Last Saturday, on a beautiful blue afternoon, we headed east, past St. Paul (where we stopped briefly to look at model trains), to the old Minnesota town of Stillwater. We got into town in mid-afternoon, dropped off our bags at the historic Lowell Inn, and walked down the hill to the St. Croix River and the myriad old bookshops and antique stores that line the main street. After I made a brief neurotic phone call to the church ("Are you sure I'm not doing the Saturday service tonight?"), we window-shopped for antique glass and old books (I was especially taken with one book called Elin's Amerika, about a young Swedish girl in Philadelphia in the 1600s). We ended up munching burgers at a cafe on the river before heading back to our inn for the evening. My husband was gratified to find TCM a cable channel choice; I tried to read but found my eyelids heavy.
In the morning we woke early, but with nowhere in particular we had to go. At some point the 1938 movie The Young in Heart was on; a family of crooks and cardsharks meets a sweet old lady on a train and plans to cheat her so that she will leave them her fortune; in the end, as they live with her and lead honest lives, they are transformed by her love and faith in them. When the old lady falls ill, her lawyer tells them that she has indeed left her estate to them; however, it is not worth much any more. One by one, they each say, "We don't care about the money." When the lawyer also tells them that if the old lady lives, he will not even be able to save her house, they declare that she will always have a home with them. Then the daughter exclaims, "She saved us."
Often when we speak about salvation, it ends up sounding like a transaction. Especially this sounds true when "heaven after we die" is the only goal of being saved. But in the movie salvation is transformation; the family, through their encounter, are transformed from selfish people focused on their own survival, into people who live loving and caring about others.
This is the kind of preacher I want to be: not someone giving out tools to help people hang on to their same old lives, but encouraging people to let go and let God transform them, continually, daily, through the love of the Son.
Later on we ended up at a large church in town; the late service is the contemporary one, as it seems is true of many ELCA congregations these days. The church was beautiful; the narthex inviting; I was impressed by the many offerings throughout the weeks in education and community involvement, also their statement that they are "open and affirming."
I didn't know any of the songs at the contemporary service. I am behind, it seems, and perhaps getting old and cranky. The preacher gave a good sermon on the prodigal son, full of gospel, but didn't read the text before he started, which was disorienting to me. It's good just to hear it, to see what wonders the Word itself can work, before the interpretation starts.
I also thought: I've always had a problem visiting other churches. Even when I was a little kid, I didn't like it when we visited another church, even my grandparents' church. To me it seems, true worship has always had to do not just with the hymns and the preaching and the prayers, but the community. I know that a community of strangers is still God's community, worshiping together, but there's something about knowing the people, the struggles, the faith, the doubts, and bearing with each other, and encouraging each other, that is also an important part of worship for me.
There are many reasons it's good to visit other places, to get ideas for worship, find out how another community does things; and there are many reasons to worship with strangers, and to remember that, as well as we think we know each other, we remain, in some ways, strangers, united by God's claim on our lives and nothing else.
It rained all day Sunday, a soft soaking April rain that we needed to feed the young spring buds, to make the earth come alive again, to make us come alive again.