I’ve returned to my family’s ancestral place for the summer. We've had seven generations on this lake. My great, great grandfather, Charles Christopher Krug, when he immigrated from Germany in the mid-nineteenth century, bought property high on a plateau east of Troy, NY. He bought it because it was all he could afford. It was rocky and not well suited for farming and the winters were especially harsh. It was hard living. Later, his sons moved south to Yonkers, but the property on the Rensselaer Plateau stayed in the family as a summer vacation destination. My great grandfather bought two lots on the lake that was made by building a dam across a beaver swamp around the turn of the century. My late husband, Carl, and I bought a third lot on that lake in 1993. So the family continues to come to the plateau for the summer, though the original farm is no longer owned by any of Charles’ descendants.
It is a remote, uncivilized place. The closest grocery store is thirty minutes away. On the weekends during the summer the population of the lake swells to several hundred boaters, jet-skiers and fishermen, but during the week it seems that sometimes I’m the only one here. Just me and the birds. And the bullfrogs. And the chipmunks. And the beaver, mink, deer, foxes and occasional moose and bear. We used to have otters — they were my favorites — but they were trapped for their pelts in the eighties and are now only infrequent visitors in the winter. I haven’t seen one in years.
This morning, I’m hearing yellow-rumped warblers, juncos, and red-eyed vireos singing. A kingbird is calling from the island with his electric “tzeep!” The blackburnian warblers have not returned to nest in the spruce trees behind the cottage, which means this is the second year in a row they’ve been absent. But I think there’s a nesting pair of blue-headed vireos in the rhododendron. The hummingbirds were glad to see me and sucked down their first batch of juice in record time.
Since I left the pastorate in June, a number of people have asked me where I would worship now that I was without a church. I have been intentionally vague in my response. I am not anxious to find another church. I am interested mostly in non-traditional worshiping communities that don’t gather in their own buildings. I know of some that are forming in Princeton; they meet in the evening and their worship involves discussions about life and God and the mission of the church. Sometimes, they meet in a pub and call it “Theology on Tap.” This appeals to me. It seems relevant to trying to live faithfully in a society that is changing so rapidly we can’t make adjustments fast enough. Sure, I will gladly fill the pulpit of churches when invited. I’ll also fill-in to teach bible study when pastors need some time away (and they really do). It’s not that I don’t “like” church anymore, it’s just that it seems very tame and predictable to me, boxed up as it is in white-clapboard buildings, or stone-and-stained-glass fortresses. I don’t deny the value of these venues — I will likely return to them some day. They feed the faithful with a steady diet of doctrine. They inspire with beloved hymns or lively new praise choruses. They provide structure for a regular, predictable dose of God. But is that who or what God is? Regular and predictable?
When I told a friend that I’d be away for the summer, she immediately suggested several churches I might try in New York. I smiled and told her as gently as I could: “It’s okay that I don’t go church. Really. I still love God and God still loves me.” My friend looked back at me, mildly alarmed and unconvinced.
I need time away from the church, but not from God. I’ll worship in the wilds of the woods. I’ll let the veerys and hermit thrush lead worship – their voices are unparalleled, even in the best of human choirs. I’ll listen for God’s Word in the silence of the evening, or in the sound of the wind in the trees. I’ll watch for His handiwork in the shooting stars at night, or in a thunderstorm as it approaches across the lake. I’ll pray along with the bullfrogs and owls and the crickets at night, offering up my thanks.
Of course the argument against this is that it’s worship in isolation...far from a community of believers. “Church” is based on Jesus promise that “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20) I believe this to be true, and I’ve made this argument many times myself. But Jesus also went off by himself into the wilderness. And I’m pretty sure he worshiped God in un-civilized ways too.
Maybe it’s time to blow apart all the long-held assumptions about church. Let’s stop holding on to things out of fear that we might lose them forever. And what if we do? Won’t God give us something even BETTER to replace them with? This is how I know God to act. Try it. If you need permission, I give you permission. Worship God in an uncivilized way and see if it doesn’t shake something loose that needs unbinding.