During my years in parish ministry, there was nothing I dreaded more than a major snowstorm on a December weekend. December services were carefully planned and rehearsed. They often involved many people – an orchestra, perhaps, or all the children of the church school dressed like shepherds and wise men. I wanted a large congregation present to appreciate their efforts. More importantly, I needed all the participants to be there. And then there was the financial impact to worry about. Most Christian churches in America receive about 30% of their annual income during the month of December. Having a single Sunday wiped out by a storm could be the difference between making the budget and finishing the year with a deficit. So I stewed and worried when the snow started falling on a Saturday evening.
In the 23 years of my Appleton pastorate, I never canceled a Sunday service. There were a few Sundays where I somehow managed to make my way across town in treacherous conditions to lead a service for the handful of people who could walk to church. Our services were broadcast on the radio, so I preached my sermon to a congregation still at home in their jammies.
The storm this past weekend was as bad as or worse than any I ever had to contend with. I was sending prayers and good thoughts to all the priests and pastors of the area on Saturday night as they struggled with the decision to cancel or not. Clergy have competing anxieties in such situations. What if we cancel but an 86-year-old lady somehow fights her way through the storm only to find the church cold and dark? What if we don’t cancel and someone has an accident trying to get to church? Safety should always be the bottom line, but people of faith do not cancel a worship service lightly.
So when I awoke Sunday morning to howling winds and heavy snow, I was grateful to be the Goodwill chaplain rather than a parish minister. And when I looked at our unplowed street and the deep drift blown against our garage doors, I knew that I would be worshiping at the Church of the Holy Snow Blower that day.
Our street has many men – and this is pretty much a guy thing – who normally cannot wait for the sun to rise before they fire up their toys. But on Sunday it was eerily quiet until well after nine. When I heard Bob, my next-door neighbor, starting his machine, I figured it was time for me to bundle up and head outside as well : morning services were about to begin. The Prelude consisted of shoveling enough snow away from the garage to get the snow blower outside. The Call to Worship was issued when the engine fired up. The theme of the Sermon was “an ill wind blows no good” (lifted from Shakespeare rather than the Bible) and therefore the wise will not attempt to blow snow into said wind unless they sincerely want it back in their faces.
But my favorite part of the service was the Offering. When Bob and I had our driveways and sidewalks clear (at least until the snowplow came through to launch the second service), we fought our way across the street where several neighbors were trying to clear the snow using only shovels. The ice on Bob’s beard made him resemble a deranged Arctic explorer, but he was grinning as the wind roared and we forced our way through the big drifts. This is what neighbors do for one another. This is how community works.
I regret missing church services on Sunday. But loving your neighbor as yourself in the most practical way possible is not a terrible substitute.
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