The church located directly across the street also serves us in ways that the ministerial never intended. In spring when our yard is sloppy and mucky, the children and I haul the wheeled toys across the street and enjoy the stretch of empty sidewalk that borders the front of the building. The boys ride their bikes all along its length and then speed off onto the gravel parking lot. I sit on the concrete steps with a baby wrapped in a blanket, and smile at the timid sun trying to thaw the winter's despair out of all creation. We note the birds returning, the first dandelion that squeezes up between the church and the sidewalk, and the perennial shrubs trying to find new shoots.
In the winter, the prudent clearing the its parking lot means marvelous hills for the children to climb. There's a clearly stamped path through the lot, over the snow hill, and straight up the sidewalk towards the school crosswalk. This means that from my kitchen window, I can clearly see the progress of my charges as they proceed from the warm of my breakfast table toward the warm of their classroom desks. I like watching them walking to and fro across that church lot.
I am not the only one who watches. In winter, an entire colony of pigeons wait out the long stretches of bitter cold; hunched up, proud and stoic in a long line across the peak of the roof. Over the years, I've come to think of those pigeons as my neighbours and friends. I wonder what it is that they say to each other in that long line-up. Are they like the song-leaders and deacons in the Mennonite church I grew up in? All stiff and serious in their plain suits, lined up like pacifist soldiers of the cross, waiting for the moment when the "sangster" would pull his "peep-dink" from his chest pocket and blast out the starting note for a fifty-four verse hymn with absolutely no musical accompaniment? All the rest of the time, I don't know if those deacons moved a muscle. But that was a special, highly charged moment when power was granted to the song leader to announce, loud and clear, his well thought through choice of German hymn. It always sounded something like this:
I always thought of this as a powerful moment, and think the man with the peep-dink might have strived in service for many a thirsty year before he was entrusted with such a responsibility. Maybe he had to start out by being the guy who keeps the sidewalks clear, or plunges clogged toilets.
The church across the street from me is of the same historical background from whence I came. I remember well the solemn striving, the hard-working commitment of its members. Steady, unrelenting, quiet service. A sort of air of suspicion around others who moved quickly, thought outside the box, or produced sounds above a hoarse whisper. Even the children.
Now, the children who cross over to my side of the street have not been taught to Be Still And Know. At least, not in the church sense of the word. They are lovely, loud, energetic, joyful children. From my vantage point, they breathe life into those church grounds- laughing and climbing their way along its hills; speeding along its sidewalk, and climbing her aging wooden wheelchair ramp. The children also notice the birds. Fat, grey-suited, serious looking creatures they are- sitting along the very tip of that roof line, and watching the children in all their careless jubilence, running and shouting without a care for the cold of the winter around them.
And sometimes the children speak to the birds.
Just the other day outside my front room window, I witnessed a Norman-Rockwell-esque row of rosey cheeked children standing before the church screaming at the pigeons. They screamed and screamed- their heads thrown right back, eyes sparkling and bright; their mouths laughing when their screams needed to rest. They wanted to watch the whole row of birds rise up in a chorus of flight, their shirt tails flying.
Now, snow had been falling all that day, and the sidewalk before the church was laid in robes of white. A van was pulled up snug alongside it, and a servant from within was methodically pushing clean lines through to ready the place for the inevitable arrival of spiritually hungry and thirsty people, seeking the joy of the Lord.
The children, having already found their joy, never lost hope that their choir of acapella screams would rouse the deacons and sangsters from their grey-suited perch. They screamed and laughed, screamed and laughed.
In one split second, the rapture that the children knew became contagious. The man in the grey pants leaned on his shovel, swivelled his head towards the children and began to speak in tongues foreign to the sobriety of his lineage and church member status.
Now, I'm no deacon. I've never been elected to become lifelong pastor with zero pay. I'm not even really an interpreter. But I think the message is pretty clear: If you want joy, then file in quietly on Sunday morning. Find your place, bow your head, recite your lines. Strive. Shovel.
And maybe. Just maybe. One day YOU can wear the grey suit and blow on the peep-dink.
And at the blast of that note; it'll okay to have just a tiny little bit of joy.