The Census Taker in a Church Pew

The Census Taker in a Church Pew

Our fate is to die and be forgotten. Tying ourselves to one another and to life can diminish that trouble’s force, but kingdoms and cultures and homes rise and fall. Being willingly bound in devotion to the Creator redeems that trouble forever, for that kingdom and that culture and that home know no end. 

Remember now thy Creator.

Princeton, WV. The two diligent old ladies sat low in their church pew. One lady’s figure—blond hair, tanned skin, and upright shoulders—evoked the Academy Awards. The other woman’s figure had softer shoulders curved slightly forward; her hair, still brown, was worn close to her head. My wife, Rebecca, knew both ladies for more years than I knew them, but by the time I became their pew-neighbor, I’d been an active member of our congregation for more than a decade and knew almost nothing about either one of the women, except for their names. The bulk of our exchanges entailed generic expressions such as “Good morning” or “Hello.” Given my poor engagement with them, the likelihood that the two elderly ladies would fade from my memory seemed inevitable.

My reliance on rudimentary phrases stemmed not from ill-will but from uncertainty. I didn’t know what to say to them. Because uncertainty breeds anxiety, I limited my interactions. Yet the life of safety, especially within a local assembly of believers, is not the life of human flourishing.

Of course solitude and quiet foster contemplation, the highest form being communion with God. To talk to everyone all the time keeps one away from contemplation and, worse, from communion with God. However, though Jesus kept solitary and quiet spaces to commune with God, the Son of Man dwelt among us mortals; he indwelled our flesh and broke bread with us. The example demonstrated by Jesus, which aligned with the greatest commandments–to love God and love our neighbor–caused me to realize my recalcitrant excuses for not talking with my pew-neighbors Jackie or Frances could no longer be given quarter.

Communion comes at a price. Rather than taking time among better known friends and acquaintances during our church’s mid-service reprieve, I brought my coffee back to the auditorium and sat on my pew, immediately behind the pew occupied by Jackie and Frances.

The ladies might have taken to the fellowship hall a few times once our church instituted the mid-service break, but they mostly remained at their pew where they talked with each other and ate the snacks they brought themselves to church. Could they have continued to use the fellowship hall with almost everyone else? Yes. But during the mid-service reprieve, the auditorium held a calmness not afforded in the fellowship hall because a good number of toddlers and young kids played during that break, as they should, under the watchful eyes of their parents. It was also evident that neither Jackie nor Frances stayed in the auditorium out of protest to the volume of the fellowship hall. They did not murmur against or scowl at those who used the fellowship hall for mid-service reprieve. In fact, given the amount of room available in the entire church building, several church members found other quiet places to sit in-between services. Jackie and Frances favored the auditorium.

When I first joined them for the mid-service break, I noticed their snack collection was like a boutique grocery. The ladies offered me samples of each snack and included their encouragement-as-a-command to “take as much as you want.”

Once food was shared, Jackie and Frances proved to be good talkers: they listened and responded freely. In other words, they knew how to converse. They delivered no monologues until prompted. Eventually, prompting monologues from the elderly women turned out to be a far richer endeavor than deliberating over what I might say. A good question or two provoked each lady to speak from the deep cisterns carved out in her soul from a long life. Sometimes their responses dovetailed, so Jackie wove into France’s remarks, or Frances wove into something Jackie said. It was like a tutorial delivered by two voices in harmony. By way of their words, the ladies crafted what felt like a thick quilt, gleaming with colors and giving off warmth I could feel in my face and chest. Perhaps it was friendship taking form among us. On my part, it certainly included much admiration.

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