I really intended to write today about my weekend at a retreat on the Ancient Spiritual Practices. But these words here lined up faster that the other ones. I’ll try to corral the others by next week because I’m sure you’ll want to know all about throwing the tomahawk.
I went to an absolutely stupendous party last night. I was already in town doing flu duty for Sarah so it worked out just fine for me to run by the restaurant when Emily got home from work. It was a surprise party for one of our seminary graduates who apparently is more beloved than I ever gave her credit for. When Dana told me she had reserved a room for 40 people I never dreamed that 40 people would actually show up. I also never dreamed we could pull off that big of a surprise but we did. Traci suffered the indignities of wearing the crown that announced she is now 50 years old and then stood for the Happy Birthday song. I think she even got to eat, though I have no idea when she managed to do it because there were so many folks for her to talk to.
If the 40 people who were there to celebrate are a realistic sample of our church congregation then we are in good shape. The people gathered were all different ages and length of membership in the First Presbyterian Church of Garland. While our President was reporting on the state of the union to the country I experienced firsthand the state of my church congregation. And it is probably in better shape than the country.
Of the 40 people we had several who made an extra effort to be there. And I’m not even counting Kit who came all the way from an island in the British West Indies where she lives part of the year with her new husband. She didn’t really come for Traci’s birthday. She was already in town because her ex-husband died and she came to be with their kids at the funeral. He had only been a member of our church a couple of years before they divorced so very few of the folks at dinner knew the guy. He was more than a bit curmudgeonly. Some might use the word “sour.” Hence the divorce. I could say more but the guy’s dead so I have to cut him some slack.
As the dinner proceeded we passed around the newest member, A. J. who is less than a year old. We compared length of marriages and Arlis and Betty won at 56 years. Across the room from them sat a couple who celebrated their first anniversary a couple of days ago. We had three generations of the Dunlap family. Three generations of McFarlands. We started telling stories that got better and better as the meal progressed.
One of our best stories involved Kit’s newly dead ex-husband, the curmudgeon. I love to recount this story with my old friend Linda and she happened to be sitting right there next to me at dinner so it was kind of like an obligation to share it with the others.
Beaven and I sponsored the acolytes of the church that year. It must have been a good 30 years ago. At the end of the year the sponsors were expected to throw a big party for the kids and preferably one that involved swimming. Somebody suggested that we take the kids to Lake Lavon. So we recruited some adult sponsors and as I remember this wasn’t hard. We had almost as many adults as kids.
As Linda and I told the story we filled the facts for each other: There were about five or six cars in a caravan to the lake. The first car detoured by a store and bought a bottle of wine. A couple more cars did the same. The way I remember the story, Linda and I stopped for a bottle too since everybody else did. She argued with me that we didn’t stop. But I say we stopped. I don’t know why this was a big detail to her since we would have been huge mooches if we hadn’t bought our own wine that day. Because that was one detail we agreed on: we both had a couple of nips ourselves. But Linda and I have been friends long enough that more than a few details have flown our diminishing memories. And I’m not inclined to hold tightly to facts anyway.
Anyway, the kids swam, roasted hot dogs, and had a great time. Nobody drowned. Everyone went home tired and happy. About a week later, I got a call from our minister asking which adults had gone with us. I thought how sweet he was that he was going to send a Thank You note to all the adult sponsors for helping with the party.
Instead, we each got a scathing letter from the elders of the church chastising us for drinking at a church function. Beaven and I were mortified. We considered dropping out of church in shame. I’m not sure how we ever managed to drag ourselves back to church the next Sunday with our tails between our legs. Then, one by one, others from the party came up to me to whisper out of the side of their mouths and ask if we had gotten “the letter.” Once we knew we had all been scolded equally we developed a sort of secret club: “People who got in Trouble for Drinking at a Church Event.” Presbyterians aren’t usually that stuffy about liquor.
That should have been our first clue but we didn’t catch on for years. After a while, we found out there had been a nasty letter to the church elders--obviously from someone at the party but we had no idea who ratted on us. About five years later we found out it was the recently departed curmudgeon. He was also a former Methodist minister. I guess the Methodists aren’t that big on drinking wine while they’re watching kids swim in a lake.
Church congregations are so much like families. You get an assortment package of kooks and saints, the loud, the proud, the timid and the tenacious. I am one of the tenacious ones. We have a lot of those in my church.
I looked around the table last night and fell in love with my church family all over again. This is how a church family is different from a biological one: each of us is there by choice. We can leave anytime we choose. Nobody had to come wish Traci a Happy Birthday. We weren’t obligated by Hallmark to feel a certain way. Instead we took our sin-filled sorry selves to the Olive Garden. We sang Happy Birthday then when the food arrived we sang the Doxology. We bragged and commiserated about our kids. We told stories. We laughed and loved each other.
And, yes... some……well, many of the people there had wine with their dinner. Yes, children were in attendance but nobody was swimming.