As the old hymn says, God is from age to age the same. And so is Elk Creek Community Church, for that matter. It is chronically the same. That is to say, for the past fifty years or so, all the upscale trendy winds that have swept through American churches have blown by Elk Creek unnoticed. It had been neither attentive to nor tempted by recent evangelical urges to be both "culturally relevant and biblically reliable." It had remained half-empty and half-full on that score. And so was the sanctuary the morning that Ken came to preach there. It was half-empty or half-full, depending on how you saw it. Settling into a seat in the back row, Ken took note of all the empty seats before he noticed how many people had actually shown up – about thirty adults in all.
Despite Ken's penitence, Northside remained his point of reference. He had seldom attended another church, except for while he was in seminary, and that was a Portland church that came close in size and scope to Northside's. It had never occurred to him that God could squeeze Himself into such a small box as this.
Ken observed that Elk Creek's sanctuary was even smaller than Northside's junior high "Rave Room," which was loaded with the latest sound and lighting equipment and walled with a gigantic TV screen.
Elk Creek had an overhead projector. It was manned by a plump, freckle-faced junior high-aged boy who crookedly placed transparencies on it and failed to keep pace with the music while sliding between the stanzas of the 30-year-old praise songs the group was singing. But no one seemed to mind. The song-leader, a cheery, big-boned woman, urged everyone to "sing it like you mean it." No one seemed to mind her either.
Two ancient ladies played on a piano and on an organ – sometimes simultaneously, but mostly staggered. Their timing was as far off as that of the boy who was working the overhead. Fittingly, the worship time ended with a timeless hymn:
O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come…
From everlasting Thou art God,
To endless years the same….
It went on through all nine verses, which seemed like endless ages to Ken. He was itching to preach. Barb could tell he was getting fidgety and so she poked him in the ribs with her finger. She glared at him the way she glared at their four-year-old son, Aiden, when he got unruly in church. "Sing it like you mean it," she whispered.
Following the hymn, Harley Phipps stood and walked up front. "Please join me in prayer," he formally entreated everyone.
At once, the congregation arose and a barrage of tired old theater seat cushions squeaked and flipped back, banging against the seatbacks.
"Let us enter the Almighty's presence with the fear and awe that is due Him, and let us express our reverence to Him in stillness and tranquility," he admonished.
The room soon fell silent. And the silence continued until it seemed nearly palpable to Ken. He kept thinking it was another nice formality, like the little bow Harley did when he handed him his bulletin. But this wasn't a curtsy. It was serious silence. And it went on and on until it dawned on Ken that he was standing among a people who were completely comfortable with being still in the presence of God. It also struck him that he wasn't at all at ease. His mind was a chatterbox. He stewed and tried to focus on God's presence, the way all the rest seemed to be doing so well. But he kept mulling over his message, rehearsing his opening lines.
Through the heating vents on the floor, Ken heard the muffled sound of children's voices in the basement. He even detected Aiden's laughter among them. For some reason, Aiden had felt immediately at ease there. Ken wondered what his little boy's heart had sensed in this place. There was something in the sound of his son's laughter that made Ken begin to feel at ease as well. He felt a presence there, a strong awareness that God's Spirit was comfortable in that place. He felt like laughing out loud himself. That's when Harley began to pray aloud.
"Our great and loving heavenly Father," he began, "we come now with boldness before Thy throne of grace, confident that Thou wilt not refuse to give us the mercy and grace we each require according to our need. We entreat Thee by the name of Thy Son, Jesus Christ, who loved us and gave Himself up for us. We thank Thee that Thou hast bestowed upon us Thy Holy Spirit, whose charge it is to guide us into the Truth and to guide the Truth into us. We stand before Thee in need of being taught. Give us humble hearts to hear Thy voice this morning. Fill and empower Thy servant, Ken, to speak Thy Holy Word strongly, boldly and by the love of Christ among Thy people gathered here today in this house of worship. May the words of his mouth and the meditations of his heart be acceptable in Thy sight, and may we all be edified and encouraged in order that we might stimulate one another to love and good deeds, so that above all else, Thou wilt be glorified on the earth as Thou art also glorified in heaven. Amen."
