When I was a new pastor fresh out of seminary in Hermosa, South Dakota, a veteran pastor befriended me named Mitch. Mitch served the congregational church in town. One day over lunch he told me this story of when he first came to South Dakota from Florida and began to lead a small country church.
Mitch settled in for worship his first Sunday, and looked out to welcome the congregation. He took notice that everyone was seated on one side of the aisle, on the pulpit side of the sanctuary. Not one person was seated on the other side. It was peculiar, but not enough to really take notice. “Perhaps,” he thought, “the people can hear better from this side.” But then something strange happened. In the middle of the service, after the hymn that followed the sermon, everyone sat down in the same seats, but on the other side of the aisle (the non-pulpit side)! The pulpit side of the church in which they were seated at the beginning of worship was now completely vacant. When worship was over, and the people were enjoying coffee with their new pastor, Mitch asked several members why everyone sat on one side of the church, only to move to the other side after singing that hymn. Not one person could name the reason why. It was the way they did it, what they knew, and the way it had always been. Weeks became months, yet Mitch continued to pursue this mystery. Why did people change seats from one side to the other? What did it mean? Why did no one know the answer? What should they do about it?
After some time, Mitch had found his answer in an old photograph. In the center of the sanctuary, in this little country church, once sat a wood burning stove. People would come in off the prairie on cold winter days, and sit by the stove to warm up. Yet as the service progressed the stove continued to heat up, to the point where people no longer wanted to sit next to it. At some point, the congregation had figured out it could use the hymn to relocate to a more comfortable location. The practice continued far beyond the lifespan of the wood burning stove and the installation of a conventional furnace. Over time people forgot why they moved from one side to another during worship, only that the tradition provided that they should move to the other side. The practice continued long after its practical application had gone.
Traditions reinforce the “whats” and “whys” of how we worship, study, pray and serve as a congregation. Many things we do have practical applications that answer how logistical questions and concerns were solved. Space, timing, and practical solutions enable things to run smoothly and communicate the mystery of faith in our lives. But what happens when the wood burning stove is removed? Then what do we do?
· In your life, home, and at church, where do you move to the other side without really thinking about why you do it? What things might you take for granted?
· What are some wood burning stoves that have been removed in your life, and how did you react once they were gone?
· What might happen if you entered and sat on the other side where no one else is seated, even if it meant sitting alone on the other side?
Sometimes the questions are scarier than the answers.
Sometimes the questions are more important than the answers.
It is in the asking that we grow. I think that is what Mitch was trying to teach me. God will be with us as we keep asking such questions together.
“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Luke 11:9-10)