Written for the centennial celebration of Altavista Presbyterian Church
For as long as there has been a sanctuary to house the worship of the Altavista Presbyterian Church, her preachers have been afforded a weekly sight not normally noticed by the congregation: the distinctive three-cornered window high on the south wall of the building. Surely whoever drew up the plans for this little Tudor-style shelter for sinners knew something of Mr. Calvin’s good theology: a tri-cornered window to mark a Trinitarian faith. And when I consider my season in your congregation, I likewise recall a trinity of markers that reflect for me this kirk’s little light in the world.
I think first of furniture: sanctuary furniture—serious sanctuary furniture. Unlike many Christian worship spaces these days, wherein one could just as well play donkey basketball as much as dispense blessings, there is no mistaking what the Altavista sanctuary is all about: bath, book, and meal. For each of these three most-Christian of activities, the hand-me-down furniture is formidable. I remember the first time I gazed upon the elevated pulpit, wondering if for certain preachers oxygen masks would be made available—given the thinner atmosphere up there. The communion table: a giant surface fit for a generous feast, spruced up once or twice by the boys down at Lane. The font is no less impressive, a hefty perch for washing old sinners and marking new saints. Every now and then an anxious bride would ask me, “Um, could we, like, move these things out of here? They are kinda in the way.” Indeed they are, friend. I always blamed my solemn “no” on the sheer weight of each object, but I did not mean the kind known by Newton. More like Calvin’s. Nay, more like God’s.
But what good are hearty appointments without a people to worship around them? This brings to mind, secondly, the great weekly stampede known properly as the Passing of the Peace. What holy madness! I remember a rather shy visitor to worship, hoping in the back pew to lay low like a wallflower at Jr. High prom, later reporting to me her panic as half the congregation descended upon her with hands of shalom outstretched. “Get used to it,” I warned, with wry gratitude. “And next week, bring a crash helmet. It won’t let up.” Nor should it. Christianity is surely a personal faith, but it can never be a wholly private faith. If in fact the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” then it follows that his people would press the flesh too, as a regular act of practicing the sort of strange new community into which he calls us. Workplaces in hostility, families in tension, nations at war; there is at least one place on the planet where, in the name of Jesus, people practice a vigorous peace every seven days. Reticent visitors have been warned!
The third pane in my memory’s window: an anxious waiting room somewhere in the steel of Lynchburg General. Walter C. has fallen four stories. He is broken, battered, and beset with more hoses than one can imagine possible. His family is frightened, exhausted, camping out on hard chairs for a week. Yet over the course of days there is a veritable parade of Presbyterians moving through said waiting area. Struck by the number of these strangers, a bewildered sibling asks me, “Preacher, who are all these people?” Good question, sister. What I wanted to say was, “They are God’s people. They belong to Jesus, just like Walter. They are his sisters and brothers, and by coming here in his dying they mean to bear witness to the good resurrection soon to come, wherein all will be made well—including your brother, in every respect. For now, until then, their presence here is a sign that, in God’s good kingdom, even the town fool has a place at the table, even an eccentric nobody is a blessed somebody.” This is what I wanted say, but it was surely more theology than a grieving sister should have to work out on tired feet. Instead, I offered, “These are Walter’s friends. From his church.” She surveyed the room again, astonished. And although I can’t be certain, there seemed for just a moment, in the corner of her drained eye, a brand new vision of Jesus breaking forth—the same Jesus old Walter mumbled on about so much of the time.
Who are all these people? They are God’s people. And they show up, right on time.
Altavista Presbyterian Church … now a century old. Her sturdy furniture. Her crowded aisles. Her people, hanging around in hospital hallways, and in other hard places. Through these three panes shines for me the light of a mysterious and majestic three-fold God: Father of Strength, Son in the flesh, Spirit all around. One God, through and through.
Happy centennial, Presbyterians.
May God bless you in this new season now before you, bright with promise.
(When in doubt, do what B. Harvey would have you do.)