Monday, July 9, 2012

Church in the Valley in the Wildwood

Does anyone remember this song?

There's a church in the valley in the wildwood
No lovelier spot in the dale
No place is so dear to my childhood
As the little brown church in the vale.
(William S. Pitts, 1857)

I am occasionally asked to go to a little church in the tiny town of Big Valley, about 70 or so kilometres away from Three Hills, to play the piano for them on a Sunday morning. I can't tell you how much I look forward to the sheer beauty of the drive; the anticipation of the warmth and care of the people who attend ("the family here" is how Kevin, the song leader puts it in his prayer); the joy of resting my fingers lightly on the beaten-up, out-of-tune piano; the complete sense of fellowship and blessing I receive just by being there.

The drive there is magnificent - plunging into valleys and soaring up hills, it's a cliché but somehow not:

The song starts playing in my head at the first glimpse of the bridge (single lane traffic only; stop if an oncoming vehicle is on the bridge ...)

Then, just when I always wonder if in my trance-like state at all this beauty I have driven too far, I come across this sign:
And I know I'm almost there ...
Drive to the elevator and turn left ...
 Take your first right and you'll catch a glimpse of the steeple:

...followed almost immediately by the little church building. And on any given Sunday you'll see people chatting before the service, catching up with each other's lives.

On special occasions one of the kids gets to ring the bell, which is connected to a rope that is tucked away just to the right of the foyer as you enter. This occasion was Mother's Day. The light was cool, mysterious, hearkening back to days of yore. The kid pulling on the rope was cheered on by some of the men.

When I enter the sanctuary, the first thing I always check for is the piano. The first time I got to play it was the first time Dad was asked to be "pulpit supply" and we got there early because we weren't sure how long it would take. There was Kevin and a guitar player, and Kevin was trying to teach the guitarist a "new" hymn. Kevin looks a bit like an Indiana Jones and is the kind of guy you feel you could count on in an emergency; but singing is not one of his primary talents, as he freely admits. After I sat watching and listening to the agony, I spoke up. "I know that song. Shall I play it for you on the piano?"

They both turned to me like shell-shocked travelers who have just spotted an oasis but are not really sure if it will turn out to be a mirage.  

I walked over to the piano and opened it up. Not horribly out of tune. Sweet tone that had been designed to encourage, not to dominate, the worship at a little country church. I fell in love with it.
The guitarist nailed down the song in a couple of minutes, and then they asked me if I would play with them for the service. How could I refuse?

The last time I played was yesterday. Kevin had his wife, Sandy, with him at the pulpit and the singing was sweet.

Once I'm ensconced at the piano, the next thing my eyes go to involuntarily is the cross at the front of the church. The modest little panels of stained glass just to the left of it splinter the otherwise golden light of the church building. They remind me that it was not an easy, happy start to Christianity. It involved unspeakable pain. It cost the life of One who was blameless, the One who offered His life up as a sacrifice for the rest of us who fall so short of the purity that God demands from those who would be His followers. As I look at that cross while I warm up the piano, I am reminded of my own failings and imperfections, which are legion. Each of them takes a turn at presenting itself to me one by one, like criminals awaiting their day in court. 

But then I notice what garnishes that rough-hewn cross: it's a coronet of thorns, looped over the top post of the cross. I am reminded that just before Jesus died He spoke the words, "It is finished!" The root words have to do with the fulfilment of a contract, and goes back all the way to the garden of Eden when humankind's defying God's one explicit commandment first separated us from God. That day God promised Adam and Eve that satan would "bruise [their] heel" - in other words, cause trouble and difficulties and pain on this earth - but that there would be one who would "bruise his head" - crush and defeat satan. This was Jesus on the cross, Himself the payment price of the promise. 

Right now this church is in transition. They are looking for a pastor, as so many little country churches are these days. They have an interim pastor, Dale, who is helping them with the process during the week and preaching faithfully in the pulpit come Sunday.

