Harry Randall Truman was a faithful and devoted man. He was the caretaker of a mountain lodge near Spirit lake and he loved, he truly loved the wilderness. The mountain with its depth and mystery, the lake with a cold, damp fog rising off of it in the early mornings. I imagine Harry in his devotion, his heart swelling and over-flowing with love, standing on the deck of the lodge in the early morning, coffee cup in hand, drinking in the almost silence, that golden silence when the world speaks as one with God before our busy schedules and to-do lists take over. I never met Harry, so I can only imagine, but I imagine Harry as one of those many people from the Pacific Northwest who proudly proclaim, the mountain is my temple, the forest is my sanctuary, I meet God there. I have no need for steeples or organ music, I have tall pine trees and birdsong.
When the call came to leave the mountain, Harry refused. “My mountain won’t hurt me,” he proclaimed and as he witnessed to his deep faith and love of the wild lands, the forests, his beloved mountain, people were inspired. He received marriage proposals in the mail. People took heart listening to him and they too refused to leave the mountain, at least until the evidence was more certain.
Harry said the mountain would take care of him and I suppose in a way it did. When Mount St. Helens erupted it folded it’s hot, molten lava around Harry and his cats and it held him eternally. He did not have to witness the devastation of his forests, of his lake, of his mountain; he was spared that. There is a certain grace and certainly there is fidelity in Harry’s story.
There is also a refusal. A refusal to enter into exile and endure the desert times, the I feel so lost times, the time of loss and grief. I can’t imagine Harry’s situation. But I do know that in some ways it is our situation. Most of us were raised in a certain church, a certain way of being church.
I have the fondest memories of Wednesday night potlucks and to me a church isn’t home unless I can enter the sacred places alone and walk through them as if I’m home. This naming and claiming for me as a child involved signing up to clean sections of the church and joyfully doing so every week, this quarter we have the kitchen and the narthex, next one we have the bathrooms and the adult Sunday school room, and so it would go. It was ours. We were home.
It involved sitting vigil at the foot of the cross from Good Friday service until Easter morning when the pastor arrived to do the Easter service- we would sign up for 15 minute increments and in complete silence we would enter and relieve those who had come before us and we committed to never leaving that cross alone in the horror of death until resurrection came. My mother loved to sign up for the middle of the night sessions so this vigil often began with her waking us at one or two in the morning and driving through the cold to church. All of this is viscerally encoded in my being.
This is how I know my church…except that, it changed. My church became the one where I was greeted with a hug and a soulful, “I see you” gaze. My church became the one where, and I know this is different, we did prayer stations and at a designated time during the service I could move from one prayer station to another, physically praying as I lay my body down on pillows, artfully praying as I painted a “graffiti wall” with my earnest prayer, or simply lighting a candle, and then, most significantly for me, receiving communion by name. I was known here, I was claimed here. As I moved through the service I would receive small pats on my shoulder, a brief smile here and there. Somehow I was known and loved and accepted and I felt it viscerally.
My church was also a small church where my service began in the early hours of Saturday morning as my fellow seminarians slept in and I, I was off to buy groceries. Though, no, to be honest my worship and expressing my love for this congregation began earlier in the week, often on pinterest an internet site with lots of delicious recipes that I would peruse, trying to find and create the perfect menu. And after coffee I would run to the store, shop for wonderful, fresh goodness and spend the day in the basement of the church, again alone, working, cleaning, cooking, feeling myself at home in deep visceral ways, in the way of thanksgiving smells, and canning or jamming sessions with extended family, home is where the kitchen is, and with my radio on full blast I would dance and sing and cook, so that I might present a full meal to all these wonderful, loving, gracious people who took me in when no one else would.
My church became the message that you are welcome here; all your tears and anger and frustration, all of you, all that you are and all that you experience yourself to be, are welcome here. I’m paraphrasing, because to be honest this message was one I received in pieces, a little here, a little there. But again, I knew I had found my church. The final piece of the message, you have worth and value, you have something to contribute, and by the way, God sees you, God loves you. Huh, nothing more. No earn it. No if you do this…God will love you. No, if you do this…I will accept you. No if you are this you can be part of our community. No. No. Isn’t that something? You! Sitting there. You! Are loved! That final piece, once I was ready to let it in, to receive it, it made the whole world church!
So about now you might be wondering what all this has to do with Harry Randal Truman and his love of his mountain. Right about now I can imagine Harry twirling in his grave saying, how can you conflate my love for my mountain with church?! But I am sure that he would admit that standing on his deck in the morning, watching the mist rise off the lake, feeling and hearing the Spirit of God pulsing through the wilderness, singing with the birds, that this was church for him.
