Following the memorial service, I stood in the foyer of the church beside the grieving widow, as I had so many times before. This was all part of a funeral … the awkward shuffling of feet as people passed by the family members of the deceased, mumbling something that neither the family nor the mumbler would remember 10 minutes later. It was all part of the elaborate goodbye dance, and pastoring had led me to this dance floor more often than I preferred.
It was typical—the quiet restraint, the organ music in the background—except that this time the grieving widow was my mother. I was doing double duty this time, one part consoling pastor, two parts inconsolable son. Somehow I’d managed to get through the service without losing my composure, but it was crumbling fast. My father was too young to be in a casket, too alive to be dead and too important to be gone.
Mom and Dad were amazing. They lived in the same house for 40 years, farming the same spot of ground that never gave them quite enough to get ahead, but provided enough hope that perhaps next year would be better. In the year of his death, he was farming with tractors that were 25 years old, doing the same thing his father had done. Sometimes I wonder if he could have comprehended how I consider my 3-year-old laptop “archaic.”
Dad had always been bigger than life to me. From the time I was old enough to ride the tractor with him, I remember his hands. They were more like paws, really … thick in the middle, with powerful wrists. Only a toddler at the time of Dad’s death, my eldest son is older now, and his hands remind me of my father’s. Sometimes when we walk hand-in-hand in the woods, it’s hard to believe it’s only my son and me. My father’s hands are there in mine. For a moment, I can forget how far I’ve gone from the farm.
Following his funeral, the crowd mingled in the church reception hall. This is the custom in rural America. Chores can wait. Stories are told. Potato salad is consumed. This combination of oral tradition and potluck dining is vital to our grieving process. We’re not sure what role it plays, but we cannot imagine a funeral without it.
Three men stood off by themselves talking. They stared at their dressy cowboy boots and pondered mortality. They were all acquaintances of one another, although not necessarily close friends. My father was the common denominator, and now the equation was forever changed. Quietly, the three turned and walked toward us.
One of them started, “Delores … we want to talk to you about the farm for a moment. We have talked about it … If you sell your farm equipment right now, you won’t get much.” He was right. There is no money in North Dakota in January, and there won’t be until wheat is harvested in August. No one’s really sure where the money goes, but on a good year, it appears to everyone in the fall.
The second man chimed in, “We think you ought to wait until the fall to sell … and we want to farm the land for you this year using your equipment, no charge. You just buy the fuel. That way, you’ll get one more year’s income before you retire.”
At the time, I really didn’t comprehend what they were saying. Perhaps it was the gravity of the moment, but it didn’t sink in until much later that these three men were volunteering to take on 1/3 of an operating farm. They were all busy farmers in their own right—now they were also unlikely volunteer partners on an additional nearly 1,000 acres of land. That summer they donated hundreds of hours of labor to provide for my mother what I could not—one more year of independence before retirement.
Just over eight years have passed since my father’s funeral. The other night, sitting on the deck with friends, I told this very story. They stared in unbelief at the sacrifice these men had made, and for the first time, I began to realize the incredible display of community that I had witnessed in this selfless act.
In the church world, anonymity-addicted baby boomers held up accountability as the holy grail of community. There was so little accountability in the lives of boomers that to dive into a small group and actually allow people to speak truth to them was a radical thing. While accountability is important, it is not the beginning and end of community. What we needed that day at my father’s funeral was not accountability; it was mature community … the kind rarely found in any regularly meeting group, because it cannot be scheduled and refuses to be programmed.
Mature community does not necessarily refer to the maturity that the members have achieved, but rather the level of maturity they aspire to. I have met mature believers who experienced immature community because that was all their group was interested in … 20 minutes of Bible study, a song or two and hours of inane chatter about golf. Mature community delves into deep issues … how do we provide for the widows among us? It doesn’t propose to have all the answers, but it will ask the questions, and in questioning, it will grow into the answers.
Mature community is developed long-term. Given the turnover rate of pastors in America, it is no wonder that mature community is rarely developed. In Western culture, where “pastor” is interpreted as a noun rather than a verb, our focus changes every time we change the bold print name on the letterhead. If you’ve ever attended a seeker-friendly, purpose-driven, small group-oriented, worship-centered, family-focused, outward-focused church and never lost your seat in all those changes of focus, you know what I mean. The men who stepped in when Dad passed away had all known each other for 20 years plus. Perhaps you will never have 20-year neighbors, but surely we can find a way to stay better connected and focused than we have in recent years.
Finally, mature community manifests itself in the selflessness of its members. At the risk of frightening the John Birchers among us, let me put it this way: For us to experience the fullness of community, each one of us will periodically be called upon to sacrifice our desires for the good of the community. The men who farmed our land that fateful summer received no personal gain. My father never returned the favor. They did so knowing that some day, the community would take care of them … but even if that day never came, this was worth doing, because someone in the community needed them.
As we move further along the spectrum from what our parents knew of Christianity to what God is speaking to our generation, let’s not divorce ourselves of some of the best of what they held to … that we are all in this together. To take care of one another is to take care of our community, and to take care of our community is to provide a stable platform for generations to come.