Monday, October 11, 2010

Sunday Morning

I was glad when they said to me,
Let us go to the house of the LORD
Psalm 122:1

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Everyone was amazed at the signs and wonders they saw all around them.
Acts 2:42-43

On Saturday Elaine and I drove down Route 209 through Phippsburg and then took Parker Head Road to Fort Popham. From the Fort we looked back across the Kennebec River to Bay Point and Georgetown. It was cool and clear and beautiful.

On the way back we stopped at the Phippsburg Congregational Church, which keeps vigil on the eastern edge of the village, on the bank of the Kennebec. It is a beautiful little chapel, with a traditional high spire that ships once used for navigation. When we pulled up in front of the church we were greeted by an elderly gentleman who offered us a tour and told us the history of the church. We also met the pastor, a very friendly and earnest young man with long dark hair that almost touched his shoulders, a full beard and black horn rim glasses. He invited us to come back for worship on Sunday. And so we did.

The service was, in many ways, unremarkable. Yet it was also wonderful.

The pastor began by announcing that “this morning you have found yourself in a congregation of the United Church of Christ, and that means that wherever you are on your spiritual journey, you are welcome here.”

After the announcements and before the prelude they had a “Mission Moment.” A young woman invited people to consider joining her on a mission trip to the Philippines. She described the overwhelming poverty of the villages where they served. She told of giving a toothbrush to a child and finding out that one toothbrush would be shared by the whole family. Her job on the trip was to provide child care while parents or siblings were being helped by the physicians and dentists. “They don’t really need a tax lawyer,” she said, by way of explaining that she had no professional skills to share.

At the prayer time the pastor explained that prayer concerns could be shared in writing on special notebooks, or spoken out loud, or just prayed silently. Then he said he had sad news to share. Everyone looked up. He hesitated. Then he paused and composed himself. It was as if the congregation stopped breathing. He choked out the name. The oldest child of . . . and again he hesitated before saying the names of the parents. The child, he said, had died in his sleep. There were sniffles. People reached for tissues. They hunched together.

I do not know the story. I only know that it was great grief and they were deeply touched. And in their grief they were bound together.

After the earthquake in Haiti, when Haitians gathered for worship in what was left of their churches, I remember reading several articles about their faith. A number of the writers wrote condescendingly of their superstitions and how odd and ignorant it was that they continued to worship a “god” who could not save them. I wondered what those same writers would think of the grieving people gathered for worship in Phippsburg, or most any other church.

It is hard to explain faith to secular people. They are thinking cause and effect and we are contemplating mystery. They wonder what we get out of it and we cannot understand how they get along without it.

The title of the sermon was “The Pacific Ocean Has No Memory.” He said that was a Mexican saying. We are trapped by the memories of failings and shortcomings and past hurts, but in God all things are made new.

He told three stories. One was about fishermen off the New Jersey coast, who brought up canisters from the bottom of the ocean. When one of the canisters spilled open the fishermen experienced shortness of breath and skin irritations. Scientists later determined that the canisters contained mustard gas from World War I.

In a second story, he told of the recent discovery of more mass graves from the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia fifteen years ago. Muslim men, women and children were massacred by so called “Christians” over grievances that went back several centuries.

The third story was both local and global at the same time. Last week someone mailed a package in Belfast, Maine, addressed to the Japanese consulate in Boston. The package contained the bones of a Japanese soldier killed in World War II and an anonymous note saying that the soldier deserved a proper burial.

Three stories of war and the memories of war. The First World War ended nearly a century ago, and yet it is still with us. The atrocities committed by Christians against Muslims are a jarring counter to the popular narrative that “they” are out to get “us.” Who are they and who are we? And the stolen remains of the Japanese soldier. On a small scale it was a war crime. And it was committed by a neighbor.

We can be held captive by the past, he said, but God is always doing a new thing

We sat attentively. About fifty of us. In tasteful tweeds and cottons. Cardigans and plaid flannel. Contemplating the mystery of life and resting in the grace of God. In the early church they called these things signs and wonders.

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