Nourished into Growth
Chicago-based pastor and teacher, Joseph Sittler, once said that we don’t “just grow”: we are “pushed, pulled, dumped, into growth.” I guess that I have experienced enough frustration, disappointment and grief to know that what he said is true: they have all had their part in the formation of my more mature faith than had I been able to move blithely forward in the direction I had thought I was heading even when I was forty.
But when I think of my experience as a part of the community that is St. Stephen’s, I realize that one can also be lured, summoned, nourished, even seduced into growth.
When I arrived in New Castle County in 1996 it didn’t take long before I noticed St. Stephen’s and began to think of it as a “special” place. I was aware of its commitment to the social ministries of New Castle County, the Delaware-Maryland Synod, and the ELCA, and I was particularly grateful for its support of Lutheran Campus Ministry at the University of Delaware. But I was also aware of its commitment to the classic liturgy of western Christianity. And then I watched the congregation as it struggled for the next fifteen years, and I saw that however conflicted the congregation might be, it never waned in its commitment to ministry and worship. The St. Stephen’s Food Pantry continued; the support for Lutheran Community Services continued; the financial commitment to campus ministry diminished, but when campus ministry needed new human resources to provide a meal for the annual FISH fund-raising dinner, lo and behold, here comes Sonia Brode with a host of volunteers from St. Stephen’s to serve in the kitchen! Meanwhile, from the occasions when I was invited to preach the gospel and celebrate the mysteries, I knew that the worship life, however fragile it might be, continued nonetheless to be consistent in faithful witness to God in Christ that the traditions of the larger church provide.
I retired from campus ministry in May 2013. But I was continuing as an instructor in the Writing Program at UD, and I needed a place to call my primary community of faith. To decide that St. Stephen’s was that place was not much of a stretch. But when I spoke to Pr. Loufman about my intention, she asked, “What draws you to St. Stephen’s?” It was not a question I expected, but the answer wasn’t hard. “It’s the worship and music,” I said.
So I came to St. Stephen’s. And I was welcomed, graciously and appropriately. But I was also tired and a little discouraged. “Just let a person be,” is not high on the list of ways to practice evangelism; and because German and Scandinavians tend to be reserved and introverted, this is generally a good thing! But to be left alone was pretty much what I needed. I was glad just to sing hymns, participate in the liturgy and prayers, receive communion. But the spirit of the community begins to seep into even this introvert’s pores. There was the stewardship luncheon on a Sunday in September, and I told Pastor Loufman that this was the first time I had actually enjoyed participating in such a function. She respected my need not to make public avowal of my intention to join the congregation, and for months I sat next to the side aisle towards the rear on the right side; but there was the Sunday when Doug Barclay, serving as vicar for evangelism, said, “We’re welcoming new members: why don’t you come along?” So I did; and then thought, Might as well move over to the center aisle. And I did.
Then there was the Sunday that I got to Brew HaHa! in Trolley Square for coffee, as I usually did before services; and I thought, I should start going to Bible Study. This was in the interim period between Pr. Loughman and Pr. Churchill: and then, after church that day, Chuck Landry said, “I’d like to talk with you about something.” “Sure, Chuck. What?” “Would you be willing to lead the Bible study?”
That’s when I raised my eyebrows and thought, God, what’s going on here?
The last year has been moving, fascinating, inspiring. And fun. I’ve watched and walked and prayed with you all as we carefully and prayerfully made our way through what was for the time a singular call process. I celebrated with the whole congregation as we installed Jason Churchill as our pastor. We’ve moved together through seasons of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, and Lent and Easter. In this time I’ve seen the worship space changed to reflect a more intentional recognition of Baptism as core to our individual and communal life as Christians. I’ve noticed subtle but significant changes that ground worship ever the more in continuity with the prayer of the historic community of those who follow Jesus. And I’ve noticed how the people of St. Stephen’s continue to find opportunities for service in God’s world.
In the last couple of months I found myself missing, not preaching so much, but the celebration of communion as the aspect of pastoral ministry that I really missed. So it was a “no-brainer” to say, “of course” when Pr. Jason asked me about six weeks ago to preach and celebrate with you so that he and Craig could take a much-deserved vacation Sunday.
Whenever I go to Longwood Gardens I make it a point to look at the Bonsai trees: the trees who are kept and formed by a “master” who prunes and wires them so that they are kept small, but grow in perfect but individual formation according to a plan that the master senses. Other trees—think of the Redwoods in California!—are given freedom to grow expansively and huge: but also according to their own form, even though they’re not pruned by a master.
When I went to that stewardship Sunday luncheon almost four years ago I suggested that a good congregation has its own sense of integrity, and allows its members to develop in light of their own sense of integrity as well. And I think that people who come as seekers into such a congregation can often smell that sense of integrity, of authenticity. Such a congregation may not grow fast: but it will grow in solidness and resilience, whether such growth may be disciplined and contained like a bonsai tree or allowed to expand like a redwood.
And I am grateful to St. Stephen’s for being willing, not to push or pull me into service, but to let me “just be” for a while until I was ready and able to be lured into places where I could serve in ways that I am best suited to serve. I am by far the better Christian for having been among you. And I miss you all very much.
- Allen Heggen