It’s a ritual of sorts.
Once a week the people gather.
They drive in from the country or walk across town. They arrive burdened and battered from daily life struggles. They are exhausted from the activities that have soaked up every ounce of free time. They are weary from doctor’s appointments and decisions and caregiving. Some have been awake all night with little ones. Others suffered insomnia, wishing for their minds to be still enough to sleep.
Yet they come.
Once weekly they gather.
And they are genuinely happy to be there together.
The gathering is smaller than it used to be. Some have moved away. Many have passed on. A few have moved to care facilities or are no longer able to drive themselves. Some are home watching via live feed. Others are home sick, fighting a disease that has stolen their freedom to come and go as they once did. But those who are there remember and hold one another in prayerful moments.
I remember too. Sacred gatherings from my childhood. Every Sunday no matter what, we were up and ready for church. It was more than a ritual. It was an expectation—a part of life. As a child I didn’t really understand, but I knew we were supposed to be there. Sunday school started at 9:30. Church started at 10:30. By 11:30 we were free to spend the rest of the day as we pleased, but until then, we belonged together in God’s house.
Once a month the adults held a Monthly Meeting for business which was followed by a potluck. As a child those potlucks were important! Every church lady had a specialty and us kids knew our favorites! Casseroles, candied apples, homemade pies, cookies, cheese puffs—my Aunt Helen’s specialty. The church ladies also used Monthly Meeting dinner to try out new recipes and somewhere along the line shredded carrots began to comingle with things like jello, fluffy cool whip salads, and coconut flakes. I don’t know what Betty Crocker was thinking in those days, but my cousins and I all knew carrots should never be mixed with salads or desserts! It just wasn’t right!
That one Sunday a month was always the biggest gathering of the month. I know because back in the day, one adult was always assigned to be the “recorder”. It was an informal way of taking attendance, the numbers were recorded religiously and reported during the Monthly Meeting for Business. That was the same Sunday that all of my cousins were present for Sunday school even if their parents were not! Long before the youngest of my cousins were even born, it was a general understanding that it was easier to feed us all at the potluck than it was to go home and prepare individual meals!
And on those given Sundays when the Meeting for Business took longer than average, us kids would take turns sneaking into the meeting to see what was going on. Outside on the big concrete step risers we would take bets to guess the expected time Meeting would end so we could eat. More than once I was the elected spy to sneak inside to get a feel for the finish. And on most of those occasions I was reminded with a grandfatherly “look” from across the sanctuary that told me to be still and tread carefully lest I interrupt the adult meeting.
Interestingly enough the parking lot was full on Sunday mornings. When the front row filled up, the rest of the cars parked in the lot along the alley. Right across the street from us, people gathered at the Methodist Church. They didn’t have a parking lot, so their cars were parked in the street, except for the organist and the pastor. They each had reserved placed at the back door. One more block down, parishioners gathered at the Presbyterian Church. Three churches within four blocks of one another, and they were all busy on a Sunday morning.
Every summer the three churches would pool their resources and take turns sponsoring Vacation Bible School. For one week out of the year we would get a glimpse inside the other church buildings and a dose of the songs they sand and the food they prepared! I had friends at school who attended the other two churches and somehow those days of Bible School built a bridge of acceptance among us. Jennifer and Laura attended with the Methodists. Susan and Steve went with the Presbyterians. But at the end of Bible school, we were all washed in the blood of the same Lamb, educated in the same stories, and singing the same songs.
Bible School was an annual event and we were expected to participate. And we did.
But come Sunday morning, we were back on our own block with our own church families, renewed and refreshed in the Spirit.
We gathered. We sang. We worshipped. We prayed.
We learned to be still and listen.
We didn’t have assigned seats, but every family seemed to have a favorite pew. I could choose to sit with my mom or my grandparents. Mom often played the piano and would sit so she could easily get up to play. Grandma always had quiet activities in her church bag. Grandpa always had hard candy in his pocket for us. My cousins and I would often line up in their pew, girls on one side of them, boys on the other. If any one of us got out of line, Grandpa’s arm was long enough to thump any one of us in the back of the head as a silent reminder!