Ken had once asked Fred how he decided on what to speak about when he was a guest speaker. "What's the Lord sayin' to you?" Fred asked. "Whatever He's sayin' to you, He'll say through you."
After Chad had chewed Ken's ear about his "big-shot-ism," Ken started noticing in the Scriptures how often God used simple people in unlikely places. It was a theme that jumped out at him from nearly every page and it was turning his thinking upside-down. Borrowing a catchy phrase he had heard somewhere, he called it "the power of one."
"Now I'm seeing the power of one all over the Bible," he told Barb. "It's like having a pregnant wife. You don't realize how many pregnant ladies are out there until you have one. But once you have one, you start noticing them everywhere."
"You mean you were noticing other pregnant women when I was pregnant?" she teased.
It was a bad analogy, but Ken had a hunch he was onto something good. He just hadn't yet realized how small and how good God's plan for him would be.
"Folks," Harley started out, introducing Ken, "we have a surprise speaker here with us this morning. Ken Langston and his wife, Barbara, come to us with a high recommendation from our dear sister, Nancy Stevenson. Ken came up in the faith under Pastor Fred's instruction, so we already have something good in common with him. He's here with us today seeking the Lord's direction about being our next pastor."
Harley placed a palsied hand on Ken's shoulder. He hadn't before noticed that Harley's hand was shaking. "We'll prayerfully listen while you preach, Ken," he assured him.
The pulpit Ken stood behind was homemade, crafted out of clear fir and cut to historical proportions. It was beautifully aged, but it was huge and it didn't seem to fit in such a small sanctuary. Ken was accustomed to speaking from a wooden music stand, and he liked to free-range around a podium. He felt hemmed in and he was about to step away from the pulpit to preach when he noticed a small brass plaque that read, "Sir, we would see Jesus."
Looking out on the little congregation, Ken saw an assortment of simple people. He didn't yet know the people or their stories, but he knew they each had a story. The front row was empty, but in the second row there was Alma Fitzgerald, who sat timidly beside Viola Chalmers. Both ladies were widows. Alma was the very shy wife of a former Quaker pastor. She looked at you softly and uncertainly and she seemed to have no bearing, despite her rather full plumage. It had been twenty years since Arthur had passed and her eyes still misted whenever she spoke of him. She had never stepped out of his shadow.
Viola cast her own shadow. She was a stiff-jawed, husky woman. You probably shouldn't call a woman husky, even if she is husky. But Viola was just that, although she was not only that. She had a tender heart, and everybody knew it. But she had also had a hard life, and she let everyone know about that too. She and her husband, Hank, were transplants from North Dakota and they were founding members of the church. Hank was a dairy hand. He died when Viola was in her late thirties, which was forty years ago. She grew up on a farm and had endured the harsh Midwest winters and the hard life there. Hank and Viola's three children had grown up and had done well in the city, and they took good care of their mother, but she still looked at life as if it were still hard. Some folks said she was the church boss; others, like Harley Phipps, knew it but never admitted it out loud.
Jack Stone was an old prizefighter, and he had all the battle wounds to prove it. His nose was bulbous and bent in three different directions. It was an awful-looking nose. It was painful, even embarrassing, to behold. But at least it matched the rest of his gnarly face. Jack's jaw had been broken and set so many times his lower lip covered his upper lip when he smiled. Jack also wobbled when he walked. He was in his mid-70s when Ken first met him, so he was understandably weak in the knees, but he also had a vise for a grip. Every bone in Jack's body had a story to tell, and his hands could still do a lot of the talking.
Looking at each face in the room, Ken glanced again at the plaque. "Sir, we would see Jesus."
He remembered what he had been reading in Scripture about how the Lord often used simple people in unlikely places. He wondered if Elk Creek was one of those places. Ken started his message.
"I want to ask you this morning to think small with me," he began. "The Lord has been showing me how to think big by thinking small. I want to share with you what He has been teaching me."
