Laura Stern: The church in summer -- the whistling, fluid body of Christ
Spellbound by a hymn-whistling tourist, an island pastor learns that even in the malaise of summer, God gives every church all the gifts and graces it needs.
Church life slows down in the summer. Bible studies go on hiatus, worship services combine, and office staffers cut out early. We are in Ordinary Time, counting the Sundays since Pentecost, but the half-filled pews evoke dwindling embers more than a church on fire.
It is no time to start a stewardship campaign. Everyone, including Jesus, seems to be on vacation.
Even for me, an island pastor in a tourist town, summer ministry is mostly about maintenance. Every Sunday, faithful churchgoing tourists dutifully boost our attendance, but our actual church members are gone. As the summer gets longer, the excuses get wilder:
“I’m working three jobs.”
“I have to take my kids to camp.”
“It’s my one day to run errands.”
“I have to catch a wave while the conditions are right.”
But just when the summer malaise seems to settle into the sanctuary for good, the whistler shows up. One Sunday every summer, this elderly tourist in T-shirt and sandals slips into the back pew and waits for the first hymn. With unnerving accuracy and power, he matches the pitch of every song, every choral response and every musical interlude with a crisp, clear whistle.
Spellbound for an hour by his unique gift, I am reminded of an essential truth: church is defined by the people present, not the people missing. We pray for the sick and the traveling, we grieve the loss of our loved ones, and we talk about the unchurched. We feel their absence, but we -- the souls who are present -- are the ones who give the church its incarnational glory. Straggling and bleary-eyed, the people who show up form a powerful whole. They are the body of Christ for that appointed time.
This holds true for every church, even more so for one like mine. In a beach community, summer brings a flood of people from all over. Some come on family vacations, others on quiet retreat, and still others by accident, having missed the ferry to somewhere else.
On the island and in our church, every week holds a different dynamic, a myriad of new faces, stories and experiences. Everyone knows this unique group will never happen again. But for that holy time on Sunday, those who gather are brothers and sisters in Christ, a family bound together by a common desire to worship in the house of God.
“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it,” Saint Paul writes. “And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues” (1 Corinthians 12:27-28 NIV).
The acolyte may be at grandma’s house, the choir director busy with a work emergency, and the bell ringer oversleeping, but God still places in every church all the gifts and graces necessary.
In my ministry, Paul’s theological promise bears programmatic fruit. For years, we struggled to find anyone to lead, teach or even hang a flier for Vacation Bible School. The locals were working, the teenagers were at the beach, and the church organist was too old to jump up and down for Jesus.
But then we reconsidered the church workforce. What we do have going for us is our summer residents. This small but talented group includes teachers, beachcombers, musicians and retirees who visit their island homes only over the summer months.
Glad to be asked, they took on Vacation Bible School with creativity and gusto. Turns out, God had sent the laborers all along. We had just never thought to ask them to the harvest.
When we see the church as a living, fluid body of Christ, we find all the body parts we need to function. We find a church full of personality and purpose.
We hurt alongside the visitor who shares openly her worries over a wayward daughter. We find joy in the little boy who has never before been to the church yet bolts up the aisle for the children’s sermon. We learn community, as day-trippers, week-renters, summer residents and year-rounders join hands in prayer.
It is summer. Open the sanctuary windows, take in the breeze, and let the church business go on vacation.
This is not the season for stewardship campaigns. It is the season for whistling.
Thanks be to God.