by Joyce Shutt, Pastor Emeritus, Fairfield (PA) Mennonite Church
Once the governor lifted restrictions on small gatherings in late spring, our little congregation gathered for outdoor services. That first Sunday was a cautious experiment. We weren’t sure if being outdoors could work.
Wearing face masks, we set our folding chairs at least 6 feet apart under the huge plane tree that has become our new sanctuary. That first Sunday was more of a social event than a worship service. Starved for social interaction, unaccustomed to worship without music, distracted by traffic noises, we struggled to focus.
But by the end of June we had developed a new rhythm and pattern. Feeling safer outdoors, more people began coming. Our pastor developed a style of worship that fit our new setting. We learned to drop our face masks when talking to better hear each other and simply wait when traffic noise got too loud or St. Mary’s church bells rang their call to worship.
Yes, we have missed the music. Once in a while one of our men plays his harmonica. Occasionally we try to sing with face masks on, but most times we simply read a hymn’s words. Too often the process of merging the text with music can make one lose track of the words. Being outdoors has allowed us to re-discover the poetic beauty of words, especially when voiced together in choral readings.
Now that fall has arrived, few of us are ready to move indoors or consider Zoom services.
Something special has happened over the summer. It’s been elusive, but authentic. We’re discovering a new closeness, a renewed sense of worship. Sitting under the plane tree’s leafy cathedral ceiling while responding to the cold, heat, humidity, and misty rain has helped us gain a greater awareness of God as Creator and Sustainer.
When we worship inside, we humans assume control. Come rain or shine, the show goes on. But outside? Outside we are not in control. Gathering becomes dependent on the weather.
Even so, we have not missed one Sunday. Twice the rain held off just long enough for us to finish our service. During July and August’s wilting heat, the moment we’d set up our chairs in the shade of that precious plane tree, a reassuring breeze would spring out of nowhere. Sometimes the breeze became so strong that the dancing leaves drowned out our words, almost as if to say, “Stop. Listen. Be still and know that I am God.”