"Have you ever noticed how Jesus noticed the individuals in a crowd?" he continued. Ken purposely surveyed the crowd of faces looking at him. He glanced again at the plaque: "Sir, we would see Jesus."
"While He was preaching to the multitudes His focus often turned to one or a few faces in the crowd. One time He was pressing through a crowd when a bleeding, broken woman touched His garment and He felt healing power flowing from Him. Another time a leper cried out for mercy as Jesus and His entourage was passing by. And then there was Zaccheus, a lonely little miser who couldn't see Jesus when He was passing by because he was too short. And also because, as a highly-despised tax collector, he'd probably take a few sharp elbows in his choppers if he dared to stand in a Jewish crowd. So he climbed a sycamore tree to have a look at Jesus.
"Each person in every crowd saw Jesus in his or her own way. They saw Him through their own set of eyes. They saw Him from their own needs, from their own circumstances and from their own desires. Each person in every crowd saw Jesus, but more importantly, Jesus saw each person in every crowd."
"Jesus is the same today as He was when He walked on the earth. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. What this tells me is that Jesus still sees the trees in a forest. He knows that a crowd is just a collection of individual people, each person with his or her own needs and stories. And Jesus can still see the people in the trees.
"I don't know your story and you don't know mine. But I know that you want to see Jesus. And so do I. This is why you have come here this morning, and this is why I have come here too. Apart from this common purpose, I am still a stranger to you and you are a stranger to me. But to Jesus there are no strangers. He sees each one of us and He knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows what we need even before we ask for His help. And as in the case of wee little Zaccheus, He knows what He wants from us, even before we've come down from our tree."
Ken paused and quietly looked around the room again. He could see that the people were following him. He had their attention. It was a wonderfully agreeable group. His eyes skipped around, taking in the faces he saw looking up at him. He couldn't yet put names to many faces. But there was Gilbert Hawkins sitting in the far corner near the doorway, a spot he chose for a quick getaway after each service so he could avoid getting a goodbye hug from Claudette Marley. Gilbert's gold-trimmed teeth were showing, which meant he was smiling. And of course, there was Claudette Marley, sitting in the middle of the third row. She was hard not to notice. Staring up at Ken through her smudgy, thick-lens glasses, her blue eyes were magnified times ten, which gave them the appearance of a couple of eggs sunny-side-up. She looked relaxed. In fact, she was so relaxed her dentures were sliding out of her mouth onto her lower lip. Every now and then, she'd gulp and swallow them back up again.
"If Jesus notices the faces that are in a crowd," Ken went on, "He also notices who is missing from every crowd. I suppose there are some who are missing from this crowd this morning. Jesus knows who they are, and perhaps you do too. There may be people missing due to illness. Some may be absent because of personal sin and shame. Others may not be here because they've never been invited. But whatever their reasons, those people still need to see Jesus, and all those who are missing are still important to Him. He died for everyone. He left the ninety-nine to go after the one."
Just then the door in the foyer shut gently and a young woman with two small boys in tow entered the sanctuary. She looked troubled. Her dark hair was still half-wet and stringy. She rather loudly ordered her boys to go downstairs and then she quickly took a seat in the back row beside Gilbert Hawkins. People furtively glanced in her direction and then returned their focus to Ken. But Claudette craned her whole head and body around to have a look at the woman. Then she stood up and started stepping over several sets of legs in her row and found her way to the aisle. She walked directly to the row where the woman was seated. She bent over and pulled the woman into her arms, saying over and over, "We love you. We missed you, darling."
The woman sat softly crying, dabbing her tears with a handkerchief that Viola had handed to her.
Claudette walked back to her aisle and stepped over legs again to get back to her seat. Ken suddenly felt glad for a big pulpit to lean on. He glanced again at the plaque. He looked at Claudette looking up at him. Her eyes were now moist and magnified. Ken felt himself choking up. "She would see Jesus in me?" he mused. "I think I just saw Jesus in Coke-bottle glasses."
