Thursday, February 10, 2005

The Preacher’s Corner
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter

“I love the solitude of a country church”

Last week Bill Moore and I went to the meeting of our presbytery (our church’s area governing body) in Booneville. Don and Mary Ann Wilson from Byhalia rode with us. Their company was pleasant and helped relieve the tedium of what is often a very long meeting.

While we were driving Don told of their recent trip to see relatives in Paris, Ill. On their way home, it was a Sunday, and Don and Mary Ann decided they would stop for church wherever they happened to be at 11 a.m. It turns out that they were approaching the town of Robinson, Ill., and sure enough they came to a Presbyterian Church.

Out front was one of those black iron movable letter signs that stand in front of old churches. Behind the glass was this message: “First Presbyterian Church. Gone to Heaven.” Sure enough the front door was locked and there seemed to be no evidence of activity around the neatly kept building.

Across the street was the Methodist Church and it seemed to be gearing up for a service, so Don and Mary Ann (being used to having the Methodists right across the street from their house of worship) strolled over and were warmly received and took part in their service.

The Methodists explained that the Presbyterians had indeed “all gone to heaven.” The congregation had only ten or twelve, and the few remaining members had all either died or moved away from that tiny eastern Illinois community. So some of the Methodists were tending the grounds and had thoughtfully rearranged the letters on the sign to give these explanatory words to any, like Don and Mary Ann, who happened to come looking for the Presbyterian Church.

I, of course, like nothing better than riding the back roads to see where things used to be. I have scores of photographs of old churches where “all the members have gone to heaven.” Some are quite historic. Last week I wrote about such a church in downtown Baltimore where a congregation no longer worships, but where the poet Edgar Allen Poe sleeps in the churchyard cemetery.

Another old church, called Old Salem, near where Don and Mary Ann were visiting, shelters the resting place of Abraham Lincoln’s parents. I remember many trips out there with my aunt and uncle to see a log cabin where the Lincolns lived and to visit this old church and the pretty cemetery where Lincoln’s parents rest.

Sometimes — as was the case last Sunday — when most of my members are at loose ends and I am preaching to “lots of lumber” (that is, to rows of empty pews), I take comfort in the thought that most of our congregation here — some 1,200, in fact — have gone ahead of us and now await us “in a better land, upon another shore.” I do not find this depressing, but rather take heart from it. There is a satisfaction in contemplating the completed work of saints loved long since and lost awhile.

Not all the church, or even most of it, is here upon earth (“the church militant”) as the theologians say. Rather, the greatest part, I suppose, of the church is “the church triumphant,” and I like to think that when we sing or pray, we are joining our voices with those who stand nearer the throne of Him who receiveth our worship.

Those old churches that stand neglected and forlorn have said all the prayers they need to say, listened to all the sermons they needed to hear, given all the offerings that the Lord has required, received all the grace that was sought, and been faithful while it was their turn to serve. Now they pass on the calling to us in our generation, and we can only be faithful to God and to those who will come after us.

One Sunday at the old Hudsonville Church in this county, Don Wilson was preaching on a Sunday afternoon, as was their custom there. It was a cold and dreary day, and only two members had come. One of them had a baby with her, and Mary Ann was there, as well. But even though their numbers were few, they went ahead and had church, for one of the great ends of religion is to maintain the worship of God’s house.

During the sermon, the baby began to cry and the mother took it outside. When she did not come back, the other member arose to see if everything was all right. She did not come back, so Mary Ann decided to go check as well.

This left Don with no congregation, and he wondered if he should continue the sermon. I do not know what decision Don made, but if we were more mystical, we would know that when on earth we think that no one is listening, that is the moment when heaven is most attuned to our prayers. That is why I love the solitude of a country church. For perhaps, I think that there, finally, I might hear the voice of God.

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