~Seek My Face~
“Come,” my heart says, “seek God’s face.”
Your face, O God, do I seek!
Dear Members and Friends,
In the countryside of Washington County, just south and west of us, you’ll find sleepy little churches with picturesque names: Upper Buffalo, Lower Buffalo, Cross Creek, Raccoon. These are old churches, founded in the 1780s and 1790s. They’re Presbyterian because the Scotch-Irish were the first white folk who were desperate enough (or brash enough? or fatalistic enough?) to push out into this distant country and claim it, though it was not theirs. If you visit one of these places today you’ll see a quaint country church surrounded by a cemetery. They’re visions of calm and peace, rural Americana. But each of these now-quiet churchyards was once the site of an old fashioned tent revival, wild and loud, that lasted four days at a time.
Before the churches and cemeteries, these places were just clearings in the forest where an itinerant preacher would stop and hold services three times a year. People would gather by the thousands, traveling as far as 30 miles on foot, and then camping out in tents or lean-tos made of tree branches. The point was to celebrate the Lord’s Supper while an ordained pastor was in the area. But back in those days, people believed that the fires of hell awaited anyone who took communion “unworthily,” with unrepented sin on their souls. For that reason, the preaching was stark and dire, mainly intended to make people feel sorry for their sins, so they could repent and take communion.
Hearing the grim warnings that echoed through the forest, penitent sinners would weep for their guilt and roll on the ground. On Thursday, the crowds would fast all day, as penance. Friday they would spend in self-examination. On Saturday, they would go before the church session and confess their sins to the elders, being issued a little lead communion ticket if the session deemed them sufficiently repentant. Sunday, they would take communion and endure preaching for most of the day. Monday was for prayers of gratitude. Finally on Tuesday they could begin the perilous journey home. All of that…just to take communion.
Why do I tell you this? Well, because it’s interesting. But more importantly, because whether we like their urgent style or not, our hardy pioneer ancestors were so earnest about their faith! Can you imagine the hardship of travel and the discomfort of camping–before the days of REI? What about the shame of confessing your sins to the church elders? Just to receive the bread and the wine of communion? (It was real Port wine, at least.) Why did they do it? What did they feel that we do not? What urgency? What fear? What grace? What were they looking for?
Maybe they were just “seeking God’s face.” They were just trying to experience God’s peace in the midst of their difficult, short, and overworked lives. Don’t you think sometimes you and I are too casual about faith? Us with our compostable communion cups and our perfunctory prayers! What if it cost us a few days of discomfort just to hear a sermon? Is it our modern busyness that makes us so flippant? Or our money, technology, medicine? A genuine quest for God will always cost us something, won’t it? Seeking God’s face is both a trial and a joy in every age. Maybe our faith would mean more to us if it demanded more of us.