To give dear Host Family a little peaceful time on Sunday morning, I left the house extra-early to look around for a church.
All week the weather was windy, with blue skies and sunshine by day and frost by night. On Saturday and Sunday the stiff sturdy wind had died down completely. That let the farmers charge ahead with their controlled burning plans, starting and managing very small fires on rotated parcels of land. That explained the common sight of highways bordered by a broad strip, a good 20 feet wide, of jet black ash in sharp contrast to the spring fields. It’s essential for healthy prairie, native plants, and topsoil. What’s more, it lowers the risk of wildfires. (If only it were safe to do that here; our highways are choked with highly flammable thickets of gorse, Scotch Broom, and other invasives; the city can’t possibly clear it all out. But with this population density, burning it would be too dangerous.) Anyway, on those two still windless days, the skies were lightly hazy instead of clear. At times one could catch the scent of smoke from out of town. That made the early morning weather feel soft and wistful.
The Dallas airport halfway home was expecting severe thunderstorms, large hail, and possible tornadoes (as well as wildfires around the state) on Tuesday, my departure day. That meant changing the flight to leave on Monday. I was sad to leave Eagle, but at least there was all of Sunday still left.
So I strolled from one end of town to the other, looking at the churches and admiring the neat clean town. Main Street is handsome but homelike with its vintage storefronts and 19th century architecture and ornamental lamp posts. There are flower containers everywhere, waiting for spring weather and planting. The street was almost perfectly quiet. A number of the independent family shops are closed on Sundays, and there are no national chain or fast food stores. (The town has a Pizza Hut down by the river, but they’ve kept out Walmart and everybody else). No one was out walking. Virtually no one was driving; perhaps many were getting ready for church.
Right by this Coca Cola sign, the silence was sweetened by some soft music lilting from a storefront, a strikingly well arranged country western song. It fit perfectly with the atmosphere. A van of horses drove by. From inside, a ringing neigh was a glorious evocative sound.
One of the larger mainstream denomination churches seemed a good choice. First, I headed back to the house for some breakfast. I hardly noticed the signboard of the smaller Eagle Christian Church. Even that one glance was just curious puzzlement. “Christian Church”? That’s like calling an eatery “Food Restaurant.” In a town of churches, why would they distinguish theirs with a name like that?
Just then, a family car pulled up to Eagle Christian. A woman stepped out and called over to me. “Good Morning! Would you like to come in, and attend our church with us today?” She and her family looked so friendly, welcoming, and even hopeful that I stopped in my tracks, completely disarmed.
My conventional mind felt some chagrin; I had never heard of this denomination at all, and did not know what they preached. What if, like many perfectly good Christians, they taught the Doctrine of Total Depravity? I’m accustomed to and comfortable with sermons and books stating that if left entirely to my own devices I am bound for hell and need to repent in the Blood of the Lamb, because in my case that seems a reasonable assumption. But what if the family at home offered to come to church with me and was surprised by a message like that?
But while my conventional mind hesitated, my voice spoke right out. “Yes,” it said. “Thank you, I’ll be there!”
They eagerly invited me to 9:30 Sunday School, and we waved goodbye.
Well, here was a fine how-do-you-do. I didn’t have the heart to just not show up. I returned to the house and with some hesitation broke the news to the family, assuring them that they need not trouble to accompany me to a church we’d never heard of. But, surprise: Dear Host looked pleased. As it happens, “Christian Church” really has a name in this part of the country. DH’s own beloved aunt was a faithful Christian Church member in her own town. He immediately offered to meet me there after Sunday School for the service.
Back at Eagle Christian, I was instantly greeted as “Good Morning, Ma’am,” by a tall earnest young man who offered to usher me to the Sunday School. The walk to church just a little too long, and it was now 9:35. So I confided to him that perhaps I ought to skip the lesson altogether; it felt disrespectful to attend my first Sunday School several minutes late. Another greeter, quite a tall sturdy-looking gentleman, overheard me. He looked softly pained that five minutes might keep me from the benefit of Sunday School. He reached out a large strong hand, clasped my hand, then cradled my arm gently but securely in his. I was very touched by his gesture of concern. In the best and kindest sense, he seemed to be guiding a little girl through some dark and unsteady path and into safety. He walked me right over to the Sunday School in the parish hall, straight through a good crowd of attending members, right to the front and center, and seated me in the seat left behind by our speaker of the day.
