I’ve been reading, listening to, and researching a lot of stories this last year. I am working with our regional office to prepare for our 125th Anniversary Celebration at the end of April, and much of my role relates to compiling and telling the stories of our history. I’ve conducted countless hours of video interviews, gotten photos and old church bulletins sent in, and heard both funny and tearful tales of families, communities, congregations and individuals on their journies to know and follow Christ.
This work of gathering and telling stories, of counting struggle and victory and faithfulness – this work is holy work. This work beckons me to walk on sacred ground.
It is sacred ground that I get to walk over when I am privileged to hear others’ stories of how God has led our church for 125 years, through sacrifice and wisdom and putting others before personal gain. It is sacred ground that I am invited to travel when I walk alongside the memories of others, witnessing examples of miracles, belonging, and also sometimes oppression and exclusion. I have heard how little churches stood with open hands at the train stop, waiting for new immigrants; how vulnerable children and the elderly were served by early ministries established not out of abundant finances, but rock-solid conviction; how strategic committees were founded to help deal with geographic, ethnic and gender diversity as it spread across the country and across the church. As one interviewee put it, “Just by forming a strategic group, this showed that the church placed a high value on diversity – we didn’t always get it right, but we highly valued it.”
That is what is echoing in my ears over these past few months – stories of unbelievable and amazing people, everyday women and men, who had a high value on following Christ. We didn’t always get it right, we are still growing and learning, but that whole story, the good and the difficult, keep pointing us deeper, revealing the power of faithful following and faithful leading.
The solid ground underneath this whole story is, of course, God’s faithfulness that moved a church from its weaknesses and blind spots, its sometimes ethnic enclaves or comfort traps, to jump into daring and courageous ministry time after time. I find places where we must lament what has gone wrong, when the power to tell a story or to name who is in and who is out was not used to build up the body of Christ, but was instead used to harm. I also find places to celebrate, so many places rich with commitments that surpass personal or shallow weaknesses, places that model how we can continue to repair and restore brokenness through depending on God’s work among and through us. Pain in the past, as well as joy in the journey, can be transformed and can be named, given respect, and re-plowed into the ground where it strengthens and informs our roots into the present. Since the mid-19th century, we have been gifted stories of how God brought together people who would share these stories with each other – in places like Galesburg and Princeton Illinois, and in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, throughout Indiana and the city of Chicago, in Rockford and Milwaukee – and hundreds of other places, to be the church. These early faithful worked out how to follow God together, how to deal with language and leadership transitions, how to serve together, how to adapt, how to stay true to the Good News, how to do faithful mission in community.
And the story still continues, still builds, still is being written. But our history, the sacred ground that we have already traveled, whether we are aware of it or not, is deeply fertile soil, a repository of miracles and shared suffering and sacrifice that has all been enabled by God’s great faithfulness and leading. Perhaps our job in the present, and in the future, is to walk slowly, carefully, and with joy over that sacred ground. Maybe our faithfulness includes taking the time to listen and to honor the stories that built this church. We may say “thank you,” with our time, our words, our actions, and our continued commitments to the same calling from God that our history is founded on. And we may rejoice in God’s faithfulness from the beginning – and until the end. What a privileged, holy work this is for us all.
“He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil 1:6) Amen.