He has been talking about the start of the Christian church from the book of Acts in the Bible. He recapped last week's sermon, saying that the early Christian Church had what he liked to think of as the four Ts:

Truth - we talk a lot about our truth, Dale said. (I couldn't help but smile inwardly when I thought of the word coined by Stephen Colbert a few years ago  that ended up being Oxford's Word of the Year - "truthiness"). The truth that's important, however, is God's truth from God's Word.

Tie - the fellowship of the church: living life together, lifting each other up, being there for each other.

Table - eating together in community, yes; but, even more so, gathering together as a body of fellow Christ-followers about the communion table that commemorates the last supper Jesus held with His disciples. He knew, although they did not yet, that He was about to be crucified in a few short hours. It was at this supper that He told them as often as they eat the bread and drink the wine in this way, they would be remembering His death. He told them - and by turn us as His followers today - to do this until He returns.

Throne - this signifies the importance of prayer in the Christian's life individually, but also in the church corporately. Without prayer - coming to the throne of God, as it is sometimes called - the earliest church literally could not have survived. And in the nuttiness and the disorder that life these days can tend to lurch toward, we too are utterly dependent on prayer, on committing ourselves and our church and our world to God's care; of our talking with God and of knowing that He hears.

Pastor Dale pointed out that the earliest church members' focus was not on themselves but on the Lord Jesus Christ and on each other. He said that what the church today needs are people who simply care about each other and love each other and reach others for God.  

And then he paused, and he looked out at the little congregation. With great kindness, he said, "And this is what I see here, at this church. There is something about this place that is winsome and attracts people. This is how you live. You really care for each other and uplift each other and want to draw others closer to God."

In the back corner, across the door from the bell pull is a map of the world showing the missionaries that this tiny church prays for and supports. I think that whoever chose that spot and put it up there in the beginning knew what Pastor Dale was talking about yesterday. They knew that the church can be a sanctuary, a "sort of club," as he mentioned. But as we leave this place, the map is a powerful reminder to me that we are going out there to love other people too, to encourage and to help them, to listen to them, to care.
As a daughter of missionaries myself, how could my heart not be warmed by this board? I know first-hand how much the letters and cards from people not out in India with us meant to my parents and came to mean to me as well. It told us we were not alone; that there was an army of people behind the scenes pulling for us, praying for us, supporting us.

As the service came to an end, Pastor Dale challenged everyone to shake the hand of eight people they had not spoken to that morning. People were out of their seats almost before he had finished speaking.
Just because of the way the course of my life has run, I am a bit of a nomad when it comes to church involvement. I tend to go where I am asked to play the piano, or where my Dad is speaking. 

But this church ... this little church in the country ... tugs at my heart like no other church has. To that point, I even asked one of my other sisters to drive Dad to Hanna yesterday morning so that I could go to the Big Valley church and play the piano - I have NEVER done this for any other church before!

Pastor Dale and the leaders of the church have struck a committee to get down to the nitty gritty of finding a pastor who loves God and loves His Word and loves people. They have carefully selected a committee, including people from all walks of life and even including youth. If you think about it, please say a little prayer for Arny, Chantall, Connie, Don, Ed, Eldon, Kevin, Kyle, Winnie and, of course, Dale as they meet for the first time this week.

And lastly, in honour of Andy Griffith, who passed away just a few days ago and whose whole public persona at least would have felt right at home in this church, here is the song  sung by him and his great friend Don Knotts:

I guess how I can sum up this little church in the Valley is that when I drive up to it on a Sunday morning, I feel like it is saying to me, "Welcome Home ..."


  1. Thank you for this reminder about what the heart of church is about ... a place to call "home". May churches of all sizes learn from the huge strength of this one. I'm praying for just the right pastor. I'm so glad you could go on Sunday!

    1. great blog karyn I. Looks like a great place to worship. which we had this church in Endiang.


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