By Nan Smith
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” John 20:19 (NRSV)
I have always experienced joy when canoeing in the Boundary Water Canoe Area of northern Minnesota. It is a wilderness made up of lakes and forest. I have led newbies into this wilderness, have paddled the area with groups of close friends, and have had the occasion to make that solo trek. It is a thin place for me, where the veil between the seen and the unseen becomes more permeable.
I know the Northwoods! I know it’s scents, I know the many calls of the loons that grace its clear waters, and I have stood on many a rocky outcropping under magnificent Jack, red, and white pines.
It is a terrain I am quite familiar with and love dearly.
However, just like parts of Iowa last summer, a swath of this wilderness area was hit by a derecho. The storm swept through on July 4, 1999. With straight-line winds clocking 100 miles/hour, over 500,000 wilderness acres were devastated. Forests were flattened and canoers were stranded, unable to leave because the portages were unpassable due to fallen trees.
I had heard about that storm, but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw the next time I traveled to that area. Complete ruin – not a tree standing. I was devastated. It no longer felt like the Northwoods that I loved so much. The ache within my heart grew so painful, that finally, I changed my plans and left.
It hurt too much to stay.
A few weeks ago, I received a letter from a couple who had been a part of our church family for a long time. It was hard letter to read and I’m sure it was hard to write — the words were filled with grief. The couple was withdrawing their membership, because for them the church, which had been so special was now too different because of the pandemic. It was too painful to be there. Not being able to sing, wearing masks, social distancing, no hugs, and all the other protocols were too much for them. Their church home, just didn’t feel right. The ache they felt was too great and so it become easier to sever the ties and find a new place to make memories. The changes were too much to bear. It hurt too much to stay.
This is a painful reality.
There is a deep grief that comes when the terrain no longer feels familiar; when beloved traditions are changed; when the land or the church doesn’t feel like it always has. There is a sense of wanting to protect the memories, to insulate oneself from the pain, and so people will distance themselves from that which feels too painful to endure.
In this season, change is inevitable. For some, they may view change as an opportunity that is filled with possibilities. For others, it is hard to move beyond the grief they are feeling. This holds true for those who were exiled to Babylon and returning and it holds true for us who have been isolated and are returning to worship in our churches.
This is not unlike what the disciples must have felt, following the crucifixion of Jesus. Locked behind doors, the memories of what had been must have felt too painful to hold in their current reality. There is that human tendency to want to draw into oneself, to contain the anguish, especially when the outside world is suddenly too painful. For the disciples, this must have felt like uncharted waters. Surely, they felt uncertain as to what they were to do or who they were now.
It is into that ache, that Jesus comes and stands among them. He says “peace be with you.” Simple words. Comforting words. Grounding words. Regardless of how the terrain has changed, those words offer hope. In this season, when so much does feel different, those words speak of Christ whose presence is constant.
Twenty-two years out from that destructive storm, there is a rich diversity of saplings growing upon the lands. Historically, the forests would have been pine, now there is a mosaic of spruce, fir, cedar, white birch, and aspen. A beautiful landscape. Change has brought forth something that is equally beautiful.
I hope for that same kind of diversity and beauty as we move forward into what our churches will be for the future. Even in the ache I feel, I embrace possibility, believing the center will hold when built on the rock of Christ.