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Continuing Education

Writing: “Untitled” by Laura Monroe

October 20, 2011

I can sit in one of my usual spots in a church pew this Sunday morning and see the four cedar trunk posts that my husband and father-in-law and brother-in-laws cut down from a neighbor’s property near Meadowbrook. I can see the metal work bracing that Richard DeJong made to secure the rafters. Much of the oak woodwork I see was sawed at the mill my husband and his brothers operate. Frieda refinished the altar from the old church. Ginny and her daughter created the altar cloths. Denise sewed the banners, colors selected to proclaim the circle of the church year. I know that beneath the white cloth I see arranged on the altar is the bread that the women of the altar guild have baked and the wine they have poured. Most clearly though, I see the dear faces and forms of the people around me.

I am surprised at how aged some people look, how small and bent Edna has become even though her eyes twinkle. I marvel that so many children have grown up and moved away. The little blond baby who was afraid to look away from his mother now rushes up to the front of the altar with his sisters. He is wearing John Deere cowboy boots. I miss those members who have died when I notice the spaces where they used to sit. Before the service starts I discipline my impulse to turn and stare at everyone who arrives, so I look cautiously and practice the names of the new people, I wonder about their stories and think about the stories I already know of this church community.

For awhile I felt like a visitor here. I thought the liturgy was marvelous and interesting. I could only say snatches of the creeds because I won’t say anything I don’t believe.  When I was new here I would wonder if some of the people were concerned that one of the Monroe boys was marrying a girl who was definitely not from a church family. I used to wish for a spiritual experience when taking communion, but I’ve given up on that. I love communion Sundays enough because I can watch all these people, the children, the mothers and fathers, the old people, walking up to the altar to taste the bread and the wine together. 

I think often now about all the surprises I find in this so familiar setting. Some people think of me as one of the church ladies—that feels like a surprise. I am surprised by those church ladies I used to know only as a sort of type: rural, middle class, casserole carrying, managers of pantry, kitchen, garden, school room, office, and men. They are beloved individuals to me now. Some of them I still don’t like very much but I have learned from them all. They have fed me and my family, held my babies, encouraged my children, helped me learn how to be a wife and a friend. They have given me small pieces of advice—glimpses into what they have endured and celebrated. This is not an emotional congregation. There is a privacy kept in this intimate group, space for differences with shoulders to lean on and arms to hold me. I have learned lessons from God through these women’s lives. I bear witness to their accomplishments and love.

I remember the miracles. Rae heard God call her name when she was working with her husband to clear the blackberry bushes from their property. She alone brought her children to church for years. Marybeth said that Rae’s husband would never come, never turn to God, but he did. He is here this Sunday. Myrna’s darling son died when he was young and full of promise, he died on his way to college in a head-on with a log truck. Yet, Myrna was sustained. After years of taking care of her husband Ken who suffered a stroke, Dorothy had a heart-attack so he took care of her until she died. I remember Betty smiling and kind, bringing her gentleness and matter-of-fact service to every church gathering. I saw her die with more grace and poise than I thought humanly possible. I grieved for my fearless friend Elis, because she was the daughter of a crazy woman and a selfish man and there never was a childhood home for her.   Then her husband Henry was dead. Elis and her boys were homeless. But God reminded me, Elis would always have a home because she fearlessly sheltered others.  I remember when once I drove through town with my children in the car.  It was rainy and cold. I saw someone sitting by the bridge crying. I could not stop because of the children and my schedule.  Then, in two blocks I knew I was wrong, so I turned around and went back. But Elis was there with her arms around the weeping figure in the rain.  Today I see Judy singing. Her voice is a sweet and powerful  anchor for the choir. She endures. She must divorce her husband; she must sell the farm. Her children and grandchildren gather around her—young people raised with the sounds of her beautiful voice. They are signs of God’s gracious love.

What I cannot know is if I will recognize the next miracles. In my theology I believe that the miracles will come. But, I desperately want another miracle this Sunday or next.  Not to ease my doubts or to add another paragraph, but to make the good story I have been watching, and played a small part in, come out to a right and wonderful close. I am afraid God won’t  see to it. After all that I have seen I am still afraid.