Our speaker drew straight from Scripture to spell out in clear and heartfelt fashion the seven traits which are ours to claim, in a life devoted to God. (In case you were waiting for it, “total depravity” was not among them.) He made the best use of personal interactions with the group, often inviting church members to answer questions and to chime in with the relevant verses (these people really know their Bible), all with touches of humor and kind encouragement. Two of the seven traits struck home: our true identity as adopted sons and daughters of God, and life as brothers and sisters in community. For people who feel alone and lonely, these are valuable cornerstones for taking our place in the world. They called to mind a favorite chapter, Ephesians 1:3-14, and the destiny prepared for us since before time began.
Sunday School did my heart good. So did the friendliness of that table of women. One turned to me and said something that belongs in the lexicon of every church: “If you do not have someone to sit with today, please do come and sit with us. We will be in the first pew, left.” (She turned out to be the spouse of our speaker, who lost his seat when I wandered in late.)
(Editorial rant: this congregation’s social network clearly does not end after the service, and their friendliness did not hinge upon whether I had a family with me. It is absolutely normal in Catholic and other traditional Christian churches that members will speak to me provided that I have a husband on display, and preferably kids the same age as their kids. Christianity has made itself irrelevant as a shared foundation of American society. One major reason is that half the country is now single, with a wealth of older women on our own. Christian churches have no message for us from the pulpit, and no fellowship to offer. We ladies are tolerated if we volunteer our hearts out and tithe away and keep smiling. Otherwise the congregations would be more comfortable if we’d disappear to Starbucks or the yoga studio or the dog park. In my city, that’s exactly what women do.)
I went off to look for a water fountain before the service. One of the men found me wandering from pillar to post. When I asked him for a water fountain he apologized that they did not have one, but made a rapid beeline for a refrigerator and from a stockpile he brought me a generous bottle of cold water.
Dear Host found me in the vestibule. In his signature fashion he was already making friendly contacts right and left; church members were gathering around him, pleased by his reminiscences of his aunt’s branch of the Christian Church, and the role it played in her life. Before the service a radiant fair-haired small child walked up and shook my hand, introducing himself. The gracious lady who invited me from the parking lot earlier that morning turned out to be a pianist, taking her place with a small ensemble of musicians. An electronic display board showed the hymn lyrics in print so large that even I could read it, meaning I could pitch right in without getting lost in an unfamiliar hymnal or dropping it on anyone’s foot. It was reassuring to see “How Deep the Father’s Love” on the screen. I’d learned it just that week from the Sounds Like Reign channel, sung by Mrs. Kirkland, and so could join in.
This was a special Palm Sunday for the church. They were preparing for Easter in just one week. They had also lost a cherished elder quite suddenly just two days before. Clearly he had been a deeply valued member of the church. It was moving to see the church leaders step up and find words to balance mourning and tribute, with faith in the Resurrection. At different parts of the service they took turns teaching about both, backing up all of it with Scripture and the personal viewpoint of their own lives in community. One of them told a sweet family story as a parallel to the lesson of Palm Sunday; as he talked, he cradled the little fair-haired ambassador who shook my hand before the service. (This happy kiddo was so secure rocked in his father’s arms, and so delighted to find himself front and center, that to support Dad he performed fancy acrobatic tricks for the edification of all. It was a joy to see his beaming smile hanging happily upside down.) There was also an interesting slide show and talk about the church’s recent mission trip to a small mountain town in West Virginia, sharing work projects with a congregation in a small mountain town.
There was one more surprise in store. After the service, familiar faces came right over — including the very first gentleman who welcomed me to town on Day 1, the curators and restorers of the house museum café, and one gracious insurance representative who hadn’t even met me yet but came to shake hands and say “We see you all over town. You keep passing our office window!”
That was a memorable Palm Sunday. Not the Catholic service with long green palms to carry home, to keep in a safe place over the home altar and carry back to church next year (they burn the palms to make ashes for Ash Wednesday). Not the Julian Calender Greek Orthodox service that fell after my return to town, where after weeks of fasting the congregation received palms woven into intricate crosses and then shared a beautiful parish hall salmon dinner. Not the Russian Orthodox service either, where we all hold bunches lighted candles and the Russian equivalent of palms — bunches of silvery pussy willows tied with ribbon.
Christian Church was different from them all: unvarnished Bible truth, earnest sincerity, warm kindness to a random stranger, and a strong solid sense of fellowship in church and outside it during the week. Thanks to a friendly word from the church pianist to a random passerby, it was just the right way to end the week in the right place, right time, and good company.