Dusting and Vacuuming
Yesterday I worked cleaning chairs and polishing wood. As I vacuumed off construction dust from the seats and used old t-shirts to clean and condition the old altar, I thought about all the people through the history of Christianity who have done work like this – cleaning, setting up, taking down, organizing, preparing – so that the community can gather, welcome, worship, and be sent forth.
My husband and I worship with a small church that has been undergoing renovations for a long time. They’ve partnered with the Missional Wisdom Foundation, and have been working on a community focused vision, reaching out to the nearby elementary school and listening to the needs of the neighborhood. It’s been a difficult journey for some of the long time church members, seeing their familiar and beloved church changed so much, and mourning the loss of the vibrant congregation that used to be there as well as all the physical changes to the space. We hope to hold our first worship service in the new sanctuary on Easter Sunday, and so I spent yesterday working on preparations.
The Church Cemetery
As I left yesterday afternoon, I took a few minutes to walk through the church cemetery. According to local history, the church has its beginnings in a preacher’s basement in the early 1800s. The first church building was used as a school Monday through Friday and as a church on Sundays. Methodists have been worshiping and connecting to the community here for over 200 years.
Cleaning isn’t important work in the church. Each Sunday after worship – we currently gather in the living and dining room of the old parsonage – everyone helps to clean up. Some wash up the coffee cups and tidy the kitchen, some pack up instruments, some stack hymnals and chairs, some gather bulletins for the recycle bin, and some clean the floors. Each one helps as they are able.
As I walked through the cemetery and read the names on the markers, I wondered how each of them had done their part to keep up the church. Did these women make a special dish to share at the potluck dinner and then help to wash dishes afterward? Did some of these help sweep the floors? Did some of these men chop wood to keep the sanctuary warm through the winter? How many of these people led Bible studies or taught Sunday school?
Methodist Women Send Missionaries
Isabella Thoburn and her brother James were Methodist missionaries in India. James was sent first, and asked his sister to come over and lead a girls’ school, but the Missionary Society did not send single women as missionaries in the 1860s. So Methodist women gathered, formed the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society and organized to learn about the needs of women and girls around the world, to study and to raise funds to send women as missionaries. They started this work in March of 1869 and by November had raised enough to send Clara Swain, M.D. and Isabella Thoburn to India. Isabella Thoburn’s work started with a one room school, and eventually she was able to begin Lucknow Women’s College, which is still educating women today.
Consider the people who did small work for the church in which Isabella Thoburn was raised. Who polished the wood rails where she knelt to take communion? Who taught Sunday school? Who swept the floors? They could not have known that their small work, their contribution to the life of the church would be a far-reaching blessing. They could not have known that their efforts to prepare the church so that Isabella Thoburn could study the Bible, could sing and worship with the church family, could be ready to answer the missionary call, that these efforts would extend through to today.
A Strategic Base for Moving Out
According to the United Methodist Book of Discipline, the function of a local church is to be “a strategic base from which Christians move out to the structures of society.” Local churches are to “minister to persons in the community where the church is located, to provide appropriate training and nurture to all, to cooperate with other local churches, to defend God’s creation and live as an ecologically responsible community, and to participate in the worldwide mission of the church….” Our work in the local church, whether we are helping to prepare for worship or clean up the building and grounds, this work is aimed at readying us to move out beyond our walls into the world. This may be as close as sharing the building with school children or as far as sending missionaries across the globe. We may never know how the Spirit is working in someone’s heart, what work lies ahead, but if we are faithful in small ways, God will bless our work.
I feel certain that those people who were part of Isabella Thoburn’s home church when she was young did not know what lay ahead for her. I feel certain that those people who were part of my church in the 1800s did not know what lay ahead for us today – chickens, community gardens, co-working spaces, and still lots of school children on the grounds every day. I am grateful for the faithfulness of these people, and for the multitude of small ways that they each contributed to the ministry of their local church and thus reached out to participate in the worldwide mission of God’s church.
In what ways do you contribute to your local church? Don’t discount the many small ways we each play our part in creating a strategic base from which Christians will move out into the structures of society – and may God continue to bless your work.
Quote from paragraph 202 of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church – 2012. Copyright 2012 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.