By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter
the solitude of a country church
Bill Moore and I went to the meeting of our presbytery
(our churchs 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
church, called Old Salem, near where Don and Mary Ann
were visiting, shelters the resting place of Abraham
Lincolns 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 Lincolns parents rest.
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.
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.
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 Gods
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.
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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