Monday, November 4, 2013

80 Years, One Church

When you were eight years old, were you going to church?

If so, imagine what it would be like if you were still attending that same church now.  No matter how old you are today.

Now imagine you're 88 years old, and you're still a member of that church you joined back when you were eight.  Eighty years ago!

Lilly Stone lives in the tiny east Texas town of Chireno, and last Thursday, she turned 88.  She's been a member of the town's United Methodist Church since 1933, which by any standard, is a pretty impressive feat.  There isn't really any type of registry that keeps track of church membership records and who's been a church member the longest of any American, but if there was, don't you imagine 80 years in the same church qualifies Stone for some sort of award?

Or maybe it qualifies the church for an award.  I can think of at least one church whose pastor was glad when I left, because I asked too many questions, and stuck my nose in places where it wasn't appreciated.

For her part, Stone was presented a plaque from officials in the Methodist denomination acknowledging her achievement.

Perhaps it comes as little surprise that Chireno is a rather small town, with a population of about 400 people, out in the middle of noplace, kinda half-way between Nacogdoches and San Augustine, if that tells you anything about the area.  And unless you're from east Texas, it likely doesn't, which is what I mean.

Pleasant enough, probably, if you enjoy small-town life on a really small scale.  Probably not a lot of crime, and a place where you know just about everybody, and just about everybody knows you.

The kind of place where a lot of kids grow up and leave, because of the scant job prospects, and the slow pace of life that teenagers don't realize is attractive until they start having kids themselves.  And by then, it's often too late to change gears.

Meanwhile, people like Stone, whose maiden name was Atkison, progress through life, and suddenly, if they've lived long enough, they're celebrating 80 years of membership in the same church where they were raised.  Granted, it's not like Stone has been spoiled for choice of churches to attend in Chireno, since the Methodists appear to be the only game in town.  There's their tidy Methodist church, occupying what appears to be the best-maintained building in town, a Capital One bank branch, a time-worn grocery store with burglar bars on its windows (what was that about "not a lot of crime"?), and an air conditioner repair shop.

Hey, this is Texas, after all.  It gets hot here.

Oh - and a dinky U.S. Post Office, and a defunct Exxon gas station.

Now, we could be really mean-spirited, and ponder all of the plausibles about what kind of person Lilly Stone is to be content with the same small-town church all her 88 blessed years.  But actually, wondering such things probably says more about us, and maybe even betrays a little bit of envy - or contempt - on our part that somebody could be that content in that type of church in that type of rural community.  So let's not make this about her, but about you and me.

Were you going to church when you were eight years old?  Where was it?  What denomination was it?  How big was it?  Does it still exist today, that you know of?  And what about your faith?  Has it progressed much beyond what it was like when you were eight?

For me, the church my family attended when I was eight no longer exists.  At least, its congregation doesn't.  I believe the actual church building is still standing, and has been adopted as an ancillary facility by a church in the next village.  I'm not naming names, since I don't know any of the details around the closure of that old church, but if you're a long-time reader of my essays, you know I grew up on the north shore of Oneida Lake, in central New York State.  That's a part of the country that's been hit hard economically, losing a lot of its employment and population throughout the 1970's, 80's, and 90's.  The major employer for the community in which that church was located moved its manufacturing overseas during those years, and eventually went bankrupt.  For all I know, my old church folded not because of any internal strife, but simply because too many members had to look for jobs outside the increasingly barren Empire State.

I didn't have any friends my age in that church, although I remember the Sunday School department having a couple dozen kids in it.  Our classrooms were on the second floor, at the end of a balcony that was so narrow, it only had two pews in it!  The sanctuary was pretty ugly, painted a light green; freezing in the winter, and stuffy in the summer.  There were two elderly ladies who always sat in front of us, wearing those little pillbox hats covered in black lace, and one of them had a problem with flatulence, a condition that is particularly bizarre for eight-year-old boys.  I think our mother lived in mortal fear of my brother or me bursting out with innocent yet uncontainable laughter after one of the poor old lady's episodes.  Mom may have been strict, but she knew that some things were just unavoidable for little boys.  Even hers!

Okay, so have I grown up since then?  Well, maybe not much, since the flatulence story remains one of my strongest memories of that church.  But what about you?  Transport yourself back to when you were eight, and compare yourself then to who you are today.

Hopefully, this little exercise provides some encouragement for you, no matter where you are on your faith walk.

Then consider all the churches you may have attended since then.  Why did you leave them?  Or, theologically, why did they leave you?

What is the one church that you've attended the longest?  And why has that been?

Eighty years is a long time to have attended the same church.  Thankfully, our spirituality isn't dependent upon how long we attend a particular church, or even church in general.

Let's just make sure we get more out of however long we attend church than just a plaque.

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