Witnesses to These Things

The congregation was nearly as old as the town. Depending who you asked, the town had been there a hundred and twenty, a hundred and twenty five years. Across those years, that congregation had seen, had done a lot. It all started, as it often did in those days, with an influx of people settling in the area. New lives. New adventures. Carving out a place on the sometimes harsh, sometimes breathtaking landscape. They worked hard, hoping to leave their mark, hoping to leave something good for their children and the generations to come. 

They weren’t all from the same places back home, but as they settled on the shores of the lake, they came to know one another, came to see each other as kin. Some farmed. Others logged. Some folks set up businesses as they saw fit. 

Most had grown up in church, most knew the well worn pages of the prayer book, and some bible stories besides. 

There wasn’t a minister yet, but over time, it just seemed right that they gather to worship when they could. They started meeting in peoples’ homes. Shared meals, shared stories, shared joys and sorrows, farm work, yard work, raising kids. They supported one another. Prayed for one another too. 

As the community grew larger, they outgrew the homes they’d been meeting in for prayers. They met in a barn for a while. As the community grew, a few of the business owners in town wondered how to best serve the needs of the growing church. Over time, they worked with their neighbours to pool their resources, to identify a plot of land and raise a building. 

It was a simple structure, nothing fancy. It had benches and an altar and a font. Everything you needed, really. No priest at first, but that would come. They reclaimed lumber and felled some of their own trees as the town went up around them. Drafty in the winter, they had to always remind the kids to wear an extra layer under their church clothes. 

But it didn’t matter to them, not really. They had a  place. A place to meet God. A place to gather. To worship. To connect. This was where they would raise their kids, teach them to live and to work. As years went by, the church, and eventually the hall they built next door, bore witness to so much of the community’s life. It was their way of bringing people together. Extending hospitality. Theirs was the place the town hosted all the parties. It was the place for many a christening. Weddings. Funerals, too. It’s the community where they learned right and wrong. Where they learned about God’s love and vengeance too. It’s the place they retreated to for salvation when the onslaught of an uncertain world was too much. 

And perhaps because it was so well used, so well loved, they put a lot of effort into the building over the years. You could see their pride when they talked about how the men had come together to build the pews. Or who had felled the perfect tree that became the top of the altar. A whole team of horses was needed to pull it from the woods. When it came to the pews, one of them came up with a design they agreed to. And then they parceled out the work. One Saturday they brought everything together, assembled all the pews, one by one. Good work, and plenty of time to gab. 

For years, they’d talk with fondness about the sunny spring day they’d come together to fix the leaking roof. “Do you remember the time that Father was saying mass,” they’d say, “that time when the water was just flowing from the roof onto his forehead? He seemed so focused, so deep in prayer, he wouldn’t look up. But when a drop bounced off his head, landing in the raised chalice, the twinkle in his eye gave him away. Humanity and divinity in one cup. 

Like the rest of us, I suspect, he was trying hard not to laugh. 

The dripping roof just wasn’t right, and they tried to cover it at first, someone got hold of an old boat sail, then fixed it up properly when the weather allowed. It was good if not a little comical to watch the men humming and hawing about what to do next, what approach to take. Twenty men and twenty different opinions how to do it. Plenty of eyes rolling from those outside the circle. And then the Harris kid came over, fourteen years old. Asked question after question, like he always did. A few other kids joined him, and pretty soon all the children were learning the finer points of roof fixing. It was their place too, and they’d figure it out together. From that day on, the priest had to rely on a cruet, and not the roof, for water at the Eucharist. 

After the work was done, there was freshly baked bread and soup simmering away. Early season greens had been turned into a simple salad. Just as the men had been working out the problem of the roof, the women had been working out the problem of getting everyone fed. They all brought what they could, and every last one ate their fill with more left over. A miracle of biblical scale. 

