December 2, 2010
Sam and Sarah were always there, always encouraging
Sam and Sarah were one of the most interesting and unusual church couples I ever knew. They lived outside this county, and I doubt anyone who reads this column will have known them. Otherwise I would not write what I am about to say, for they were modest people — the sort who would be embarrassed to be singled out in any way.
You might say that Sarah was colorful. She had a keen mind, a superb education, and a sharp wit. Sarah was “on the inside” of most of what went on at her church, but could rise above the situation and observe what was going on with remarkable and often hilariously piercing insight.
The Presbyterian denomination used to publish what was called “The Blue Book,” which was a collection of biographical sketches of each minister, going back all the way to the Civil War. This was the way to find out who was who in our church. You could learn where a minister had served, what schools he had attended, who his wife was, and what people she came from, and so forth. Back when “who you were” mattered more than it does today, the Blue Book was an invaluable resource. It is no longer published today.
Of course, I have my own set of blue books, but when Sarah died, someone put her copies into my hands in the hope that I could find a place for them. (I am often given the task of finding places for dead people’s books. It is not a service I advertise, but it is something I do.) I took Sarah’s blue books to our regional office in Oxford which, as it turns out, did not have a set.
One day, however, when I was in the office in Oxford, I was browsing through one of these blue books that had belonged to Sarah, and I realized that she had recorded some very spicy observations about some of the ministers still serving in our area.
These were not mean comments, but let’s say they were so apt that eyebrows might have been raised. Sarah was, as I have noted, a shrewd observer of the passing ministerial scene. Let’s just say that she could helpfully deflate even the most haughty of ministerial pretensions!
So I gathered up her set of blue books and exchanged it with my own set, placing my volumes in the Oxford office, and keeping her set safely tucked away in my den.
Sarah’s pastor told me that she and Sam made separate pledges to their church. This is an older custom that I think derived from the days when each child filled out a tiny offering envelope each week in Sunday school, and the idea was to teach the stewardship of your own money. The pastor told me that Sam’s was the largest contribution to the church, and that Sarah’s was number two.
They were not rich people — his day job and a modest income from some rented farm land — that was all. I say all this simply to comment that it is often the most unassuming people who are deeply generous. Sam and Sarah did not drive expensive cars, live in a fancy house, or take lots of overseas trips. They were, however, exemplars (if I may reverse our Lord’s words) of “where your heart is, there will be your treasure also.” The most important thing, however, was that they were there every time the door was open, always encouraging their pastor — they gave unconditional, if not uncritical support.
I do not know who has stepped in to fill their place. I trust somebody has, but this can no longer be taken for granted. There is a wonderful generation of older folk who have kept our churches going, but they are passing from the scene. A younger generation — my generation and its children — must now shoulder the load. We love our churches and we want them always to be there, but how that will happen in the future is a real cause for concern. I can say with fair assurance that there is going to be lots of vacant ecclesiastical real estate in a few years if my own generation does not step up and be counted. We’ve left it to our parents and grandparents to represent us through attendance and contribute financially on our behalf.
One way of evaluating our religion is to ask how much we allow it to ask of us. Sarah was thrilled when she was elected the first female elder in her church — she called it “serving on the men’s board,” and she and Sam sometimes cancelled each other’s votes in the meetings! A lot of it is dull, and the time demands can be inconvenient. There is a lot of “bench time” that has to be logged on hard, wooden pews. But do you want to imagine our community without its churches?
It’s up to us now — I mean those my age and younger. And we need to think very seriously about what we are willing to allow our religion to ask from us. For my part, it would mean a great deal, if when the story is over, somebody would think I had measured up somewhere near the examples set by Sam or Sarah.
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