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My impulse to get up and leave surprised me. I’ve heard our communion liturgy a million times, but why thoughts to just walk away – now? Still not sure. 

It was Reformation Sunday and we had just sung the beloved old hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and it just didn’t hit quite right. The song has gravitas and is eminently singable. Small wonder —  I’ve heard that the tune is an old German drinking song and I’ve been singing it with lusty punch since I was a kid. I’ve loved it too.

But Martin Luther’s lyrics imagine a militant church, under siege and meeting its oppressor with an aggressive champion. And its rhythm is a military cadence. And I am sick of it. I can’t abide the imagery when the world’s sister religions (even if by proxy) are fighting a hot war of grievance and retribution and righteous certainty that they alone know the proper places to draw lines in the sand. Terrorism, kidnappings, rape, mutilation, dead children, bombings and siege tactics used on civilians. 

The problem with singing “Though devils all the world should fill, all eager to devour us…” (verse 3) is that it’s too easy to imagine you know who those devils look like. 

 I stayed though. I stood with my faith community and when it was my turn, I crossed my palms, took the little wafer from Pastor Doug and dipped it in the chalice, coating it with the barest amount of wine on the edge. Our central ritual recalls sacrificial love with a meal shared. Body and blood. Bread and wine de minimis. Take and eat, a most ancient and elemental marker of human community. This is what’s left. Remember and believe. Maybe that’s why. Not sure sometimes.

Here’s what I know, though, from my spot in the south-side pews, five or so rows back.  I know that that altar table is handmade from curly maple and walnut, the two marquis hardwoods coming together from each side of the Midwestern forest tension zone. I know that the craftsman who made it is sitting behind me. I know that Pastor Anne changes the color of her sneakers and her hair to match the liturgical seasons. I know that the chancel artwork is supposed to be abstract but that it looks for all the world to me like windows on a foggy sedge meadow in the heavy morning of a hot summer day. I know that one winter, the wreath around the Christ candle was made from northern white-cedar.

I know that the stained-glass dove dates to a Vietnam war-era impulse and a boldly aspirational origin story. I know that the dove and the mathematical precision in the circles and parabolas framing it have ancient significance. I know that the horizontal panes echo an artist from down the road at Taliesin. I know that there’s a flowering crab behind the window and that starlings, cardinals, and robins sometimes visit for worship too. 

I know that on Good Friday, the setting sun vectors into that spot in the south-side pews, five rows back. And that as the pastors lower the lights and strip the color and altar-vestments, the sun fills your face and the whole darkening ritual disappears into warmth and light. 

I’ve heard churches described as spiritual field hospitals where we come weekly to have our wounds bound and our souls stiffened for the week’s battles (more martial imagery) and that works for some. My friend Debra imagines churches as biological refugia, small flourishings of faithfulness in a ravaged landscape. Small flourishings of local plants and animals to make a point. But ecological refugia have two functional values, an inward self-nourishing of the community and an outward focus on returning the world to flourishing, even if incremental even if halting. Refugia send out the dispersers, the seeds and individuals to reclaim the barren landscape. It’s slow and uncertain and expensive in that dispersers take risks and die at higher rates. But, that’s the vision I want, to win the day with flourishing. 

So I stayed for something close to defiance, something stubborn. People who read my little pieces see me worry in public about the climate crisis and extinction and the church’s response and my kid’s futures. I have private worries too and sometimes stepping off into nihilism and cynicism seems so easy – comforting even. Why care when the payoff seems so uncertain? I stayed to stare down the furies of chaos and despair. I stayed because this place and these people provide the weekly space to do so. 

I suppose there’s virtue in showing up. Even when it’s rote. Even when it feels pointless and archaic. I can’t know the motivations of the others here, but we share something vital and I trust that. Our little congregation is a wandering shoot with roots in an iron-age story. We branched away in medieval Europe and rooted here, drawing nourishment from the local and making it ours, becoming organic. And I sense a branching impulse again. Here in Waunakee. Here with the weather turning cold and the tools at hand. Our chancel is framed on one side by a drywall crack following the church’s bones. The earth below was churned by a glacier and glossed with wetlands for centuries and our foundation likely isn’t as firm as we imagine. Faith needs its sea legs.

Even so, we come because we sing together and laugh together and sometimes fret. We come because of family or because we want something familial. We come to look for the best in ourselves and others through the lens of God’s love. We come to experience transcendence or at least be reminded about it. Here we learn to navigate its polar nature. Here we learn how the compass works. 

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 


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