~The Power of Place~
When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he said,
“Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” ~Genesis 28:16
Dear Members and Friends,
If I call you on my cell phone, your own telephone will report that someone is calling from Meadville, PA. It’s wrong, of course. I’m not calling you from Meadville. But why do I have a Meadville number? Meadville’s not my hometown. I didn’t go to college there—though some of you did. I’ve never lived in Meadville. In fact, I get a lost every time I go there. There is a reason for the exotic telephone number from a faraway place that you may or may not have heard of. The Reader’s Digest version of that story goes like this:
When I was finishing up seminary, but not yet ordained, I served as “student pastor” at two quaint little churches in the countryside near Meadville. Either one of them could have been pictured on the October page of your bank-issued calender: traditional wooden belfries, white clapboard walls, slate roofs, gingerbread trim. One of these congregations was doing quite well. The building was a very old “meeting house” with austere, straight-backed benches that were hand-made before the Civil War. Uncomfortable as they were, those old pews were packed each week with about seventy-five worshipers. This forward-looking church had children, and teens, and potlucks, and picnics. (In fact, one of those youths, now grown, is living in the North Hills of Pittsburgh and makes frequent visits to Bower Hill on Sunday mornings!) The church looked old-fashioned from the outside, but they had Internet throughout the building, an up-to-date phone system, air-conditioning, a FAX machine, a good sound system, and all the standard office gadgets of the age. They even heated and cooled their 175-year-old building with a network of geothermal tubes beneath their churchyard and gravel parking lot!
The other church, well, let’s just say that they weren’t into renewable energy. In fact, this second church suffered from a palpable lack of energy. Each Sunday morning when I finished up the earlier service at the crowded church, I would jump into my car and—still dressed in robe and collar—I’d speed down narrow country lanes to the other church. Upon my arrival, hurried and breathless, the sharp contrast between the two churches always made my heart sink. There were about twenty-five in worship at this church, not a one of them under the age of sixty-five. They, too, had a charming, historic building that sat among fields and wooded hills. But it was dark and musty. It was barely heated in the winter, and hotter than a foundry in the summer. At this church, I had to photocopy the weekly worship bulletins myself on an ancient machine, just one step above a mimeograph. There was no FAX, no Internet, and no telephone! The novelist Barbara Kingsolver says that a mother always favors her weakest child; the same might be true of a pastor who leads two (or more) churches. I coddled the smaller church more than the bigger one. I poured a disproportionate amount of energy and attention into it. I set up websites for both congregations, and I decided that it would never do for the smaller congregation to remain phoneless. So when I purchased a cell phone for myself, I named that church’s village as my “home location” and circulated my cell as the church’s number. (No one ever called except the CCLI people trying to collect their annual dues for the church’s use of copyrighted choir music.) And yet, for all my efforts, this little congregation remains the only church that actually withered away under my touch. Attendance dropped sharply while I was there.
The ancients believed that every place—every forest, every building, every bog—had its own guardian spirit, called a “numen.” In fact, our word “numinous” comes from this old superstition. Now, I don’t attribute it to angels, or devils, or ghosts, but I’ve always wondered how two churches, so similar in every way, could have two such different spirits about them. One had an air of excitement and joy. The other felt airless, sad, tired out. It begs the question: What do people feel when they walk through the doors of Bower Hill Church? Do they feel better for having been here? Do you leave church knowing that “the presence of the Lord is in this place”? I always do, and I think it has something to do with all of you.
In Christ’s Peace,
This is one of 4 articles appearing in the June 2014 Newsletter. Download the Full Newsletter here.