This week I found myself traveling from Fort Smith, Arkansas to Ozark, Missouri (which you wouldn’t think would take too long, but there is no remotely straight way to get there) to deliver a little 3 foot pew to Covenant Church Furniture. One of my churches (Cavanaugh UMC) is having all our pews refinished and upholstered there. This little one, who from now on will be known as Pew, was our sample pew, brought to us so we could check stain and work and all. We had not originally talked about using it, or should I say I didn’t think we were going to use it, but my people corrected me. It had to go back, though, because when they prepped the sample, they did not have the fabric we had chosen in stock. The Covenant guys had told me (when they delivered our sample and picked up our other pews) that I should just put the sample back on the truck, but I and a couple of my lay people were the only ones who saw the sample, so I begged to please let us keep it a few days with the promise that I would drive it back to Ozark myself. Side note: if you are a pastor and do not have a vehicle that can haul a ridiculous amount of stuff, I don’t know what your job looks like. I wouldn’t know mine without hauling stuff and people from place to place.
So, off to Ozark go Pew and I. Somewhere along the road it occurred to me that I am supposed to be documenting all these little steps in this sanctuary renovation for the video we will play at our rededication. So I started snapping pictures. And then because it is the world we are in, I started posting them to social media. The way I did it treated Pew like a fellow person, riding along with me on a grand adventure. And because it sounded more appropriate to a grand adventure, I disregarded rules of grammar and each post started with “Me and Pew.”
So there was “Me and Pew on the road.”
And “Me and Pew stopping at Lambert’s” (people in the middle of the country know what I am talking about – Home of the Throwed Rolls; Pew didn’t catch one, but I did).
And “Me and Pew at Covenant Church Furniture.” It was here that I also added, “We part ways here, but just for a little while.”
Then the guys came to unload Pew, and one of them, who introduced himself to me as Jacob, patted the side of Pew and said, “I know this little guy. I worked on him.” He ran his hand gently along the edge. “Why’s he back?”
“He had the wrong fabric on him. He was a sample, and you didn’t have the fabric we chose in stock. But now we have decided to use him, so he is coming back to get the right one.”
“Aw, I wondered.” Then as Jacob and the other fellow carried him away from me, Jacob said, “I’ll take good care of him!”
And that’s when it happened. I started to cry.
Now before you think I am a lunatic (aw, what do I care if you think that?), it has been a very emotional couple of weeks, and thus far I have managed to keep from crying, except in the shower and that hardly counts because you really can’t tell I have been crying in there. Even I can’t always be sure. So probably there was a bit of a dam breaking loose in that moment. But I did ask God, “Why am I crying?”
Sometimes you ask God a question, and it is not that you get an audible answer, but you get an answer in your head that doesn’t feel like you came up with it. It feels like someone else is talking in your head. That is what happened when my head said to me, “Now you know how your people feel.”
In the course of this sanctuary renovation, we had a debate as to whether we should return to pews or change to chairs. I knew it would be an emotional meeting, and I am proud of my people for bringing that emotion in and for making space for the expression of all kinds of views. I also knew what the arguments would be on both sides, including the one that was dominant on the side of those who chose pews: without pews it won’t feel like church. I understand the logic of that sentiment. What I could not do prior to that journey to Ozark was feel that sentiment.
Why? Because I have never had the opportunity to get attached to a church. At least not to a physical location. My first church was a new church start. We didn’t have a building or even a location for a while. I was baptized in my living room. Then my son was baptized in our “building” which was the end of a strip mall. I drive by that strip mall and point it out to my son – “That’s where you were baptized.” Since our church closed (which happened while I was in seminary), it has been the Child Support Enforcement Agency for that area. I kind of like that it is such a place now, because that, in a sense, is what we commit ourselves to do when we baptize a child – support them – and God will hold us to that.
But back to Pew and my tears. Since my home church closed, every other church I have been a part of I have KNOWN it would be temporary. I serve at the whim of the Bishop, who is ideally listening (along with the Cabinet) to the will of God, and God doesn’t leave you in one place very long. So I don’t get attached to buildings. I don’t get attached to furniture. When it comes to making such decisions, I look at the mission Jesus Christ calls us to, and make my decisions accordingly.
But riding around with Pew, I realized what was truly emotionally at stake for many of my people. Many of them have really only known that church. And they have only sat on those pews. And while they sat on those pews, their children were baptized. And their children were married. And their parents and their spouses were buried. Such significant points in the journeys of their lives have been in that building, and they have sat on those pews. I rode around for one day with one of those pews in the back of my van, and I was already attached. They have lived their whole lives on those pews. How could they imagine the journey without them?
The voice in my head was not finished talking, though, because the voice in my head knows that pews cannot get in the way of reaching people for Jesus. If we are making such decisions to hold on to our own comfort, our own histories, and we do so at the detriment of someone else making a history with Jesus, then we have missed the point. But pews do not have to hinder such a journey. It is more often our own hearts that hinder such a journey. So the voice said, “Teach them. Teach them how to ride around with Pew in the back of their cars.”
In that moment I knew that I should write this blog to share my understanding with them, too. No one can take away your history with Jesus. Even if buildings change, you still have that history. I know. My son and I are still baptized even though you can’t point to a church where it happened. We carry that baptism with us on every journey we take. And we carry that journey with us as we share Jesus outside the walls of whatever building nurtures us in our faith. We need both – we need a place that provides us safe refuge and helps us prepare to go into the world, but we also need a companion in the Holy Spirit who goes out with us, journeys with us, and reaches out with us.
So Cavanaugh, when the day comes again when you will have to discuss what to do with the seating in your building, know that even though I am attached in some way now, you should not let that sway you. I want you to decide what is best for helping others know Jesus, what is best for giving others the foundation on which they can now build their lives.
But if you ever do decide to get rid of the pews, maybe give me a call. There is one I could take off your hands for you….