Over the years, families came and went. In the late 70s, members of the church mobilized the whole community to sponsor three Vietnamese couples and their kids, to bring them to town. It wasn’t just church folk who helped, it was other neighbours too. Fewer folks were coming to church, but that didn’t mean they didn’t care. The congregation mobilized the community, felt like they were really doing something. Really making a difference. They still talked about those families. For years after they left—pushed out by interest rates and feelings of isolation—they still came to visit from time to time. The church was sad to see them go, but they knew in their heart of hearts, that they had done a good thing. It became the defining story of that era. 

The kids, they learned the faith under the tutelage of various priests and lay catechists over the years. For a long time, it was straight from the Book of Common Prayer. As is always the case, some kids were more into it than others. Certain priests took memorization seriously, while others were a bit more casual about the whole thing. The world was changing, as was the region, as was the church. For a time, It was hard to find a priest. When they did, they only stayed a few years always on their way to somewhere bigger, hoping one day for a big church in the city. They all had their reasons. And I guess you could say this town isn’t for everyone. But what town is? 

The clergy turnover every few years took its toll on the congregation. The community did its best of course, but they had gotten used to having that person in the collar. This was the era when clergy styled themselves as professionals. Like doctors or lawyers. They acted that way, too. Some were better than others (although nobody could agree which was which). But the stories of the early days, of gathering in peoples’ homes, of saying prayers together, of raising kids together, of reading the bible and praying around the dinner table—the story of the church that met out of need, not out of obligation or habit, had long been lost. 

It was in that tumultuous period that confirmation classes started to dwindle. Part of it was that folks were having fewer kids. In some families, though by no means all, both parents were working outside the home, and families weren’t as large as they used to be. It might have been waning energy levels, financial pressures at home, or maybe it was just the cultural air that people were breathing, but fewer kids came out to church and parents didn’t make it an expectation. In some effort to get more people to participate, the particularities of the catechism, the core teachings of the faith, were somehow diluted. 

By the time they were confirmed, if anybody asked them, few of the kids could properly recite the commandments or the creed. They’d tell you that there was a God out there who made the world and watched over us. They’d tell you that God wanted you to be nice and fair. They’d tell you that God wanted everybody to be happy and to feel good about themselves. But something was missing. It was all focused on the individual experience. What had happened to the community of faith? Service to God? Love of neighbour? What about prayer and worship and witness and the work of the church in the world? 

If you asked them how God was involved in their lives, the teenagers would probably struggle to name it. But then, if you asked some of their parents, it might have been about the same.  They might slough the question and tell you that God is everywhere. But if you dwelled there for a bit, asking them to describe a moment or experience of God’s presence, they’d probably look at you like you were crazy. For many of them, they didn’t talk to God much, except if they needed the solution to some sort of problem. 

I guess you could say it was a start, but a lot was missing. 

Faith wasn’t sticky like it used to be. It wasn’t thick. With each passing year, it was less a way of life, less a way of living in the world. Going to church, while still common, was no longer pervasive. Church was becoming one choice amongst many. As the years went by, it became common for the joy and celebration of the bishop’s visit to be followed by the disappearance of the confirmands from church life. 

Turns out that was the deal some of the parents made with their kids. You’ve gotta come to church until you’re confirmed, and then you’re free to go. A few stayed, of course. But eventually they left town for work or for school, and then you’d only see them at Christmas, or if they came back a few weeks in the summer.

Of course, everyone hoped they’d come back. Maybe when they got a little older. Settled down. Had kids. Maybe then they’d see a need for all this. Maybe then they’d come back. See the error of their ways. Join the community. Start volunteering. The building committee. The altar guild. The ACW. And maybe, maybe a few would finally listen to the whisper of God, follow that call to seminary, to ordination and a proper ministry of their own.

Those who remained behind, those who had been at that old lakeside chapel for years, they remained hopeful. But as the world sped up around them, they also felt lost. Would anyone come back? Would it ever be like it was at its peak? What had changed? What was wrong with young people today?  

