Walk into St. Paul’s Lutheran Church on a Monday and you’ll be greeted with a distinct smell. And not a pleasant smell at that! The church has embarked on a project to refinish their pews. I’m not sure if it coincided with the start of my attending worship there weekly, but it did seem fortuitous. I attend worship there most Sundays because I’m no longer serving full-time in a church. I’m home with my daughter. I’m focusing on writing. Like the pews I, too, am in need of some refinishing. Of stripping. Of sanding. Of refining. Of making new again.
At St. Paul’s the pew refinishing project came about as many church projects come about – in preparation for a big celebration. That would be the 100th birthday of the church building. For 100 years people of faith have been walking through the church doors to find hope, solace, and peace. For 100 years music has echoed through the building. For 100 years sins have been confessed and forgiven. For 100 years hearts have been broken and healed. For 100 years people have wrestled with the big questions of life and death and faith and doubt. Through it all, the church pews supported the bodies of those present. Weak, strong, vulnerable, hopeful, hurting, young, aging, and growing bodies. At some time or another anyone who came to St. Paul’s touched those pews.
What stories those pews could tell. The warmth of families gathered together. The gossip heard. The secrets confessed. The memories etched into the very fiber of the pews. The melodies and harmonies of every hymn in the book pulsating through them. God’s word proclaimed in each grain of wood. These pews have stories. Life. Love. Grace. They tell a story of a particular group of people living in a particular place. So after years of supporting the faith of so many and witnessing so much, the pews have their turn for rest. For refinishing.
The process and attention given to each pew is long and arduous. It’s also prayerful and holy. Calming and meditative. Each pew garners the full attention of the workers for a few days. Moving. Cleaning. Stripping. Sanding. Finishing. In gratitude for the decades of support, the workers carefully refinish each pew; trusting that their past will continue to nourish and support the church in the future.
By Easter the two sides of the church had been completed so that it is unmistakable to see the difference from the not-yet finished center section. The refinished, stripped, and sanded pews stand in their original, lighter color. The weeks of work are evident to anyone who enters the sanctuary. To sit on a refinished pew is to sit upon decades of history. To sit down is to continue to be a part of the faith community striving and struggling to live as God’s people. But to look at each pew, you see a difference.
That difference in the pews goes beyond simply a color change. It’s not just from what is seen on the outside, but the work that went into them that makes the difference. That difference goes to the heart of living as a disciple of Jesus. That difference is our call in this world. Jesus called to the disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” (Matthew 16:24-26). That difference is what I’m striving toward this year. The work done on the pews taught me about the refinishing work I need to do. I’ve witnessed the pew workers day after day, week after week. They work for hours with their hands calloused and their backs hunched over. They work as a team moving the pews back and forth from the sanctuary. Hard, physical, demanding work.
My soul yearns for some of this same refinishing. This denying of myself to find and know Jesus. Some of my own stripping of unhealthy behaviors. Some of my own sanding of rough edges. My own renewal. I don’t know what the outcome will be or whether it’ll be noticeable from the outside. I only know it’s a process that will take work. And struggle. And commitment. And pain. And hope and trust. A process meant to be done in community. Done with this St. Paul’s community that understands the importance of hard, grueling spiritual work that will be sustaining and nurturing.
I have my own ideas of what I need to strip away to live a more God-centered life: attachment to things, envy, acedia. The constant need to be connected through the phone and social media. The desire to please.
I also know that in the process of refinishing it’s important to give thanks to all that is within me, all the places I’ve been, and all the people who have supported me. So I pause first to give thanks. To know that I am a gift and marvelously created in God’s image. That the One who fashioned me before I was born is the One who will continue to mold and shape me.
It is the season of Easter now; the shouts of Alleluia are louder than any shouts of grief and lament at Jesus’ death. Jesus is risen! The future is being made new each and every day in the presence of the empty tomb. “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Each Sunday that we gather for worship at St. Paul’s I sit on these newly refinished pews knowing full well the time and work and attention given to them. I give thanks offering a prayer for this life given and shared. And then I look forward to the hard work of being made new.