Rest Beyond the River

March 15, 2009

It was still raining, and so overcast that it still seemed solid night, when I got up this morning at about 7:00. I’d slept solidly, but was still feeling the melancholy that overtook me yesterday. I made coffee and sat for a while with my colored pencils and my prayer journal, working a mandala with the names of my characters and the concerns I will take them through in my work this week, as well as one with the names of all those I love and have left behind but whose energy I know I have carried with me.

Before I left I used the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America website to determine where I might find a congregation here in Baptist country where I could worship in the tradition I have become accustomed to. I chose St. John’s in Walhalla, South Carolina. It’s almost 40 miles from where I’m staying, and my GPS indicated it would take nearly an hour to get there. I thought briefly of not going. The trip and the service would consume at least three hours. I brought nice slacks and sweater sets but no skirts and no dress shoes, just athletic sneakers and Lands’ End canvas slides. What if they dress real high church here? But I was still feeling lost and anxious and inadequate to the tasks before me, and I couldn’t face an entire rainy day with nothing but my manuscript. So I fixed my hair, put on my marvellous Nike shoes, and started out.

One gets from Clayton, Georgia, to Walhalla, South Carolina over the Long Creek Highway, a pleasant two-lane blacktop that crosses the Chattooga River, a body of water known to moviegoers as the Cahulawassee River of Deliverance, in which four Atlanta businessmen get more than they bargained for on a whitewater rafting trip. Indeed, I passed the sites of outfitters for such trips and signs leading to the trailheads, a golf course surrounded by luxury condos, modest brick homes such as one can find in any American suburb, and rundown ramshackle structures with yards littered with car parts that are the stereotype of the rural south. And churches. Baptist churches, mostly, but also homegrown nondenominational congregations housed in old garages or cement block buildings with names like Truth Temple or Good News Place. The rain abated as I drove, but it was still drizzling.

I was headed for the 11:00 service, just like at home. I arrived at St. John’s about 10:40 and chose a parking space in the middle of a row on the side street labeled “Visitors” at one end and “Senior Saints” (near the ramp with easy entrance into the sanctuary that was built in the 1860s) at the other. I figured I qualified as both.

I had to wander around a little bit. The bathroom was easy to find, but the sanctuary, oddly enough, was not. The old New England-style structure has been added on to with a broad narthex that links to another structure that looks like a school and a wing with offices and a library. A woman who turned out to be the pastor’s wife approached me then and welcomed me, asked me what had brought me to St. John’s this morning, and showed me around.

I needn’t have worried about feeling out of place. The congregation at St. John’s is less than half the size of the one I worship with at home, but the 50 or so people assembled are no less friendly. Where my church, built in 1990, has clear glass windows, no pulpit, and an altar in the round, St. John’s has stained glass, padded kneelers more typical of a Catholic church than a Protestant one, an altar that the minister must turn his back on the congregation to use, and a high pulpit above everything.

The elements of the service had the familiarity I wanted and needed this morning. The gospel text was the story of Jesus driving out the moneychangers, and the pastor’s remarks gave a context that appealed to my fiction writer’s sensibilities, and then connected the greed and the commercialization that made Jesus so angry to the same tendencies in our own lives, our own abilities to make something we start out doing for noble purpose into something we do for ourselves and our own comfort. The best moment of the morning came for me when I discovered that communion is given by intinction, that is, one dips one’s wafer into the cup, a method that I find the most intimate and most holy way to partake of the Eucharist, the heart of my spirituality.

Pastor Dave Coffman is young. He and his wife have a two-year-old son and two daughters about seven and eight. We had a nice conversation after the service. His grandmother, Louise Coffman, lives in York, Pennsylvania, where she studies and writes about the Anabaptist people of that region, in the same way that I study the plain people of neighboring Lancaster county. I left with one of her books about the Pennsylvania Germans of York county, certain that I will be back next week to return it.

By the time I arrived back at Hambidge (the trip took four hours because of a stop for lunch at the Two Redneck Chicks cafe on the Long Creek Highway — who could pass a place called that?) the rain had stopped, the sun was shining, and I felt restored.

The “sending hymn” this morning, sung between the benediction and the dismissal, was Fanny Crosby’s “In the Cross.” It’s about our journey through this vale of tears, this life in this world that can cause us anxiety and pain “till our ransomed souls shall find rest beyond the river.”

I’m not as discouraged as I was yesterday. I’ve reclaimed the joy and the enthusiasm I had when I got here. I have every resource I need to take my characters through the tests of faith I have imagined for them. I found rest beyond the Chattooga River this morning, and I’ll cross it again next week, when I hope the weather will be different so I can explore St. John’s cemetery. Until then, it’s back to work.

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