Church these days
Let’s think about how things change—how they stay the same. It seems as if we measure most things by how similar we find the issue, or how diverse our personal measurement.
Growing up here, as a lad, I learned that our community is also divided as to who leaves and who comes ashore. Many times these two divisions of citizenry will describe the area. I’ve listened carefully. How is it that they are talking about the same place? Edouard Manet (French painter, philosopher 1832-1883) said, “The country has charms only for those not obliged to stay here.” With all due regard to my youthful gang departed, I am blessed daily to live on the Northern Neck.
My blessings extend beyond geography. They include church as well. You simply cannot imagine how proud I am to be the pastor of the Irvington Baptist Church. This congregation has taught me more about love, forgiveness and hope than all my combined seminary education even threatened.
I lovingly refer to you my reading, praying, public as those to whom I preach, in the annex. It is a heavy responsibility and a joy to address you from this pulpit week upon week. My Lord, who directs my life, family extant, my church supportive, my annex faithful, all, combine to be the force of life that makes it so worthwhile to get up every morning.
Since I began writing this column, in the 1990s, I have tried to be encouraging of the nobility of our wonderful local congregations. I have tried to suggest to you, the reader, that frequenting some church-house local is tantamount to successful living. I have also tried to be transparent enough that everyone can ascertain my allegiance to the houses of worship planted in this garden of God. I disagree with Manet. “I am not obliged to live here,” I am privileged.
From this weekly column, I have shared the vicissitudes of pastoral life: from pulpit, boat, pier, farm, office and road. Within this paper I have married-off my baby, cried when she and the young man she brought into our family fell apart. I begged you walk with me throughout the arrival on these shores of my mother-in-law, then later her death. You helped me care for my dad, supported my stepmother and afterwards memorialize him. You gave me strength to face overwhelming odds of surviving the tragic illness and death of my first wife of thirty-four years.
Another point I wish to make is that I did all this living at the altar of a small Baptist church. Each of these aforementioned chapters in my life stood at the junction of our center aisle and altar. Paul Harvey (1918–2009), that famous radio voice of the Midwest, the world, often segued into his next chapter with the words, “and now you know the rest of the story.” Like Paul, every week there is another story, another interest.
I am in love, wonderfully so. It emanated from the heart of God. She is a gift to me from him. She is an answer to prayer. She has helped me to heal from great pain. On a Thursday afternoon I phoned her as I was driving back to the place where I am so privileged to live. I asked her to meet me at church, at 10:45 p.m. I called that brilliant young pastor from Morattico Church and asked him to join us. He, too, was a gift of God to me. We arrived under a pall of perplexity. Heavy stuff, even for me.
Unlike the first time I proposed to a young lass, I was much older, wiser. In some very significant ways I am also an institution (no, I didn’t say I need to be institutionalized). I asked Hazel Shelton (then my friend of 12 years) and the late preacher Craig Smith (1953-2020) to stand with me at that altar and talk about love rekindled, about what it meant to marry an institution, about how difficult life can be for a minister’s family. We three prayed. We prayed hard. I then dropped to my knees and with God’s blessing asked Hazel to be my wife. Ah, the truth finally, I asked, not Hazel asked me! She blessed my future with a resounding, “yes.” I trembled as I slipped a ring upon her finger. Craig took us back to heaven. Covenant ensued. Romance lives in my heart again, because Christ does.
Ever since we (you and me) began this pilgrimage, I have tried to tell you just how important church is to me. Truly, church is my place for all seasons. It is to that spot we will go to formalize the promises Hazel and I made each to the other. It is the place where I baptized my future stepson. For 34 years, it has been the place where my life has found purpose. Listen to me, read it well. Get involved with some local congregation. Put your life on the line. You will be blessed. You will be strengthened. God will be pleased.
Oh, yes, be sure to get me back to the church. Y’all coming?