Perseverance Chapel July 1, 1987 – June 1, 1988!
What a name, right? Perseverance! As a fourth-year seminary student, I took the weekends-only pastoral position at this small, country, Southern Indiana church. The church’s name seemed to be my own life motto — to “try harder,” to “work more.”
The congregation was thrilled to welcome us, with Grace due to arrive July 27th of that first month among them. The stone block edifice located in the midst of many fields outside of the town of Corydon hosted a dynamic group of people, mostly middle-aged, mostly farmers, under the Matriarch of the congregation Mother Gerdon. Her son, Bill and his wife Imogene directed traffic in that church, told people what to do and where to go. He let me preach!
Imagine his shock and dismay when we told him we were not meat eaters. “Well,” he pondered this revelation as if seeking to fathom why anyone would do that, and said, “Well, you will eat chicken, right?”
Actually, we were not eating meat and that included chicken, but we saw there was no way around this one. “Sure,” we agreed. When Bill introduced us that first Sunday and announced to the congregation, “The pastor won’t eat meat, but he’ll eat chicken!” They fed us plenty of chicken and in our idealism we missed out on some of the best ever, freshest, home-raised beef and pork.
In that community was a couple who didn’t believe in the spring and winter hour time change, told me we had not really landed on the moon and lived without electricity or running water. There was a woman whose fifth child had come when she turned 47 and at 49 she was still mad about having had that boy, who at two was a handful! Mother Gerdon had us eat lunch with her one Saturday. She served lunch in courses. We thought it was going to be a snack lunch when she started us with crackers, celery and carrot sticks and peanut butter. So we ate those up. But then came the soup! She served mine in a huge serving dish. Then the main course, and we already were getting full. And I again was served the largest portions. And then, came dessert. This was how Joseph treated his younger brother Benjamin! We needed no more food until lunch the next day!
At Perseverance Chapel our organist was one of two sisters and a brother who lived together, and raised cows and pigs in their old age. The milking had to be done Sundays right at noon. If we were not done with worship on time, this dear, small, woman with her salt and pepper black hair pulled into a tight bun, a hairnet over it would just pack up. She sat on the front left nearest the organ. She would stand up, get on her coat, grab her purse and take her keys out, jangling what must have been 40 keys on that ring, while still up in front, then she walked down the center aisle and out. We never quite understood why she needed to make such an exit as she left, but I began to believe it was her way of saying, “Pastor, you have gone over again!” As she walked down the aisle, we’d pause whatever we were doing, wave and I’d call to her and say “Have a great day Erma!”
It was my first pulpit experience and my first attempt to preach weekly messages. I did not have that many thoughts going through my head then, so pulling together a message became an effort in pleasing people and achieving some status. I look back astounded at this.
I was sitting under some of the best teachers and preachers in the world those years, and twice a week heard a great sermon in the chapel. But instead of taking the outline, the line of thought, the point from one of those, and just positioning myself around that for the upcoming Sunday, I had to come up with something myself. What hard soil was in my heart then, and Jesus was plowing it! But it was so unyielding to the gentle Shepherd offering to lead me. Those precious people were so patient! What poor preaching they tolerated! Karen learned all the things she would not try again as the “pastor’s wife,” so it was great training ground for us both. My heart took a little longer to really get the learning down. Well, you all know, I’m still learning.
The congregation fixed up the caretaker’s cottage for our house on the farm of Bud and Rena Mae Reed, the sweetest people on God’s earth at that point in time and by now in glory. They raised pigs and cattle. Do you see why they would be so confused by our “refusal to eat meat?” They no longer had anyone living in their cottage and so the two-bedroom house sitting just a few feet from the pigs’ home, on their vast acreage, became our weekend place. That summer the air wafting through our little house from the pigs next door was especially fragrant. It would have been a good place to read Charlotte’s Web to add a sense of poetry to the experience!
Jesus showed up through that congregation in their generous hearts for us. When Grace arrived, I drove to the church for two weekends alone while Karen stayed home with our then two girls. I walked into the chapel, that first weekend, and there was this mountain of gifts at the front of the pews to surprise us. So many presents, all wrapped and on display. The weekly dinner at Imogene and Bill’s place was an amazing feast with fried chicken, mashed potatoes with “a cube of butter,” green beans with bacon, etc. They embraced us as a family again and again demonstrating the love of God for us in every way they could manage.
But even more, Jesus showed up at a revival we hosted at which a friend came and preached several nights and Sunday. It was the best thing I planned and I remember the beautiful night as one of the members of the congregation, another Bill, met Jesus for the first time, even though he had sat in that church, in the same pew for decades. That night, under CV’s gentle preaching, Bill came forward in that small chapel to the altar rail, knelt and confessed his need for the savior. That man’s life was altered by Jesus that year.
For me the name of that little place, Perseverance Chapel, has been a moniker and reminder to me. I need to persevere, indeed, but it is not all up to me. This life is something we walk and sometimes run in, as in a marathon. But it is not made by our effort, our seeking to force ourselves to fit into some mold. Rather, it is made by God working and living in and through us. When I think back to that year there, I think to this passage of scripture from Psalm 37:34a in which the Psalmist wrote, “Don’t be impatient for the Lord to act! Travel steadily along His path.” That’s the call. Travel steadily along His path. Keep taking what may feel like a “tiny next step,” one foot after another.
(Karen player Mary, Grace played Jesus and Anna was a shepherd at Christmas 1987)