And I understand his refusal to leave church as he understood it, even if it meant death. Because I refused to leave church until it meant death, the death of who I was as a fully aware and adult woman, until it meant that I must become small and diminished. But I know something that Harry never had the chance to discover, that church comes in many and different forms. Some of them feel odd and different and off-setting, especially at first, but all of them are wonderous and grace inspired and beautiful. And Harry was not able to receive this.
My sister-in-law and my brother live on the Oregon coast and every week my sister-in-law posts pictures she has taken of the Oregon coast on facebook and it is devotional. I know, some of you are thinking, “how can anything on facebook be devotional” but it is. Her pictures speak of a deep love, a willingness to stand in awe and wonder, of a willingness to accept grace and love without explanaition. “Why are you doing this for me?” and no answer comes, and we wonder openly about the love or perhaps the silence, but we accept the gift. We accept it in wonder and awe!
So what is church anyway? Is it the grand and vibrant mountain, holy mountain, on which my ancestors worshipped? Is it the edifice of a cross that must be accompanied, that invites us into the death of Jesus Christ? Is it the kitchens and bible study rooms that must be cleaned and thus owned? Is it the liturgies that invite us into personal and public prayer? And when all around us are saying, in large and quiet voices, this will end, do we have the courage and the faith to believe that the church can and will exist in lots and lots of different and unexpected forms?
I wonder sometimes, if Harry had left his beloved mountain, his humble mountain, would he have learned to worship the grand and incredible mystery that is God on the beach as my sister-in-law does? I wonder if he would have named it and claimed it, saying here, today, I worship and adore, straight up adoration, the mystery that is God manifested yesterday in Mount St. Helens but today in Castle Rock, tomorrow who knows?
We have this resurrection faith. This faith that God will come even through, perhaps especially through, death. We die to what we know, the ways in which we have always experienced God, believing that God will become present to us in new and different ways, in unexpected ways. We die to what we know, perhaps because we need so desperately to believe, to know, that God will be present to us even when we have let go of all that is certain.
And in doing so we enter the desert. Halle, hallejuha, we enter the desert. Imagine Jesus, that human side of him, being so blessed at the river that the heavens split open and God said, I am so very, very proud of you. I don’t know about you, but if the heaven’s split at the river, in the midst of baptism. I would be dunking under that river over and over trying to hear it again. But Jesus leaves.
Harry could not leave the place where he experienced the divine. H would not be driven out to the desert, but Jesus, he leaves.
We stand at just such a cusp. There are so many, many memories of God-filled, God-inspired moments here. We have so many memories of worship being a certain way and like Harry our love of what we know, the ways in which we have experienced God, call to us. And we want to remain faithful to that just as he did. And like Harry we know that this cannot last. We feel the trembling of the mountain, the dissolving of finances, the empty pews. We know we cannot stay but like Harry we want to stay and continue to feel the blessed and gracious presence of God in the ways which we are familiar with.
Following Jesus out into the desert isn’t easy. Walking into the silence and the loneliness, encountering our darkest side, encountering our mortality is frightening. Jesus received this incredible blessing, sky splitting open, God speaking directly to him, and in response he leaves. In response he opens himself up to the mystery and the uncertainty. In response he walks into the darkness, into the desolation and he experiences temptation. It is a walk of faith, to walk into the darkness.
We are entering Lent, a time when we are invited to die with Christ and learn that we truly have a resurrection faith, that dying we live. We are invited into our greatest fears that we might learn that God is there too.
As we stand together on the edge of the desert, as we face our mortality we have a decision to make, to enter the unknown and let go of certainty or to die where we stand, remaining faithful to what we already know. I believe that Harry was not alone when the mountain erupted, that God was with him even then, loving him, protecting him, caring for him. I do not believe that if we decide not to embrace change that God will abandon us or be disappointed in us, but I do believe that this church will not survive it; we cannot keep doing what we have been doing and expect to get different results. This is a valid choice but it is not the only one.
We can choose to follow Jesus into the desert, into the unknown, embrace change and let the Spirit transform us. We can open our hearts and souls up to the incredible process of transformation and say, yes this too. We can walk into the darkness, encounter our mortality, grief, and loss knowing that we do not walk alone, that God is holding our hand as we go.
We stand on the cusp decision just as Harry must have as he watched his neighbors pack up and leave.
Please pray with me, Most holy and gracious God, teach us not to judge one another as we struggle to know what the right thing is. Teach us to be kind and to respect the decisions that we each must face. Teach us to seek You always knowing that whether we can face the desert and transformation or whether we stay resolutely where we have experienced You once before that You are with us. Amen