprise when the parking lot was empty at 8 Mile! Perhaps I'd read the calendar wrong? Since the denomination had a "division" last summer, the small remnants of two churches had joined for worship each week--odd Sundays at one meetinghouse, even Sundays at another.
I drove back to the Willow Springs meetinghouse. Again, an empty lot. Perplexing.
Some dim memory tickled at the back of my brain. Had my OGB friend M. said something a few weeks earlier about a special event some Sunday in April? I couldn't remember. Life has been very, very busy this past month.
But now what? Not exactly "all dressed up and no place to go," because I don't "dress up" for church. But certainly out and about with no clear destination.
I decided to try the Lone Star Church of the Brethren. It's another small, white, wood frame meetinghouse, not quite so plain on the inside (there's a piano, and printed bulletins). The Church of the Brethren, like the OGB and Mennonite churches, is descended from the Anabaptist movement at the time of the Reformation in Europe. Each denomination has preserved some practices at the expense of others, but they share many core values: simplicity (whatever that means...), pacifism, adult baptism. The COB order of the service is very like the Mennonite church I'm exiled from, and uses the same favorite "blue hymnal" as many Mennonite churches, including "mine". They had just finished the Children's Time when I arrived, and were singing the children off to Sunday School so the parents could focus their attention on the sermon. I felt sad for the division of ages. More fun for the children, perhaps, but with families so busy during the week, it seems more important than ever that the children and adults should share the whole church experience, as in the Old German Baptist church.
God, you are showing me who I am in you, and where my path lies. It's not at all clear, but times like this at least show me where it isn't. Please give me the strength and patience to "let the little ones come to me" as you did, "for such is the kingdom of heaven."
I have attended here before, and had not found the service to lift me to heavenly heights of praise and awe, nor lead me to profound depths of reflection. But sometimes it is most important to focus on "Whenever two or more are gathered in my name."
When my mind wandered during the "Meditation Time", I perused the rather commercial-looking pre-printed bulletin cover. There was an interesting meditation printed on the back. I was surprised to recognize the author's name at the bottom...someone who frequently contributes to the lively exchange on a COB listserve I participate on.
The minister directed me to the stairs after the service, making a polite escape tactless. Making small talk as we went down to whatever awaited, I mentioned my pleasure at seeing Brother Eberly's name on the back of the bulletin. "Oh," said the minister. "I guess I'll have to read it...."
Hm, I guess God needed me to help get Brother Eberly's message to the minister....
The fellowship time after the service was far different from either Mennonite or OGB, however. Here this little community showed its full glory. "Something to eat downstairs" turned out to be more than enought finger foods for a full, balanced, healthy meal: fruit, cheese, crackers, raw vegetables, summer sausage, chips, salsa, and cookies. The older lady next to me in line invited me to sit with her and her husband. Another lady about my age sat next to me as I settled in across from the older couple.
"Where do you live?" The older lady asked. I generally begin the answer to this question with "North Lawrence", and go from there as seems appropriate. "Oh, I grew up in North Lawrence," she replied. We compared addresses and found she'd lived just a few blocks from my place in the early 50's, at the time of the '51 flood. She related how her mother and sisters had spent two years living on the back porch of their home while the flood-ravaged house was rebuilt. A useful bit of history...the following day was the public hearing for my Conditional Use Permit to allow camping at the farm, including for myself to have somewhere to live while renovating one of the little houses.
Thanks for the encouragement, God! I'm not so nuts after all...just learning from the past. Camping out for a summer is nothing compared to living with two kids on a porch for two years!
Someone commented on my covering. "You must be German Baptist". I tried not to choke on my astonished laughter, nor embarrass the questioner. "Well, I do attend there usually, but they were having a special function today. Actually the German Baptists wear white gauze coverings; this one is cut from the River Brethren pattern." I went on to explain that each Plain church had its own covering style and color, and I wasn't any of them.
God, I guess you wanted me to remind these people of their Anabaptist cousins in other faith communities. The last names here are all the same ones from the Old German Baptist church, but I guess generations of "disfellowshipping" have spintered the once-close families. Maybe my presence here will begin a path towards rejoicing in their similarities rather than shunning their differences. So many families have been torn apart through our churches' history. As faithful Christian presence in our nation dwindles, it seems like we should band together to strengthen our numbers across divisions, not perpetuate our disagreements about the logs in each others' eyes.
The woman next to me heard me mention I was a Mennonite. "I tried to find Peace [Mennonite] Church when I first moved to town," she said. "I went to the address in the directory, but it was Ecumenical Christian Ministry building, and no one there had ever heard of Mennonites. It was really strange."
I sadly shook my head, commiserating with her confusion. "When was that?" I asked. It was just after the congregation had bought a building of its own and left ECM behind, apparently leaving no forwarding address. My heart aches for my church, hiding from new members and casting out old ones that don't fit the mold.
Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do.
She does not, perhaps, realize that we are ministering to one another. Seeing her disappointment in the implied rejection of not leaving a trail she could follow, I'm reminded that their behavior towards me is not so much about who I am as about who they are, and how they are wounded. My heart softens a little, and I can pray for them more gracefully than usual.
We exchange email addresses. We haven't used them yet, but we each know there is another lost sheep, looking for their rightful fold.
Meanwhile, any flock will suffice for company. The rainbow covering helps me remember that every human interaction I have, every day, truly is ministry work if I remember that it's so. Not just my ministry to others, but others' ministry to me.