When preparing to move from Ohio to Maryland, finding a church home was very much on my mind.
But you can’t know what churches are like until you visit them, and we never did any of our house-hunting on a weekend. So I trusted the Lord would lead me to the church He wanted me to be a part of after we got here.
Just as He did when we moved from Bedford to Jefferson, Ohio, in 1978.
My husband had a lot of work to do on the house before we moved in, and he did it on Sundays because that was the only day he had off from work. On one occasion I went with him. I don’t know how I managed it, because our oldest, Emily, was only about four months old at the time. I must have left her with Grandma for the day, because I doubt I would have brought her along. All I remember for sure was that it was a beautiful spring day. I was sitting outside in the sun enjoying a good book while Craig worked on plumbing in the house, doing something that apparently didn’t require my help, when a car came down the driveway.
A man got out and introduced himself as Wayne Montgomery, pastor of the Lenox Federated Church. He wanted to welcome us to the community and invite us to visit. I took the bulletin he handed me and told him we hadn’t moved in yet, but when we did, I’d keep the church in mind.
But for some reason, I resented his invitation. I didn’t trust the name “Federated” (what did that mean, anyway? Sounded a little wacko to me) and I didn’t intend to go; I preferred to go to a “real” church with a more respectable name. At the same time, I had the feeling I’d probably end up there eventually anyway.
After we moved in, I tried every church in town, but didn’t feel comfortable with any of them. We hadn’t been there very long before a neighbor stopped in to introduce herself, and she also invited me to Lenox Federated. I told her the pastor had invited me too, and I just might go sometime. But for a long time, I didn’t. I didn’t go anywhere.
I knew I needed to go to church, and on one level, I even wanted to. But that old nasty flesh made me resist stubbornly. What finally tipped the balance was the knowledge that our daughter was growing up without ever having had the experience of Sunday School. True, she wasn’t a year old yet, but still, it bothered me. She was my motivation for buckling down and getting myself to the church where I knew I belonged.
But wouldn’t you know it, the very weekend I made that decision, the car broke down and I had no way to get there. By that time, though, I’d made up my mind, and I wasn’t about to let a little thing like that get in the way. I called the neighbor who’d invited me and asked if Emily and I could hitch a ride with her family to church.
One visit was all it took. You know how, when you’re really thirsty, a drink of cool water is the most wonderful, life-giving thing in the world? That’s a little bit like what I felt that first week at Lenox Federated. Or rather, it was as if I’d been undernourished, and the preaching and fellowship was food to my soul.
When we moved from Jefferson to New Philadelphia, I once again knew right away where God wanted me to go to church, but again, I made up my mind I didn’t want to go there. That time, it took a swift kick to get me headed in the right direction. And again, it involved my oldest, Emily.
She wanted to go to First Baptist because she was in kindergarten at the Christian school there, and a lot of her friends went to FBC. I visited once and knew that’s where I belonged, but I hoped Craig would go to church with me, and concerning FBC, his words were: “It’s too big. I hate crowds. If I wanted to go out in a crowd, I’d go to a ball game, and you don’t see me going to ball games, either, do you?”
So I took myself and the kids (we had to girls by that time) to a different church. I liked it pretty much, and it wasn’t so huge that Craig found it intimidating. But he didn’t go with me anyway. So why was that a consideration?
One Sunday morning, I loaded up the kids into the car for church. (For the purposes of this story, you should know that the services started earlier there than they did at FBC.) Emily said she had a tummy ache. She was the sort of kid who frequently got tummy aches, but they usually passed quickly without amounting to anything, so I said, “We’ll see how you feel by the time we get to church.” The whole way there, she kept saying she didn’t feel good, and just as I pulled into the parking lot, she threw up. Yuck! I didn’t park, but left the lot and went home.
Back at the house, I saw she’d thrown up on a blanket I had in the back seat, and nothing but the blanket; there was not a drop on her or on her sister, nor on the car seat itself. Moreover, she said she was okay now and wanted to go back. Well, I hauled both kids into the house and examined them for damages, but they were both as clean as when we’d left the house. All the while, Emily kept insisting that she wanted to go to church.
I looked at the clock and saw we had just enough time to go to First Baptist, so that’s what we did. Four-year-old Shelley, however, was a bit unsupportive of that decision. In fact, she screamed bloody murder. “I don’t want to go there! I hate it there!” But too bad. I’m a cruel mother.
Or, more accurately, I knew what I had to do.
After those two experiences, I never had any doubt about God having a church in mind for me in this area too. And I don’t want to be stubborn again – better to be responsive to the Spirit’s leading right away instead of being difficult, like that screaming 4-year-old.
But… here’s the thing: Cumberland has some really old, awesome church buildings, and for the past decade, ever since we’ve been traveling from Ohio to Virginia to visit Shelley & Scott, I’ve admired those churches from a distance. So, now that I’m living in the area, I should visit them, right? Even though I know none of them are the right church for me?
Last week I was so discombobulated after the late-Saturday move-in that I didn’t have the energy. So this was, for all practical purposes, my first opportunity to look for a church.
I’d already made up my mind (without consulting God) that the first one I’d visit would be the oldest, niftiest building in town. Emmanuel Episcopal, built in the mid-1800s upon the remains of the old Fort Cumberland (at which George Washington stopped in his ramblings through the wilderness in 1754). It’s an amazing old building with a lot of history, and I’d never visited an Episcopal church before. How could I not avail myself of this opportunity?
So that’s where I went yesterday morning. The experience was, um, educational, though distressingly un-inspirational. As I drove home afterward, I realized it had been a shameful waste of time. God brought me to this area for a reason, and that reason was surely not so I could be a mere spectator. I should be looking for the place where He wants me to serve.
As it happens, a few days ago I saw something in the newspaper about a Baptist church in nearby Frostburg that was hosting a group of students from Appalachian Bible College for a special event. The blurb caught my eye because I’m passingly familiar with that school. In fact, I think the youth group at First Baptist used to go to church camp there some years back. I’d never heard of Eckhart Baptist Church before, but Frostburg isn’t far, so I checked out their website. Looks promising! In fact, their Mission Statement is very much like the Mission Statement of FBC. And the church is only about five miles from our house.
I’m not saying I’ll end up joining Eckhart Baptist, but I do plan to visit there next week. In fact, I’m so excited about it I can hardly wait until Sunday!