Witness

This morning at church, I and a man named Bob followed Edie and John downstairs with the offeratory plate so that he and I could learn the job of verifying the money. This is a little job that needs to be done every Sunday. Somebody must accompany Edie or Trish, whichever of the two ladies is counting the money — mostly checks, a few dollars in cash — to be a witness that what is being collected and reported and deposited in the bank all matches up. It seems unnecessary, our little church family being who we are, but it is motivated by the principle of accountability, and so someone goes along as a witness each week. I will be one of those who do this little job from now on.

Our church is a small in every way in which smallness can be a virtue. Large is the love I find there, but the building, an old red brick Swedish church built I think around 1907, is small as church “facilities” go these days, and the people who call it their spiritual home comprise a relatively small group who, most of them, also make it their communal home. That is to say, their community of friends happens also to be the group of people with whom they worship. On any given Sunday there are less than thirty people in the austere old sanctuary for the sermon, and the children in the rooms of the adjacent building outnumber them. It is as if a bunch of people who really enjoy and love and support each other in all the phases and on all the pathways of life just happen to have a church building in which to do it.

Angela and I have been a part of this community — she right away, I more gradually over the years — for more than a decade. We were married here. Although there are a few families and individuals who have moved away geographically yet still consider this church their church, and there are a few who don’t attend regularly and these people sometimes show up and we learn or relearn their names and faces, for the most part we know everyone. It is a family church, and we have watched the several dozen children grow from babies to the little people they are now. There used to be a number of old Swedish ladies who sat in the two rows closest to the big stained glass window of the south wall and who remembered when services were held in their native tongue, but most of them are gone now.

But even in such a small church, it is amazing what you do not know of your fellows. People are like mines, their shimmering ores hidden underground. We laid Peter H. to rest a few months ago. We all gathered in the rain at a little cemetery in North Seattle, where his body would be interred among members of his family who had preceded him, and released him to eternity. We brought Mara, a bright splash of color in her yellow raincoat. Our pastor, who for most of us is also a friend with whom we might go out to lunch or watch basketball games or discuss books and movies, said a few words about what Peter meant to him, and then Peter’s brother, who had come up from California, told us a few stories about him, stories that made me rethink what I knew of Peter. Some others from among us then spoke to honor Peter with their own experience of him and give us a word to remember him by. Apparently, he had a really edgy, dry sense of humor and a keen wit, the kind of humor that people who didn’t know him well, like me, would have thought wasn’t humor at all, the kind of wit we would have completely missed.

Peter was extremely reticent, even retiring. I had never really engaged him in conversation owing to my own discomfort with very shy people. He stood every Sunday at the top of the stairs going into the sanctuary and greeted people with an almost inaudible hello, which usually disappeared into his chest because he held his head down, and handed each person a bulletin if they wanted one. I always thanked him and greeted him by name, and if I asked how he was he always answered in a single word and a little smile and nod. He was not what I would have called an old man, and seemed in fact like a grown up little boy. He died of complications after a sudden stroke. He had never married. In listening to those who knew him best talk about him, I learned that Peter was troubled by something like schizophrenia. He lived, at times, in a darkness that I cannot even imagine. It was only in his service to others, his quiet, unassuming, faithful service to a little body of people who barely knew him, that he found the cord that led him out of himself, a lifeline he clung to. We were his salvation.

After the short graveside service we all retreated to the church basement, where a lunch had been set out and some of Peter’s art work was displayed. At the reception I saw a table full of framed photographs that Peter had made, and some of his drawings and paintings. He apparently loved to photograph flowers. I had had no inkling that he had any interest or talent in these directions, and seeing these finished works — framed, declarative, expressive, asking to be looked at, available for scrutiny, boldly visible — really surprised me, since their author was practically a shade as I knew him. But it should not have surprised me. It seems to me that God’s spirit, which I believe is in everyone, longs to be expressed — will be expressed — strains to get out and connect with people, no matter what the condition of the vessel.

I used to wonder why Peter put himself through the agony of standing and greeting everyone. It all makes sense now.

It was Peter who used to accompany Trish or Edie downstairs with the money every Sunday, and silently watch and verify that all was as it should be. John has been doing it since Peter died. Bob and I, along with two others who were not present today, are stepping up so that we can all take turns filling Peter’s verifier role. 

But no one has yet filled Peter’s spot at the front of the church, at the top of the stairs of a Sunday, just inside the door. The bulletins now are on a little table there, you can take one if you want one.

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