How do you describe the heart of a place? The soul of a setting, the roots of your spirit, the foundations of who you are? I found myself wondering this as I walked into a new church, a new setting that reminded me so much of a place as dear to my heart as my childhood home. Many of you know I recently made a big life change. I am now a Colorado resident, no longer an official flatlander, but always a prairie girl, if I’m being totally honest. In this transition, I have made the decision to focus on my faith journey and try to grow in larger ways, bigger than just my own self. After my move settled down, I knew there would be opportunities for new exploration of my faith. But I never expected God to show me the connections from my past that will forever intertwine and grow into my future.
A few weeks ago, I attended a traditional service at the Louisville United Methodist Church. For my directionally challenged friends, Louisville is northwest of Denver and about fifteen miles south of Boulder. My boyfriend, Jonathan, has called this church home for nearly three years. My trip this September was just the second time I had been inside with Jonathan. As we went through the service, I was excited to begin my official search for a home church now that I had finally settled into my move. But, more than anything, I felt a pang of memory and nostalgia for the small church in my hometown in Northwest Kansas. You see, last Sunday, Louisville was celebrating their 125th anniversary. They were celebrating new life and old life, beginnings and endings, celebrations and sorrows. All together, they joined their voices in prayer, heads bent toward the earth, like they had been doing for over a century. All together, they smiled and laughed and hugged when greeting each other. All together, they listened to the message, one of renewal rooted in tradition while moving a Methodist church forward in an age of millennials, technology, and lack of human empathy everywhere in the world. And, sitting there looking at the stained glass windows, I cried when we sang “Jesus Loves Me”, children trotting back into the isle towards their parents’ outstretched arms. Because that’s what we sang so often in my hometown church.
It was easy to flashback to a very hot day last summer, when my own hometown church in Palco, Kansas celebrated its 125th anniversary. An anniversary that, like Louisville UMC’s, also focused on renewal and tradition. An anniversary that focused on outstretched branches and roots. An anniversary about my setting, my spirit, my foundations. I walked into the glass doors of a brick building that had been a constant feature in my life. Some of my earliest memories come from the Palco United Methodist Church. Before you even walk inside, there is a small slope that seemed so much larger throughout my childhood. My sisters and I would race down the hill, rolling and smearing our Sunday dresses with grass. I can see the ribbons and bows flying out behind us. Further up the hill, along the footing of the church, you’ll see rocks and attempts of shrubbery that desperately try to shoot through despite drought. Here I filled balloons with water for Vacation Bible School, the anticipation of cold water and squealing children made me laugh. When you walk inside there are two rooms of fruit on your left—affectionately called the Watermelon Room and the Apple Room. A daycare was once held inside, but the toys from those days still remain, stained and well-loved. A kitchen and fellowship hall stands at the right. Dining collections, mugs, and silverware in the kitchen are mismatched from generations of potluck dishes left behind.
Further inside, you reach the core of this home, a sanctuary. It’s not a revolutionary place. In this church, someone once decided that evergreen carpet would make a statement. The pews have a bleached look to the wood, devoid of color that instead is given to the stained wooden boards of the arched ceiling. If you lay on your back in the pew, like I did when I was a child, you can watch the shadows dance through the stained glass windows. Brick lines the ceiling and sounds bounce off it, every which way. The organ fills the space loudly as an echo in a cavern, while a piano gives a more soft and delicate noise, finding its way like water slipping through crags of rock. And when the people sing, it fills the space with a beautiful sound, a noise that makes you feel part of something larger just your own self.
This is a place as familiar to me as my mother and father, a constant. I was baptized here and confirmed here, promising to live my life full of faith and service. It’s only natural that I was surrounded by my family the day we celebrated 125 years of this church during this past summer. The number was unfathomable to me the moment I walked into the door. As I have written about my hometown in the past, many of you may know the struggles that this rural community faces. With job security and development issues, the number on a road-side population sign continues to dwindle. In such a place, that a community of faith could maintain its strength so long, was nothing short of a miracle in my opinion.
One of my favorite parts about the service in Palco (and even in Louisville, as they did this same act in the form of a letter) was hearing from pastors who had previously served in the church. These leaders had each shaped and had been shaped by the congregation, and I thought it was incredibly moving to hear about their experiences. One pastor in Palco had baptized each of my sisters and knew me throughout my childhood. I straightened up taller in my metal chair as she began to deliver the message for that 125th Anniversary Sunday. As she spoke on her favorite memories from our church, she didn’t talk about our fellowship hall, the Watermelon Room, or the sound of the organ in the sanctuary. She spoke of a specific tree—a stark piece of life, springing up from the earth to heavens, interrupting the horizon. This particular tree was special and different, and she described it in a way that I don’t think is possible for me to attempt to repeat. The youth of the church at the time had gone on a mission trip together, building homes and communities, and a photograph from this time captured the children in this big tree. They lined the large timber, small knots on an ancient piece of landscape. Eventually, like all missions abroad, the trip came to an end and the group returned home. Like all children, people grew and aged, left and went on to live different lives. But that tree and those memories were carried by so many different individuals, and not necessarily in just a photograph. People continued to carry that tree and that moment on with them for the rest of their lives. And even though this tree really didn’t belong in the church yard, didn’t belong in the small community of Palco, and didn’t belong even in Kansas, the church also carried the tree forever.
I think of that tree often, even though I haven’t seen it myself. I love trees—tall Cottonwoods from my childhood that leave trails of white floating on the air in June, the sprawling wide limbs of Sycamores from my collegiate days, and the new Colorado Pines that now take up space in my heart. And I especially thought about these trees the Sunday I visited Louisville UMC, as I’ve been looking for find a place where I can grow in faith and community. For, like a tree, my home church of Palco United Methodist Church is rooted in me. It’s the soul of my childhood setting, the roots of my spirit, the foundations of who I am. Though at times I was worn and beaten down, struck by fierce desert storms, God provided just like he does all around us, and I survived. While so much has continued to change about my hometown and continues to, as time develops, I know that my time in the United Methodist Church with family, friends, and faith has impacted my soul so deeply. And maybe the numbers may dwindle. And maybe my grandmother doesn’t climb the backstairs to the choir loft every Sunday morning. And maybe I’m not there to worship with that small congregation, my voice joining in a song that’s bigger than myself. But I carry that church with me everywhere I go. It’s my home. As I move on and search for new homes, I know my branches might tangle occasionally. However, they still are outstretched and impacting the world around me. I’m so very excited to continue growing in my faith, of where my roots were furrowed deeply and where my branches continue to touch and graze.
When I think of faith and growth, I’m often reminded of an E.E. Cumming’s poem, [i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]. I’ve listed the words below, the words that continue to remind me of my tree of life. It’s faith that I carry in times of uncertainty, new moves, and big changes. It’s faith that reminds me to help those who need it more than we could ever imagine. It’s faith that brings me home and keeps me moving forward.
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)