Church on the Pond
Several Sundays ago, I was invited to preach for a little church tucked away in the beautiful, mountainous, idyllic town of Greensboro, Vermont. Rarely do I find myself venturing beyond the range of cell phone service these days, and I hardly ever find myself driving extensively on dirt roads. My trek out to this small community required a bit more of an adventurous spirit as I navigated those roads alone without GPS. Jeff and Christine, who had invited me to preach, live in a gorgeous cabin-style home on a large pond in the middle of the woods in the nearby town of Walden. And as I drove up to their home where I would be staying for the weekend, I was immediately suspended in what I can only describe as a canopy of serenity. I realize that sounds a bit dramatic—but this city girl rarely catches a break from her fast-paced life! What had I stumbled into? What magical wonderland was this, where nobody could reach me by cell phone, and the only sounds I could hear were the birds singing, bullfrogs croaking, and beavers stirring about in the pond?
I would love to write a blog post about my sermon that I prepared; after all, I labored over that thing for quite some time, allowing it to inhabit my mind day and night. But really, when I reflect back on my time in Vermont, I just go back to the pond. That evening when I arrived, we enjoyed a wonderful dinner together with some of the members of the church. We talked and laughed and got to know one another a bit. But after the dinner party, Jeff and I sat outside on their back patio next to the pond, where Jeff stoked a small fire. As the sun set, we alternated between conversation and complete silence. When we spoke, I almost wanted to apologize to the birds and the frogs for rudely interrupting their songs.
As we listened to the pond, Jeff turned to me and said, “Sometimes if we’re lucky, we get to hear the loons.” Admittedly, I wasn’t quite sure what a loon was at first. But he went on to explain that the loons are these black and white speckled birds who live on the pond, and they make very unique and beautiful sounds. “Hopefully you’ll get to hear them before the night is over.”
As we continued talking, we entered into what I now call the “one-degree-of-separation web” of Churches of Christ. You see, anyone who grew up going to a Church of Christ is usually only one degree of separation from anyone else who has spent time in a Church of Christ. You only have to talk for a few minutes before you discover that they know your aunt from back in the day at church camp, or they went to college with your mom and dad, or they worked at a church down the road from where your family lived. The Churches of Christ make the world feel small. Jeff and I laughed about what I affectionately refer to as “our tribe,” as we talked about our common connections and fond memories.
Our conversation lulled for a moment, as I remembered to listen for the loons. “What do they sound like?” I asked. Jeff pulled out his phone and quietly played a short recording of a loon. As I strained to listen to the little recording I whispered, “I do hope I get to hear them tonight.” We sat in silence for a few moments, but no loons called out. “These loons have claimed that area right over there,” Jeff said, pointing to a thick wooded patch that extended into the pond. “One loon will stay with the nest, while the other goes out to fish. They will call out to one another with this magnificent call to check in with each other—as if to say, ‘Are you out there, dear?’ ‘Yes, I’m here! I’ll be back soon.’ But sometimes the one at the nest becomes a bit lonely and worried. You can almost hear the longing in its call—it’s just the saddest sound you can imagine. It almost sounds eerie. The lonely loon will let out this lonesome cry, as if to say, ‘I need you! Where are you?’ Then the mate will respond with a call to reassure, as if to say, ‘I’m right here! You’re not alone.’”
I was totally caught up in the drama of the pond, its music, and the longing loons, when I lamented out loud that I may not get to hear the loons for myself. Just then, the loons began to call out to one another, with their long, whooping notes echoing out over the pond! I sat up on the edge of my seat, wide-eyed as we eavesdropped. I have to say right now that if you’ve never stopped long enough to eavesdrop on nature, you’re missing out. That pond was a sanctuary, and the birds and the bullfrogs were the choir. The preacher may very well have been the silence, and frankly, Jeff and Christine took me to church in their own backyard.
As I think back on that evening, I can’t shake the songs of the loons. In retrospect the sounds of the loons actually seem to resonate with parts of our conversation about Churches of Christ. I thought about how often I have felt like a bird leaving the nest, flying out away from home, occasionally calling back to my tribe as if to say, “I’m still here!” I thought about how many times I called out with longing to our tribe, wondering if our bond remained strong.
This is the strength and the weakness of a tribe like ours: with such an intimate, one-degree-of-separation bond that ties us all together, any experience of distance or even rejection becomes all the more painful. Some of us find ourselves spending time outside of our tribe for any number of reasons. For instance, I currently attend a Methodist school. I absolutely love my school, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to participate in life with these Methodist sisters and brothers! But I do spend much of my time participating in community and worship with a different tribe right now. My husband and I go to a church that is just around the corner from our apartment, where a fellow Church-of-Christer encouraged us to attend. But the church is actually not a Church of Christ. I have felt the wonderful embrace of our greater, global Christian family but have also felt longing for my Church of Christ family.
While I am sharing life with religious communities beyond our Church of Christ tribe on purpose right now, there are plenty of people who are estranged from our tribe because they were rejected by our tribe. Many women who were called to preaching and leadership left when their cries of longing went unanswered and rejected. Plenty of our LGBTQ neighbors, siblings, cousins, uncles, aunts, parents, and children have similarly been abandoned. They called out to the family, but experienced abandonment.
I am fortunate to retain close ties and strong bonds with our tribe, and most of the time I feel no separation as I attend conferences and lectureships, and visit Churches of Christ often. But I do know that many people of our tribe continue to call out, and their calls remain unanswered. Our strength—our intimate bond—demands spiritual attentiveness and responsibility to one another. Listen carefully for the calls of longing; they are out there. May we be the type of family who responds to the call with bold reassurance and full embrace. May we be quick to respond, saying, “We’re right here! You’re not alone.”