Last Friday, I officiated at one of the largest memorial services that we’ve had at Old South during my tenure. The sanctuary was packed with people—every pew space was taken and people lined the walls on the sides and along the back. The man we were remembering was well-known and well-respected, and he had died suddenly at an age that many peopole would classify these days as something along the lines of “slightly later middle age.”
More than one church member commented on how different it all felt to have the sanctuary completely full, even the front pews. On most Sundays, we get a small fraction of the size of the congregation for this memorial service. Even on Christmas Eve, for our one service, we had only a hundred people in attendance, a smaller than average crowd for one of the most significant services of the year.
And, then what was even more interesting were the comments offered by a few people who were not only surprised that this man’s service took place at Old South, but that he actually attended the church. Although he hadn’t attended regularly in the last few years, his wife is at worship on a regular basis and when I first came to Old South, Peter served on a committee and as the church clerk. To some of his acquaintances, this was surprising, unexpected news.
The title of this blog is “Hope in the Wilderness,” but I must admit that I’m feeling a bit more “wilderness” these days than hope. I feel like something has changed. It’s not just that my old “mainline” church is more at the sidelines these days, it’s that I’ve been sensing the feeling that me and my church, along with others who follow an institutional religion, are being pushed right off the respectability wagon—as if no person in their right mind could possibly want to be a part of a church.
I was invited to offer the invocation and benediction at Hallowell’s annual inauguration ceremony this year, just a couple of nights ago. Except for the couple of church folks in attendance, the mayor, and one of the city councilors that I’ve met in the past, only one person at the event made any kind of effort to speak to me—to thank me for being there and to say something about Old South. It didn’t feel like people were just being shy. It felt more like I had suddenly sprouted large purple spots on my face, like people preferred not to speak to me, lest whatever weird condition I had might find itself drifting in their direction, as if I had just sneezed or coughed without covering my face.
I’m trying not to be paranoid, but the fact that Maine is among the least churched states in the country, and now that we are learning that the “nones” are not only increasing, but are quite content in their status, I’m wondering if the tide is turning against me and my church.
I’m still looking for that branch that will break this fall that I’m sensing (see last week’s post). The country may have averted the fiscal cliff, but I don’t think my cliff has been averted at all. In fact, I feel like the force of gravity is only getting stronger. In this season, though, I am still looking for some hope, and wondering what this all means for me, my faith, my church—and how we do what we do and how we live what is important. There was one little scrap, though, of something approaching hopefulness. After the memorial service, I heard that a friend of the man who died, after being involved in the service and in its planning, was pretty impressed by the experience and suggested that she might think about checking the church out a little more. I won’t hold my breath, but it’s something and something is more than nothing. How’s that for hopeful?