The little country church where our family worships turned 125 years old this weekend. We celebrated with a pageant, an old-fashioned “hymn sing” under a big white tent. We lingered long over tables, while our children ran under the sun, in unending circles around the church.
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.
The power of God resides here, in this the humble crook of a farm field, tucked into a small corner of the world.
I walked across the road with my camera, to shoot the long view from the cemetery, while a summer breeze danced through my hair. I stepped over top of 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 were stayed. They were loyal.
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, and longevity is a brick in the church wall. These are cherished virtues. Without loyalty, we are aimless. Without the view of the long road, we’d never be willing to fight through the present pain.
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 empty pews?
When family disputes?
When Chris Tomlin songs were played every now and then, instead of Luther’s hymns?
For the past couple weeks, I took a video camera to the homes of our oldest church members, asking them to recount memories, and to advise my generation on how to keep the church going in the future. I put together a little video for our church family, and it played in a loop all weekend long in the sanctuary.
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, I’m not suggesting that changing churches or finding a new peer group of getting a better job is a bad thing. Sometimes, it’s time to make the move. But these days, it’s so easy to let a cross word sever a relationship. But if we’d all just breathe a little deeper, let our righteous indignation cool a bit, 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.
“Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved.”
~ Martin Luther
“We are all in the same boat, in a stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty.”
~ G.K. Chesterton