Inspire, Nurture, Embrace: A Thought Experiment for our Church (part 2)

Three years ago, just as I was getting settled as the Pastor of this church, Garvin McCurdy invited me to the Portsmouth Athenaeum to show me a particular painting.  It is a painting of the banks of the Piscataqua River from the perspective of the Portsmouth side.  Painted in the early 1800’s, the artist clearly depicted the very ground on which our church stands.  Garvin asked me, “What do you notice missing from the painting?”  I could not answer his question.  I didn’t see the church…but I didn’t know if I was supposed to.  I couldn’t see the Shipyard…but it seemed like that would not have been in the frame of the picture.  Finally, Garvin answered his question for me, “There’s no trees.”  After looking at the painting again, I realized what he had meant for me to see. All the tall trees that stand on our church grounds, and down by the cemetery, were nowhere to be seen.  At the time of the painting, all the trees in the area had been cut down and used as lumber.  All the tall, old trees that surround our church today, trees I had just assumed had been here forever… had only been planted less than 200 years ago.  

In the Pastor’s Office, when I arrived, I found a wooden bowl with a message written in it.  The bowl had been carved out of the last tree to be taken down on our church property.  There used to be a few rows of trees here, and they were all cut down and sold for lumber, and most likely also used to build some of our church buildings and pews. 

There are certain sites around our campus where you can see dense collections of plants sprouting up every summer where old, tall trees used to stand.  They are lush and teeming with life…even though they are not manicured and controlled.  Whenever I sit with them, I can’t help but be aware that this church and the land that it is on has been host to many forms of life for centuries upon centuries.  As unique and overwhelming as our current historical moment can seem…I wonder if God isn’t doing a new thing here. When I reflect on the ways in which our ancestors relied on this land, how they utilized their resources, how they did what they could to care for the life God had entrusted them with—life of plants, animals, humans, and Spirit alike—I can’t help but wonder…maybe the “new” thing God is doing for us…is actually very, very old. 

In the summer of 2016, a strong storm tore down two apple trees that stood behind our Parish House. Tracy Dorgan and Tim Carven cut the trees down and carved them up. After we had shared as much of the wood as we could with our neighbors, there remained four stumps. During a Church Work Day, Alan Kelly helped me roll those stumps into our back yard, where they have served as delightful stools around our fire pit ever since.

In my 3.5 years serving here, I have reflected on the challenges of ministry and Church in our time. Quite honestly, I have been overwhelmed by the vast amount of work and opportunity God has brought our way. With only 24 hours in any given day, and a life outside of work requiring its own nurturing, I have often been at a loss for how best to invest my attention and knowledge to serve our church, our God and our world. There have been months at a time that I have felt lost and spread thin, as the world in which we live seems to descend into chaos and unpredictability. Then, recently, I sat with a wise colleague who said to me, “I have found that what I perceive as chaos is actually part of a larger pattern. I may be holding things too close to see them in their proper context. I view it as chaos…but it is actually part of God’s larger pattern.”

What if the way forward for ministry in this place…the way forward for us as God’s People in this place…can be found in a very particular map? And what if…while I’ve been trying to make sense of my daily life, the needs of our community, the particular desires of individuals, all of which have seemed so chaotic…what if the key to understanding the larger pattern that encompasses all of this has been lying just beneath me for the last three years? What if I have been sitting contemplatively, looking for answers…and they were hiding in the tree I’ve been sitting on this whole time?

Brian Gruhn