Perhaps more uncomfortably, a new question started to pop up in casual conversation and in council meetings. If new folks aren’t coming, what business do we have carrying on as a church? They remembered the fullest days. The busiest days. But those who remembered the early days, they weren’t around to re-member any more. 

This question continued to rattle around every couple of years. As time passed, families moved away to follow work. When new families came to town, they seemed to go to the church up the road, the one with a kids’ program and a band—if they went to church at all. 

Every now and then a few new people stuck around. They had a dynamic priest for a few years, one who really seemed to bring people in. But when she left for an active suburban parish, forty five minutes down the road, so did the new crop of people. Vanished into thin air. They tried a few experiments along the way, trying to reach out to young families, trying ideas they thought might appeal to younger folks, but truth be told, their heart wasn’t in it. They wanted the church to go on, but they’d also gotten used to the stability of the way things were.

They put on programs for young families because they thought that was what they ought to do. What they ought to do, not because they lit up when they thought of doing it. They remembered those times when the church was full of babies, and they wanted that feeling again. Or so they thought. In some more self-reflective moments, on Sundays after a family with a few kids checked out the church for the first time, they realised they wanted the feeling more than the hassle.

The community had grown and changed. They had grown and changed. They didn’t have the same energy they used to. Some of them were tired. And when they thought about it too much, they felt afraid. What would become of them, they wondered. What would become of the church—the building, the people—they had loved so much? 

Over time, the bank account dwindled along with the number of attendees. When longtime members died, the bequests went to other worthy causes—the cancer society, heart and stroke, the humane society. Folks didn’t think to give to the church any more. This made the hope of turning the corner so much more challenging for those who remained. The energy, it seemed, was moving the wrong direction. And all anyone could talk about were the high points in the 60s and 70s. Somehow they forgot about the scrappy little community that first started meeting in the front room of that rural homestead long ago. 

There was a cultural shift going on. The world was speeding up. Younger people seemed to have less and less time for church, let alone helping with the rummage sale. Those who had been there the longest kept on working to keep the place afloat, always wondering when the next generation would step up. 

But the next generation wasn’t there. Hadn’t been there for years. 

It was easy to know who they were when everything was going smoothly. Or was it? 

It certainly was easier to know what they were doing. But had something been lost in all of the doing? Something vital. Something important. Something central. 

A couple years back, the congregation found itself in a bit of a holding pattern. They were without a priest after a few had barely stayed long enough to let the paint dry in the rectory. Outlandish colours, both times. They kept gathering on Sundays for Morning Prayer, different members of the congregation taking turns leading. It had seemed uncomfortable at first. But they got the hang of it. There wasn’t anyone who could do it for them anymore, and so they discovered inner resources they had forgotten about, or never knew they had. Maybe this was what it was like all those years before, gathering in peoples’ living rooms. Taking turns. Sharing meals. Sharing stories. Sharing joys and sorrows, helping each other with yard work. Praying for one another, their kids and grandkids too.

Somewhere in the midst of it all, the wardens tried to kickstart a conversation with the bishop about hiring a part-time priest. They were shocked when he outright refused to consider the question. Not until the community had discerned its own sense of direction, would he permit this process. “You can’t recruit someone to lead you until you have a sense of where you are being called to go,” he was reported to have said. Somewhat begrudgingly they struck a committee and got to work.

But that’s not the surprising part. 

The surprise came one Tuesday night at Prayer Group when Becky walked through the open doors. That’s where Nancy first saw her standing, transfixed by the stained glass before her. It was the second Tuesday of the month, the night the group met for contemplative prayer.  Medium height, black hair. Ripped jeans, tattoos peeking through the holes in trousers that were more rip than denim. She’d never been there before. And while she seemed out of place to the regulars, she had a certain confidence about her. Like she was meant to be there. 

Nancy, one of the group’s longtime members, went over to introduce herself. She stumbled at first, not used to greeting strangers. Instead of leading with a welcoming word, she came across as concerned. Perhaps the young woman was lost. 

“Can I help you?” she asked. 

