(I found this version of the story of my home church’s influence on my life while reviewing an old sermon. This vignette was part of the introduction to a 2005 sermon.)
Where I grew up it was ten miles to the nearest bank or full-sized grocery store. The hamlet that our family considered home was about seventeen houses and we lived almost 2 miles outside of town.. Like many rural hamlets it had formerly had a couple stores, a gun shop and a cheese factory. But by the time I grew up all that was left was a small convenience type store and a saw mill, both barely holding on. Dad would buy us Fawn orange soda at the store on the way to the infrequent night bass fishing expeditions. The hamlet had no fire department. The only organization in town was the small country Wesleyan church. It was a 19th century clapboard building with no rest rooms. It held about 100 people when there was standing room only. I’ve seen it that full a couple times for Christmas and Easter programs. But usually it was the Sunday morning gathering place of about 55 souls, a generous percentage of them children like me. Since most of the people were farmers and didn’t go anywhere, those fifty-some souls were usually present almost the whole 50 Sundays per year that the church was open. (It usually closed two weeks for camp meeting.) The local historians told us that there had been a Wesleyan church in that town for almost a hundred years already when I was a boy. Pastors came and went frequently over the years. Most were good men, but at least one some 40 years before had caused a scandal which was still used as an excuse to stay away by the less religious in the village.
As I reflect back, I think of the many ways that little church had shaped my life. The shaping had started long before I was born. Years before, a traveling evangelist had come through and my Grandfather, Homer Jones, became a Christian. The Jones family had farmed in that town since the civil war. My maternal grandfather, Samuel Isaman, was a new-comer to that town having bought a farm about 1920. He was of Lutheran background. When his only daughter, Dorothy, was deathly sick with pneumonia he knelt in the cow stable and prayed for her. She recovered and he dedicated himself to serve God faithfully in that little country church. So my parents met at Sunday School where they remember seeking to outdo each other in childhood Sunday School contests.
So, I am told, I was taken to that little church when I was only days old. I grew up in the habit of going to church and Sunday school on Sunday. Sunday in that town was the Lord’s day. Very few people worked on that day except for the daily farm chores. In that little church I learned that the Bible was God’s truth, the guidebook for our lives and the roadmap to heaven. I learned that love and forgiveness, charity and honesty were virtues because they were God-like. I discovered that being unselfish was the true measure of spirituality and that it wasn’t easy because self-centeredness came much more naturally. I valued reading and music and speaking because they were part of church. I learned many Bible verses by heart there and they still come back to me.
Looking back, that little church was responsible for so much of who I am. And I wasn’t the only one similarly shaped. The little place can boast a whole line of spiritual leaders over several decades who grew up there. Long before large churches with snappy mission statements were the vogue, it seemed to know how to teach us to love God and love others and it made disciples.