The small country church where our family worships every Sunday turned 125 years old this summer. We celebrated with a pageant, picnics, and an old-fashioned “hymn sing” under a big white tent. We lingered long over tables, while our children ran unending circles around a church tucked into the crook of a farm field.
Songs were sung in Norwegian, and white paper doves drifted on fishing line over our heads, each dove bearing the name of every baptized church member from 1888 to 2013.
Just as surely as He reigns in the tallest cathedrals, God resides in simple places like my Iowa church.
I’m an amateur photographer, so I walked across the highway with my camera, to shoot the long view from our church’s cemetery. A summer breeze danced through my hair, and I stepped over gravesites, wondering where they’ll bury me someday.
And then I turned to see it: This is the church that love and loyalty build.
It was built on faith and hope and love, for sure. But it was also built on tears and grief, built up through hard times and world wars, a depression, and — no doubt — a number of disagreements over theology and church administration.
But they were loyal.
They’ve been loyal to God, and loyal to their fellow man.
Surely, over these 125 years, folks have irritated each other. I don’t know details, but someone said something that another person didn’t like. Someone sat in someone’s pew. People sang off key, and too loud, and some were too bossy, and too controlling. Others were probably accused of not “carrying their weight.”
But they stayed. They were loyal, for better or for worse.
These days, we trade churches and jobs and neighborhoods and cars without batting an eyelash. But there is power in the staying. Loyalty is perhaps one of the greatest virtues, next to love and faith. It’s not just for the dogs, it’s for the people, too.
For folks like Hazel and Helmer and Rosie and Art and Milo and Wanda, loyalty has been a rock to stand on. Longevity is a brick in the church wall. These are cherished virtues. Without loyalty, we are aimless. Without a view of the long road together, we’d never be willing to fight through the present potholes in the journey.
I wonder, did Hazel or Milo or the others consider giving up over the years? When they could barely scrape enough money to put in the offering plate? When they were without a pastor? When the church burned to the ground in 1996?
When theological spats?
When family disputes?
When Chris Tomlin songs were played every now and then, instead of hymns by Luther or Wesley?
In the weeks leading up to our church’s birthday party, I took a video camera to the homes of our oldest church members. I asked them to recount memories, and to advise my generation on how to keep the church going in the future.
When I asked Rosie if she’d allow me to interview, she responded, “Well… I suppose so. But remember, I haven’t been attending here as long as some of the others. I’ve only been here 60 years, you know.”
When I interviewed Milo, 90, he was sitting at the kitchen table in his old farmhouse. He raised a finger in the air, and gave me this advice: “Stick together. If you have a problem, why … you need to work it out.”
Now, change isn’t inherently wrong. Sometimes, changing churches or finding a new peer group or getting a better job is precisely the right move.
But these days, it’s so easy to capitulate to our whims. One cross word can sever a relationship. A series of mediocre sermons can prompt whole pews to empty out. But if we’d all just breathe a little deeper, then we might end up finding ourselves gathered under the white doves one day. And right there, we shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves, to celebrate something bigger than ourselves, out where the corn grows tall and the wind blows steady across the plain.
* * * * *
“We are all in the same boat, in a stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty.”
~ G.K. Chesterton