Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Classic way of being church -- intergenerational

Series Index to The Classic way of being church:
An Apologia

I love how classic churches are intergenerational. I was raised in a traditional United Methodist Church in Columbia, SC. Through the Methodist Church, I met a whole range of folks who lived out their faith for me to see. Not just the 20 and 30 somethings who volunteered with the youth groups, either. I remember old TJ Harrelson who from the time I was a tiny child was an iconic incarnation of hospitality at the Trenholm Road United Methodist's front door. He watched me grow up, greeted me warmly when i returned from college, he knew me by name (and this was a very, very large church). Did I know the intricacies of his soul? no, didn't need to. But he was an elderly gentleman who was wearing his faith on his sleeve for all us young folks to see.

I remember the slew of adults who went on mission trips with our youth group -- we participated in the United Methodist Salkehatchie camps in South Carolina. Through that program we built an extended network of Methodists all across the state who shared in that intense experience of loving on the rural and urban poor in our home state -- again, more old guys like Art Dexter, middle aged guys like Dave Dillon (who would later hire me for a summer job in his contracting business), young dads like Danny Chamblee (a professional photographer from Myrtle Beach who I still keep in touch whith).

Realize, I didn't have deep intimate relationships with a bunch of older adults in the church. But when I started trying to sort out what my vocation in life would be, I knew I had access to Paul Carlson, a professional counselor who was associated with the church and a friend to many of our youth. I felt comfortable enough speaking to Bill Bouknight, our minister. Why? Because these folks were a constant in my life and I had watched them wear their faith well and I knew they'd be there when I needed them.

I take that back -- there was one elderly person who I knew through my church who I always claimed as a close intimate friend. Avrail Stienert. Mrs. Stienert worked in the nursery at Trenholm Road -- she took care of me when I was in diapers. She also gravitated to our family as my main babysitter when mom and dad would go out on dates. But she became part of our family -- joining us for holidays -- sharing in joys and triumphs. When she was bedridden in a nursing home, I still went to visit here when I was home from college (though, truth be told, it took some reminding by mom -- I was an irresponsible college kid -- but after mom reminded me I went, and I was glad I did). We had very good times. Her faith was deep and strong. I could write a volume about her -- my first girlfriend you might say. Yeah -- I did have deep intimate relationships with elderly people I knew through my classic church.

And the classic church we attended when we lived in Winston-Salem, NC -- where we learned the value of potluck suppers, breaking bread, and swinging softball bats in Y leauge games. It was a smaller church where everybody knew each other by name. Dr Dick Patterson would lead Saturday Wildflower Walks, Stewart Ellis would take us down to his farm to do blueberry picking, Margaret and Ken Eliott hosted churchwide picnics at their house just outside of town. More teaching us how to be community in the midst of a classic, traditional church.

Having older people as a part of the family of faith has taught me what it means to age gracefully, to commit to marraige for a lifetime, and to experience friendship that lasts for 50 years. Older folks are teaching me what it means to die with dignity in the midst of suffering. They are teaching me what it means to live with pain and declining faculties. More than that, they teach me about living the christian life with quiet joy. As a pastor, I also get to see the secret and humble generosity that never gets talked about, but goes on behind the scenes. I love that in my church I can have experiences like Clara Edwards' birthday.

The elderly have taught me to value the past, they tell stories of American history, the mighty works of God in their lives, and the tragedies and triumphs of life. Their lives are living letters, witnessess to the work of God over decades of life. They exemplify what Eugene Peterson called A long obedience in the same direction.

Yes, yes I know -- they can also be cranky, complaining, and cantankerous. That's a part of what it means to be human. It's a part of our sanctification to learn not to run away from cranky, complaining, and cantankerous folk -- a lesson I'm still learning. I've learned that a good bit of that cantankerousness is a mourning of a world that has been lost and no-one seems to care. Behind a lot of complaining is a deep love of some beautiful things that are lost in today's world. You don't hear that unless you spend a lot of time to these folks listening to them talk. And I've heard their voices and the cadences of their lives in the traditional church.

Soli Deo Gloria