Turning Millstones into Milestones
The Prayer-Filled Life of a Church on the Margins
Standing in front of giant doors of a 150 year old Lutheran Church, she waits for the Spirit to move. DeAnne Lilly Parks, a painter and sculptor, spent most of the summer painting a mural on the outside doors of the church. Paint and brushes and willing heart at the ready, she shows up each morning and waits on God.
I show up and say, “Okay, God whatya got for me?”
This weekend, DeAnne’s mural is part of this church’s celebrations of their 150th anniversary. The finished piece is gorgeous, of course. Everything DeAnne does is. But let’s not skip over the part of her arriving each day in the wee, small hours, open heartedly dependent. This reliance on the Creator to move this creator preaches to me, her pastor.
It’s not just DeAnne. I watch one of our playwrights, Jeremiah, go through the same process. There are months of seeing him tucked away at the local coffee shop, a giant stack of research books on his table. This is followed by writing, casting, production. There are always points in the process where the project doesn’t feel possible. Hope wears thin, but even then lingers.
In worship in our church, the prayers of the people belong to the people. In most mainline churches, these prayers are scripted by the pastor and prayed on behalf of the whole congregation. We did that for a short season, but I grew tired of the fanciful language. No one in my community talks like a scripted prayer. Also, how can I really be the spokesperson for all these hearts and all they carry?
Thank God a seminarian of ours along the way suggested releasing the prayers into the hands of people. This suggestion felt out of control at first. I mean, if we open up that space anyone could say anything. What if someone says something totally bizarre? Yes, what if? This church has taught me to trust them. As the pastor, I begin and end the prayers of the community. But the space in between is for the gathered to pray for all the concerns of their hearts.
During Jeremiah’s creation process, he prays weekly for words, courage, persistence, movement. We all respond, “Hear our prayer.” We all want his work in the world, doing it’s good thing. Again, his dependence upon God preaches to me. I am humbled by it.
This church is filled with people working and living on the edge. Scrappy folks, most of whom are just getting by financially. And sometimes not getting by. Then the prayers of the people become wrenchingly concrete in need and hope:
“Help us pay our bills.”
Or “Help me find stable housing, I’m tired of couch surfing.”
“I could use some help if you feeling like sharing.”
“Help all those struggling with depression, myself included. I want to feel well enough to work.”
We respond collectively, “God, hear our prayers,” because once prayed aloud, these prayers belong to all of us, shape all of us.
Showing up at the edge of the church property, staring up at those doors, peeking into the vast expanse of a new play, stepping out in faith that another couch will present itself, another day will bring new life—this is life on the margins.
Folks in the margins inform and lead the mainstream. Margins give value to the center, define it, and challenge it. Think of the space at the edge of the page where you write notes, doodles, insights, questions. Borrow a book from a friend and delight in the things she has written in the margins, which point your eyes to see something she sees. You understand her better through the tiny note, written out there on the edge of the page.
I inherited my late grandma’s bible, worn out from a lifetime of use. Just holding it in my hands gives me life. But it’s the notes that fill me with wonder. Each thing she hand wrote in the margins of that bible lands in my lap as a treasured gift—a word pointing me to something I might have otherwise missed. I understand the whole of her life better because of these notes on the margins.
Near the end of worship, we invite people to come forward to share “Milestones and Announcements.” We rarely have any announcements, but the milestone line wraps around the front of the sanctuary every week. Sometimes the milestone line is more than half of the people in worship. The line typically includes every child and teen in the house. The youngest race to be in the front of the line and then panic when they can’t remember what they wanted to share. So they step back and think.
Milestones are anything big or small that you want this community to know about. Maybe you lost a tooth or lost a job. Maybe you grew a tooth or found a job. Not all milestones are “good.” Sometimes they are hard, like the death of a loved one or a pet. One by one, people publicly share these moments from their lives.
Most of the kids wait the entire service for this moment when they are celebrated and noticed. It is often why they want to come to worship. They take a small stone from the pile, share their Milestone and drop the stone into the Milestone jar. When they are finished, the rest of us yell, “MILESTONE!”
But it’s not just kids. I know adults who show up for worship specifically because they have a milestone to share. Sometimes they come breathlessly into worship, “The weekend has been crazy, but I just had to come and share my milestone.” If it’s the first time someone has the courage to share one, then they inadvertently share two, the first being, “It’s my first milestone!”
It’s also in this line of people that we celebrate and notice God’s faithfulness to us. Those artists, again, leading us to dependence upon God. It comes out in celebration—of God’s provision along the way: Jeremiah’s milestone that he’s finished the writing process or that they have a complete cast for a play. Typically, the community responds with great enthusiasm during these major life moments-delighting with one another. The church erupted in joy when DeAnne shared that she had finished the mural, completing it with her signature.
Most of my people live out in the margins, and we as a whole church certainly do, too. The truth of our ministry on the edge is that we own four plastic totes full of church supplies. That’s it. Although my people give regularly, generously, this community cannot pay for this part time pastor on their own. We are dependent financially upon partner churches, our local and national church body, and patrons.
Ultimately, the goal within my denomination is for us to become financially self-sustaining. I wonder if that is to our detriment. It seems in my neck of the woods, that legacy has led to silo churches. Everyone building bigger and better within their own little (or ginormous) worlds the boundary between the center and the margin marked by fine buildings, stable staffing, and a clear sightline to an assumed future together across generation. It’s hard to remember we belong to one another when we are essentially our own self-sustaining cities on a hill.
That sort of self-reliance plays right into the myth of the American cowboy. Do we need more churches who are rugged, individual, self-made? I’m not sure we do. I have said from the very start that our church plant will never be self-sustaining. We are far from American pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps Lone Rangers. We are gloriously dependent—or, rather, interdependent.
Of course, it’s humbling to be on the receiving end of financial support. But we also get to model reliance upon God to an entire denomination. There are many places in our denomination hasn’t had to do that in a while. We have had a wealth of programs, beautiful physical buildings and endowments. Who are we if we strip away programs, buildings, financial resources?
Well, we are still the church— the church who has no way to exist without dependence upon God. We are a church that leads and informs the mainstream from our fringy hangout in the margins. We get to show up and say, “Okay, God, what do you have for us today?” That makes us a church bathed in prayer. We’re a church that recognizes every moment as a moment in which we are being held by Jesus. Each day becomes a testimony of God’s faithfulness to all of us—in the mainstream and the margins alike. Milestone.