“I sure hope so,” Becky replied. “Can you tell me where the prayer group is meeting?”

This wasn’t, of course, what any of them were expecting. The others milling about the room stopped for a moment. When was the last time someone this young had been in the church? Whose funeral was it? The grandkids always showed up for those. 

“Oh, and I’m Becky, by the way. Nice to meet you.” 

She seemed warm and genuine. She seemed at ease, even though she was clearly out of her element

Nancy, slowly adjusting herself to the strange reality in front of her said, “the prayer group meets here, in about five minutes. Why are you here? Err. I mean, how did you find out about it?”

Becky caught the slip-up right away, but didn’t bother to mention it. 

“It was online. On your website.”

“Oh. Huh. I don’t think anybody’s updated that thing in forever.”

“Well, I guess I was lucky,” Becky responded. 

“Then again, we’ve been meeting in the same place at the same time for…what’s it been?”

A voice came from across the room. “Fifteen years!” 

The chatter amongst the other members bubbled up as they debated how long the group had been meeting. Nobody could really agree, but fifteen years seemed about right.

It was the previous minister who had set up the website—the church’s first. Before leaving, he’d taught a few of them how to use it. There was a brand new yellow duotang somewhere containing instructions, not that anyone had opened them since the day he left. 

Nancy invited everyone to gather around. They sat together in a circle.

One of the other ladies lit a candle in the centre. A candle on a table surrounded by icons. Mary was there. St. Brigid. Hildegard. And then there was another with Christ rocketing to the sky, an echo of the image in the stained glass Becky had first seen when she walked in. An image that spoke to her in ways she couldn’t begin to explain. As though there was something in this image, something in this depiction of Jesus that brought everything together. As though there was something about this story that held the key to everything she’d been wondering. Everything she’d been searching for. 

As Becky sat there transfixed, overwhelmed, Nancy spoke softly, calmly, inviting them to go around the circle and introduce themselves before they began their practice together. Nothing much. Just their name and what brought them there that night. 

Nancy started. Followed by Jacinda. There was Beverley, the one who had lit the candle, and then there was Tena, feeble and frail of body, but eyes clear and mind sharp. Next to Tena was Dorothea. Each one shared their name in turn. Next to Becky sat Arthur, Dorothea’s son. He was probably 65 himself. He said, “I used to come just to bring my mom, but now I come for myself. It’s become an important part of my life. What about you, Becky, what brings you here?”

“Well,” she said. “I’m searching for God, and I figured you could probably help me. I just had a feeling that this was the kind of place that could show me how.” 

Looks of concern shot around the room. Could they really? Could they show this young woman how to find God? There was no priest here. Just. Well. Just them. How would they do that? What would they do? Say? Jacinda was getting up the courage to tell Becky she’d come to the wrong place when Nancy breathed deeply, and invited everyone to attention, unphased by it all. 

“Let’s begin by quieting ourselves in the presence of God,” she spoke into the circle. “As the room quietens, and as our hearts and bodies quieten, we’ll enter into a time of Lectio Divina. Lectio Divina is also known as Sacred Reading. The purpose of this reading is to awaken our hearts in prayer. Let’s begin our time together by taking three deep breaths…”

The group settled into the silence, Becky taking everything in stride, as she always did. As she always had to. Her mind began to wander. As those seated around the circle softened their gaze, Becky took this as a cue. She looked around the circle, at each of those faces. Old. Wrinkled. Kind. She could tell there was a story behind each one. Untold stories and untold depths. Depths of life, depths of experience. She wondered if she’d come to know their stories. She wondered if she’d have the courage to share her own. Not now. Not yet. This felt right, but unfamiliar. Peaceful, but risky. Nancy’s voice broke the silence, calling Becky to attention, as she began to read…

Jesus said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 

You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high." Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 

And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God. 

This story was inspired by the many small church communities of the Kootenays as well as the writings of Dr. Andrew Root, including his latest co-authored with Blair D. Bertrand entitled
When Church Stops Working