Ken opened his Bible and read from the passage in John where the little boy in a crowd offered his lunch to Jesus to help feed the multitude. "It was only a poor boy's lunch," he reflected. "Five barley loaves and two fishes. What were these for so many people? It amounted to next to nothing, but nothing is always something in the hands of God. He made the whole world out of nothing, and there is nothing that is insignificant to Him. He is the Lord of all, and therefore He is also the Lord of the small.
"He created big, important people. And He died to set them free from pride and arrogance. He also created simple, ordinary people. He made lots and lots of them. As Abraham Lincoln put it, ‘God must really love ordinary people – He made so many of them." Most big people are really little people in disguise. And many small people are a lot bigger than they look.
"The Lord also raises big, important churches in larger cities. But he also has many small churches in ordinary places like Elk Creek. I think He must really love small churches – He has made so many of them. No matter how large or small the crowd, He sees every face in every crowd. And every face is important to Him. And so is every church, for that matter."
Ken hadn't planned to make that last remark. It had just slipped out of his mouth. But it primed him to suddenly get real honest and to tell about his first impression of the church at Elk Creek and how the Lord had convicted him of his conceit. Barbara looked at him with worried eyes, afraid he would hurt someone's feelings by such an open admission. She shook her head at him. But Ken kept talking. He could see the people's faces, and they were mildly amused. No one looked surprised to learn that others were not impressed either with them or with their building, because they were not too impressed with themselves anyway. Ken picked up that he had the people's permission to elaborate. And so he went on, telling his entire story about wanting to quit the ministry even before he got started and how Chad had called him on it. He spent more time telling them how he had discovered "the power of one" in the Scriptures than he spent talking about it. The addendum to his message lasted longer than his message. But Ken felt God's pleasure in sharing his heart with the people.
"So what do you have to offer Jesus?" he asked. "A poor boy's lunch? A hug? A handkerchief? A message like mine? Whatever you have to offer others in His name, it is never too small or insignificant. He can take it and multiply it beyond your wildest imaginings. He is the Lord of the small, because He is the Lord of all. In the mind of man, one times one always equals one. But the Lord knows the power of one, and in His hands one times one can equal a thousand.
"I have a little boy who is now enjoying himself in Sunday school down in the basement with other kids he did not know before today. I heard him laughing through the heating vents during our time of silence. My son loves to draw pictures and give them to me. I proudly hang them on my office wall. My wife, Barbara, hangs them on our refrigerator. Have you ever noticed that there is no such thing as a bad drawing done by a child? That is why we see them hanging on refrigerators and on office walls everywhere. You may think that your offering to the Lord is too small and too ordinary to please Him. But I think what I have seen happening in this church this morning is now hanging on Jesus' heart. I sense that He is pleased to be here with you, and I am pleased to be with you too."
Ken scanned the room again. He recalled Fred's tip: "Whatever the Lord's sayin' to you, He'll say through you."
"This message was as much for me as for them," he figured.
He sat down and Harley Phipps stood up. "Well, folks," he chirped. "What's the Lord saying to you? Is Ken our new pastor?"
"He sure is!" Viola shouted.
"Amen!" added Jack.
Alma gave a thumb up.
Gilbert chimed in, "He's all right by me!"
There were amens and yessirs all around the room. Ken was startled by the informality of the decision, but he felt flattered to be so roundly accepted. To cap it all off, Claudette stepped over legs again and made her way to Ken and Barb, wrapping her bony arms around them and squeezing them together. "I love you," she promised. "I really love you."
The entire church surrounded and congratulated them and thanked Ken for his message. Harley said he would call Ken to discuss living arrangements, compensation and other details. He asked when they could start.
Ken's mind was still spinning from the speed of the decision. "Well, as soon as we can gather our belongings, I suppose."
"We don't mean to rush you," Harley said. "You might have noticed that we do things a little differently around here. We get a little excited when God shows us His love by sending us a shepherd. But I don't suppose the Lord minds all the excitement. And if you don't mind, we'll just keep letting you know how happy we are to have you here."
Ken caught a glimpse of Gilbert leaving the room. He was getting out while the getting was still good.