On the Sundays when we didn’t have potluck, we could either go home, or go to the farm. My Grandma’s car was usually full as we chose the farm option again and again! I’m sure it’s the one day a week our mom’s could catch their breath and rest while Grandma wrangled us, fed us, then set us free to hunt baby kittens, collect rocks down at the crick, or find a lazy place to relax in the shade.
As time passed, priorities shifted. By sixth grade we were starting to sit with our friends in the back pew. By high school we’d moved to the row behind the back pew! For some reason we felt more grown up if we sat in the “overflow” pew further away from the rest of the adults. But the fact is, we still gathered. All of us! We grew up together in that church! We knew we’d be accepted, loved, and somehow better prepared for the week ahead. The adults in attendance knew us and cared about our activities. They took turns teaching us in Sunday school. They invested in us by listening to us, asking about our activities, and by allowing us to grow among them.
The Sacred gathering raised us up! They gave us a foundation to stand on when the realities of the world tested our faith. They gave us hope when all else failed. They loved us even when we made bad decisions and wrong choices. They exemplified Grace by gently pointing us back to Jesus. They encouraged instead of disciplining. They laughed with us, cried with us, and let us know we were loved unconditionally.
Then life went on. We grew up and moved away. Each time we’d return home, fewer and fewer would be gathered. Yet those present still gathered, still prayed, still worshipped.
Our lives got busier as our own children began to grow up. Suddenly a cultural shift determined stores could be open on Sundays! Youth sports began scheduling on Sundays too creating an either/or kind of Sunday morning routine. Life was suddenly 24/7 and the last priority on the list was the Sacred Gathering.
Yet when I returned home, time stood still, and for a period of time, that foundational gathering was still intact. It still held Sunday in holy esteem. Those parishioners, few as they were still prayed, still worshipped, still gathered. I noticed fewer cars in the street for the Methodists and assumed they too faced the same challenges.
Back in my world, I had decisions to make, including what priority I would choose for my own children. Raising my kids on my own faith seemed daunting. I needed the faith-filled people of the sacred gathering to help instill a foundation in my own offspring. I think back and wonder where I would have ended up without Eugene’s chalk drawings that illustrated faith-filled stories! How would I have learned to recognize my own faith without Wilma’s personal testimonies during Open Worship? How could I have faced the challenges of the adult world without Chuck’s laughter, Avis’ grace, or Ernie’s sermons? Would I know the blessing of the gathering without Marilyn’s faithfulness and Geri’s Sunday school lessons? These people helped shape my spiritual future week after week, year after year! As an adult, my challenge was finding that kind of community to help me prepare my own children for their futures!
This week I sat in my car running my own Sunday school lesson in my head before entering the church building. I am not as committed as my grandmother was, nor as creative as my own Sunday School teachers, but none-the-less, I prepare to help shape the youngest lives in in this congregation.
I watch the people arrive. One by one, they gather. They drive in from the country or walk across town. They arrive in ones and twos and climb the stairs of the sacred building. They greet one another with smiles and hugs. There are not as many as there once were, but the ones there are genuinely happy to be together. Some are new. Some have returned as adults who attended in their childhood. Others have attended since they were born. But they all come.
The organ plays. The candles are lit. The greeting is made, and the holy words of worship begin. Familiar hymns fall from their lips and rise to the heavens–faithful parishioners who still cling to the Sunday ritual of gathering.
A hum of conversation fills the sanctuary following the final Creed. The melody of the words rise and fall with stories and affirmations and heartfelt concern for one another. There is a peace about them as they converse. There is a hope about them when they part. They are accepted, loved, and affirmed in that sacred place. And they understand that’s exactly where they are supposed to be.
One morning a week they belong to God. They gather in His house. They lay aside the busyness of the week prior and attempt to pause the concerns of the new week ahead to be still enough to listen. They are tired and weary and worn. Yet they gather. They pray. They sing. They worship. They encourage. They take care of one another. They grieve, they celebrate, they laugh, and they cry together. They are One—the gathered Body of Christ.
The sacred gathering, the remnant of Israel.