Another taste of desert sand

Jul 31, 2017 by

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It was the liturgy that first warmed my heart. I tried to be cautious, not to fall in love too quickly. How long should one wait to call a church one’s home?

I still don’t know the answer to that question. I thought the three-ish months of spring 2014 was enough before I posted the first cautious, positive-but-noncommitted reference to Plow Creek Mennonite Church (actually, it was just a reference to Plow Creek Bakery) on social media. Then a week later, another post referencing Plow Creek Farm’s delicious strawberries.

But the fact is, my heart was aglow from the first moment one Sunday in March 2014 when I settled into the beat-up metal folding chair with the dark blue Hymnal: A Worship Book sitting on it. In less than two hours, I tentatively decided there was something good worth at least a second drive of 40 minutes one way to this awkward church of 20 or so hippie-ish farmers in the boonies who worshiped in a campy building within walking distance from all their homes and only had parking for about four cars.

It was love at first sight for Plow Creek Mennonite Church in Tiskilwa, Ill.

Month after month, we shared our homemade bread and juice from the grapes on our land in a common cup formed by one of us. We moved through the nourishing cycle of the church’s calendar, telling each other the story of our redemption and future glory in Jesus Christ, our death-beating God. Our liturgy was not plagued by the “worship wars.” We made room for faith formation old, new and everywhere in between. Our children unwittingly yielded stunning insights about the kingdom we were to inherit.

When I started working remotely for MWR, I moved onto Plow Creek’s jointly owned property. Two years after my first visit, I euphorically pronounced my formal membership commitment on Easter Sunday 2016. Perhaps I’ll never have the words to describe my joy, my relief, my passion that day.

I slowly grew conscious of our problems. By late summer, some people were talking about leaving. I remember what I call the last good night: On Nov. 8, 2016 — the night of the U.S. presidential election — a group from Plow Creek and our sister congregation, Willow Springs Mennonite Church, shared communion in my living room, pledging anew our fidelity to the kingdom of God regardless of whatever non-good news the election yielded. The honor of facilitating our meal and exhorting these beloved people was mine. It’s a memory I’ll cherish for life.

The next day, more of our people announced they were planning to leave our fellowship. With no warning, this blindsided me. My heart broke, and the pain persisted — through Advent, through Christmas, past Epiphany — until it transformed into numb gloom sometime in mid-February.

During this time, we lost three of our oldest members to physical death. A cloud of death was over us all. There would be no recovery. We were witnesses to the grieving process of our own dissolution. This process included many tears and sharp words — precious testaments in themselves to the familiarity we had cultivated — as we futilely tried to resist speaking the reality of our ending.

By Easter 2017, we were no longer meeting as a congregation. Only one year after I had joyfully claimed membership, we were effectively finished.

The truth is that there were significant problems among us long before I ever sat down in that folding chair. Part of the story is that we were victims of our human frailty. Another part, which I’m clinging to, is that I believe we were targeted by Enemy forces because we had something worth targeting. In his inscrutable sovereignty, God allowed those forces to have a victory, for the ultimate purpose of his glory.

Did not God allow his enemies a victory over his own Son (Isaiah 53:10-12)? God then gave Jesus a greater victory. Our hope for sharing in that victory is in our unity with Jesus. That is something no enemy can take away. Now is the time to demonstrate our faith that Resurrection victory is real.

Nonetheless, for me there remains a sense of shame. When I meet people at church conventions, one of their first questions is, “What congregation are you from?” Again and again I have to pronounce the hideous confession, “Well, I’m church-homeless right now.” Then, because of my age, I feel the urge to clarify that I’m not one of “those millennials” who’ve “given up on church.” So I have to say, “My church is dissolving.” It’s a humiliating admission.

The church is central to my identity. I love Jesus. As part of his church, I’m betrothed to him. To be out of fellowship with any congregation is to be outside of his plan for us.

The alternative is the desert. I know what it’s like. I’ve been here before. It’s terrible. My spirit recoils at being lost out here again.

Yet here I am, in the desert. I’m disoriented and demoralized. I don’t know where I’ll get communion next, and that is a poverty to my soul. Additionally, Plow Creek’s dissolution has precipitated the sale of my house, so I’ve had to move from my physical home as well.

The church’s story, past and present, is one of being assaulted and torn apart (Rev. 12:13-17). Many of my editorials have been about our assurance of victory. But equally real is the darkness arrayed against us. We are at war (2 Cor. 10:3-5), and our history clearly displays we’re the weaker party. Whether by brute-force extermination, schisms and heresies, complacent inertia or strength-sapping exhaustion, the Enemy has gotten plenty of victories. The more we pursue fidelity to Jesus, the more we become a target.

I believe we had something good in our weakness, something rich in our poverty, something precious in our simplicity, some kingdom excellence the Enemy wanted destroyed. I think of how many victories we must have come away with to warrant that kind of attention. It makes me smile a tiny bit as I wait to taste the body and blood of the Lord through a mouthful of desert sand.

Rachel Stella, MWR assistant editor and web editor, has moved back to her hometown of Channahon, Ill. A longer version of this post appeared at her blog, rachelcstella.wordpress.com.


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  • Bruce Leichty

    And something blooming in the sand. Thank you from another corner of the desert — but nurturing blooms here, too– for your candor and also for the often insightful coverage you have brought to MWR.

    • Rachel Stella

      Thank you, Bruce. This is very encouraging to me.
      — Rachel Stella, web editor

  • Gene Mast

    Had I known you were in Kidron, I would have taken the opportunity to personally welcome you (if I may offer a bit of tongue in cheek characterization) to the lush pastures and cool streams that we among the true faithful have long enjoyed. More seriously, the endorsement of fellowship within a congregation is appreciated.