She hears the scraping of Fred’s snow shovel while she is still in bed: he is meticulously clearing last night’s nine inches so she can drive to church today. “Wouldn’t want you to miss that church of yours,” he says each winter Sabbath, though he has no church of his own and won’t accept any payment for his work. “This town needs more people like you, Mrs. Schmidt. You just pray for me when you’re at church.”
Fifty-eight minutes later in the immaculate garage, she eases herself into “Jim’s car,” the 2006 Mercury Sable of which he had been so proud. She pauses to look at the empty passenger seat where she used to sit when Jim drove every week to church. As she does each Sabbath, she closes her eyes and prays that Jesus will come soon.
Arthur is shoveling the sidewalk and the wheelchair ramp when she arrives. “Happy Sabbath, Valerie,” he says, momentarily leaning on the handle. “Were the roads OK for you this morning?”
In grace, we affirm that life—even here and now—can rise above its dailyness and drudgery.
“Oh, what’s a little snow?” she laughs in a familiar exchange they have rehearsed for 30 winters.
Hector and the twins are already in the sanctuary, the eager 6-year-old girls hurrying from pew to pew to put the tithe envelopes carefully in place and restock the stubby pencils. “Abuela Valerie,” Hector murmurs as he leans forward for his Sabbath morning hug. “Feliz Sabado.”
Kaneesha, tall and elegant, arrives five minutes early, and settles into the seat beside Valerie. Her hand reaches for her customary squeeze, and she leans toward her much older White sister. “How did your classes go this week?” Valerie whispers. A deep intake of breath follows: “Well, I survived,” Kaneesha murmurs. “I need this Sabbath more than ever.”
“Brenda’s Brood” arrives at just the same moment—but never on time—each Sabbath, Valerie notes as four vocalizing children spill out of the aging minivan, followed by a 30-something mother who looks like she desperately needs a respite. The 8-year-old hurries down the aisle to Valerie’s accustomed pew, shyly offering a folded construction paper card. “It says, ‘I love you, Grandma Valerie,’” she blurts out before the card can even be opened. “I made it myself.”
The sermon is unmemorable, but Valerie records each point so she can remake it in the Tuesday evening phone Bible study she leads with four other widows.
The Hammond organ still has that persistent low B-flat that hums through every hymn, but no one seems to mind too much.
What brings them here each Sabbath, pulled from well-lit, heated homes, each with cable connections to much grander Adventist sanctuaries? What calls the widow and the immigrant, the university student and the divorced mother of four out into the frozen sunshine and new snow of a Nebraska morning? They wouldn’t dream of “sleeping in” or even coming just for the sermon. Through thick and thin—dense Sabbath School lessons and thin preaching—they have persevered—will persevere—in being the church of Jesus in this place.
Somehow, mysteriously, they have found life in this place. Though the preacher sometimes loses them, the Word always finds them. Though the hymns are never grand and the choir long ago disbanded, they find life and light—and Jesus—in each other’s faces every Sabbath.
“The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote as the darkness of the Second World War was closing in. And though our circumstances may not in any week be so grim, we find oxygen to inhale and the resurrection of our hope when we gather with those who are uniquely tied to us in Jesus.
In grace, we affirm that life—even here and now—can rise above its dailyness and drudgery; that meaning can endure; that faith can last through winter. We stand in the place of Jesus to each other week by week—reminders of the life abundant, and of the life to come.
Deliver me from sanctuaries and movements where no one finds rescue, shelter, and companions.
The church I want to belong to is . . . life-affirming.