Tuesday, May 17, 2005

going home, coming home

On Sunday morning we made our way up I-77 to Yadkin County. My wife and older daughter and I were going to participate in the 175th Anniversary Celebration of Prospect United Methodist Church in East Bend, North Carolina. Actually, Prospect is located in the community of Smithtown, which is adjacent to East Bend. East Bend refers to the "east bend" of the Yadkin River, which flows into the Pee Dee River basin in South Carolina. It was one of four churches that I served from 1985-1988, the others being New Home, Shady Grove and Mount Pleasant. The schedule was somewhat complicated. I preached once a month at each church at 9:45, and once a month at each church at 11:00 a.m. They flip-flopped their services, sort of a code that was easily understood by the insiders. Prospect might worship at 9:45 on the first Sunday and 11:00 on the third Sunday, and New Home might worship at 9:45 on the second Sunday and 11:00 on the fourth Sunday. We had Holy Communion at each church once a month, which meant I was able to celebrate the sacrament every Sunday. Each church also had a men's breakfast at 8:00 a.m. once a month, so I had a pretty big country breakfast every week.

Our older daughter was born while we were there, and was two years old by the time we had left. During those years I also completed a master's thesis at UVA, and my wife completed a ThM, at Duke Divinity School, so we were quite the learned couple. We developed close friendships with a number of people, several of whom we were able to reconnect with on Sunday.

Prospect is a strong rural church with amazing lay leadership. I truly felt supported and loved by many of the people, and as I shared with them, they overlooked many of my beginner mistakes. I learned a great deal about death and dying, and got involved in Hospice. I preached two or three times a Sunday. After a few months I had exhausted all that I had learned in seminary. I participated with a group of about ten in a spiritual disciplines group that was pretty rigorous (up at 5:30, scripture reading, journaling, silence, application). I took a large group of youth to Atlanta to see the Braves play, and then we went to Six Flags, and then to Lake Junaluska to hear Ed Kilbourne. Then we spent the night and came through Asheville, stopping to hear my friend Jim Faggart preach at Groce UMC in Asheville. Then we returned to East Bend. An article appeared about the trip in the Yadkin Ripple, the county newspaper. It was great. It all seems like yesterday.

Only it was 17-20 years ago. "Time passes by", Kathy Mattea sings. It's true. But it is fun to go home again, nice to be invited home again. This year I have preached at three former churches: Prospect, Christ Church, Saint Timothy's. Each has been a rich experience.

I did share this comment about large and small churches at Prospect, during the sermon, which was taken from Hebrews 12 ("A Cloud of Witnesses"). Sometimes rural churches, or non-mega churches anyway compare themselves (unfavorably) to larger, more visible ones. Each has strengths and gifts. A small spiritual/ecclesiological insight:

"I am grateful to God for you, Prospect United Methodist Church. You are the body of Christ, the church, and you do need each other, and you do need to remember the cloud of witnesses that surrounds you. I am convinced that churches should not compare themselves to each other. Large churches in big cities are unique; they can accomplish mission on a big scale. Every Sunday I preach to people I will never meet, and they know me, they feel like they know me, but it is possible that I will never know them. These churches have real strengths. God uses them.

"But they cannot be the body of Christ for each other, the way you can. The New Testament churches, I am convinced, were mostly house churches, where people knew each other, by name, and ate meals together with glad and generous hearts, and watched over one another in love. That is just by way of saying: give thanks for who you are!"

After the service, and a wonderful meal, we attended a small graveside service for the mother of a friend, in Winston-Salem, and then we caught a ride with a couple of friends who were returning to Charlotte. It was nice to go home, and nice to come home.

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