I have been haunted by a church. I saw it on my drive to Maine. It is a beautiful stone church in New Hampshire, shut up and deserted. Scraggly balsams were growing in the rank grass, and the roof slates were mantled with light snow. I took my foot off the pedal and craned my neck as I passed. CHRIST THE KING, read the faded sign.
On my return home, the ewe lambs in the back of the van were quiet as we listened to Christmas carols on the radio. Nat King Cole sang O Holy Night. “Fall on your knees, and hear the angel voices —”
Passing the dark church I slowed again. I suddenly realized I was in Bethlehem, New Hampshire. Oh my. It’s Christmas, and Christ the King is abandoned in Bethlehem!
The beauty and the irony shook me.
When I got home I had to google it, and I found on Flickr these lovely photos by Doug, who has kindly given me permission to use them.
I know churches are being deserted everywhere, especially across rural America. A church on our town’s Main Street fell to the wrecking ball a couple of years ago. A classic white clapboard church at the foot of the mountain, where John Brown’s horse-drawn funeral cortege stopped for a rest in 1859, is on the market. During the year I drove Jon to college, we passed two boarded-up churches on the back roads every day.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that churches today are going the way of the U.S. Postal Service — bedrock institutions that simply aren’t being used any more. This makes me sad.
In Bethlehem, New Hampshire, I fantasized about doing something: flinging open the doors, turning on the lights, finding someone to play loud chords on the organ, singing hymns, baking cookies, organizing a nursery hour, bringing Christ the King back to life.
My DH is always skeptical of my fondness for large gestures. He thinks I become so fixated on big, perfect solutions that I can overlook the virtues of small, daily, imperfect striving. (How many times have I struggled to write to a friend the ideal letter of support, which in my mind is a four-page, exquisitely expressed message of love — and thus put it off, unfinished, while meanwhile DH has sent half a dozen one-line emails that actually did express that support?)
“Ninety per cent of life is just showing up,” he repeats. DH rarely says much, but for things he cares about he will always show up.
Pondering Doug’s beautiful, haunting photographs of Christ the King in Bethlehem, I realize I am already in a position to sing hymns, bake cookies, and help organize a nursery hour. I have my own church.
I haven’t actually attended in a while. It’s twenty miles away down a mountain. In winter the snowy roads are frightening. In summer I’m always working. It’s hard to make the time.
I tend to think complacently that my church will always be there, patient and waiting, when things are magically “better” — when my life is more organized, when the farm projects are tamed, when my house is clean.
But now it dawns on me that if people like me, who love it, can’t be bothered to keep our little church vital, who will?
Christ the King in Bethlehem has reminded me that I need to show up.