A Long Way from Home: Reflecting on 5 Trips to Maine

By the time you find your way to the small village of East Sumner along state highway 219 in southwest Maine you will have already noticed the apparent lack of amenities that most city slickers take for granted. For example there is but one ramshackle convenience store on the far western edge of the hamlet. Whether or not the pumps are actually dispensing gasoline on any given day is a matter of uncertainty. But if the 1980's style dials are indeed turning then it pays, even at $3.79 a gallon, to stop in and buy at least half a tank since the next best chance is a considerable distance downwind and uphill. So that's what I did on Friday morning, less than 24 hours prior to closing the book on our fifth consecutive summer excursion to Maine. After assuring myself that the next day's early start home would include our group's uninterrupted passage at least as far as interstate 95, I replaced the nozzle and headed inside to pay; no "Pay at the pump" in these parts. 

As I waited for the clerk whom I'd never seen before to run my card I noticed a glass top freezer off to one side stocked with none other than Turkey Hill ice cream. This was a big deal for me, having grown up just a few miles from the real Turkey Hill (it's a bluff along the Susquehanna River in southeastern Pennsylvania) and the dairy farm from which the ice cream and other wonderful products originated. In my memory it's still just a local "mom and pop" milking operation. I remarked to the gal behind the counter that I was impressed Turkey Hill had extended its reach into the deep woods of Maine. She smiled and said, "You're with that Bible school group, aren't you?"

Guilty as charged. Of course I was. I was driving a large, gas-guzzling land yacht able to accomodate 15 people and, if I wasn't careful, also likely to roll over like a year-old puppy at the slightest hint of a cross wind. I signed the receipt with a real pen, no computerized signing pad here, said thank you and recommended the cookies 'n cream, then headed back to the van. Like an unsuspecting teenage driver who inadvertently passes a cop parked alongside the road I began mentally reviewing our group's and my own performance throughout the week. How many stupid things had I or someone else done or said that the locals may have noticed?  What had we done or said well that might have won some people over? Even a group on a mission trip can blend in and get lost in an urban metropolis, but not in a rural outpost. In East Sumner our group of Dixie rebs attracts a lot of attention. 

I'm led to believe that most if not all of that attention over the past several years has been positive. That's what the local Yanks I've come to know, most of whom don't waste their words, have told me. I've no reason not to believe them. Our little tikes play with their little tikes. Our teenagers interact, albeit a bit awkwardly at times, with theirs. They work with purpose and determination on Vacation Bible School, firewood, and berry picking. Our older folks, among which I count myself, mingle with their older folks and talk about gardens and church, weather and the kids. We all make fun of one another's unique brand of speaking English. 

The point then is certainly not to say that we'd drawn too much negative publicity to ourselves and thus it's a good thing we left the next morning. Quite the opposite in fact. It's amazing how word gets around in a small town. People observe and report. Good news I think travels just as fast and equally as far as any other type. But it doesn't seem to travel quite as well when we are at home. 

Our little tikes go to travel soccer and piano lessons. Our teenagers are concerned with part-time jobs, extra-curricular activities, and AP courses. And our older folks, among which I count myself, check email on our smart phones and rush from one appointment to the next. When I stop to get gas in Spotsylvania the clerk doesn't ask me if I'm from that church on Leavells Road because I don't even have reason to interact with the clerk, let alone strike up a conversation about ice cream.  

Upon returning from this year's trip to Maine a friend at the church asked me, "So what is it about Maine that makes our youth want to go there so badly year after year?" As I reflect on it I don't think there's anything magical about the place itself...aside perhaps from the enduring hope of next year seeing a moose. Maybe it's just that in Maine we afford ourselves the opportunity to experience, as the welcome sign says after you've crossed the Piscataqua River, "the way life should be."

The marching bands are beating out their cadences and coach's whistles are blowing on school campuses across Spotsylvania County. While the last weeks of August are some of the laziest there are sure signs of the frenetic pace about to return. Thus before it does perhaps it is appropriate to set for ourselves a few goals, Three Quarter Year's resolutions if you will. Let us resolve to give the greatest commandment, "love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind," (Matthew 22:37) its due this year and to teach our kids to create space to do the same. Likewise let's not forget to "Love your neighbor as yourself" (v. 39), paying attention to those we encounter at the bus stop, coffee shop, and should you ever actually find yourself inside one, the gas station. Remember, even if the only people watching are our own children, people are indeed watching, listening, and reporting. They, like the rest of the creation, long for the people of God to take seriously that to which and those to whom they have been called.

Why My Small Group Doesn't Go to Church

Our grand experiment began the first Sunday after Memorial Day and immediately trouble appeared on the horizon...or more accurately the street. "Guess who's coming down the driveway," said my wife. She used that ominous tone that suggests a situation requiring the pronouncement of an authoritative paternal decree. I knew full well who was coming down the driveway. The crowd of 10 children playing in the sandbox, kicking soccer balls, and scanning the stream for rare aquatic species was sure to attract him. I sighed heavily. "I don't suppose it would be very consistent with the whole 'missional' thing for us to send him back home." We considered consulting with the other parents present but it was no use. I knew what I had to do and thus headed out the side door in order to confront "The Aggressor."

Leaning over the required two feet necessary to get in my adversary's grill I asked, "Would you like to come over and play with our kids and their friends? "His head nodded vigorously in the affirmative. "You may. But you need to understand something." Silence, except for the sound of us both beginning to sweat. "At our house we do not call people mean names, especially not 'Butthead.' If you do I will have to ask you to go home. Yes sir?"


And so it went from there. A few minutes later everyone, including "The Aggressor," was chatting merrily and enjoying hot dogs and potato chips. When we finished eating the kids continued their backyard adventures, with different ones providing occasional peace-of-mind reports to us throughout the evening. Meanwhile we parental units discussed issues related to that morning's sermon, ranging from "I'm pretty sure he never told us what word goes in the third blank of the outline," to "I think I really needed to hear this and could do a better job living it out." (See, we do go to church. We just don't meet there for our discussions.) We laughed a lot, puzzled a little, and prayed together. Afterward the kids were rounded up, popsicles distributed, a few lightning bugs caught, and then all headed home.

We had survived. In fact it seemed we rather enjoyed ourselves. The experiment has continued almost every Sunday night throughout the summer, rotating between our several families' homes. When it comes to our house "The Aggressor" has become a regular fixture. There have been burgers, barbecues, crockpots, pancakes, and cold cuts. If someone missed the sermon for some reason there's been no shaming. It simply becomes everyone else's task to summarize. In addition we've been pleasantly surprised by how much our children look forward to the weekly gatherings, having cataloged the unique benefits attributable to each basement and backyard involved in the experiment.

As summer wanes, the days grow shorter, and school approaches our little group is now confronted with the task of defining what it is that we believe makes it valuable. It's no longer an experiment after all. It seems to have become part of our lifestyle. But there's no arguing that it would be simpler in many respects to meet at the church on Sunday morning when everyone's already there and the kids are in Sunday School. Or Wednesday night when there's a big dinner and the nursery is available. Thus the last time we met the question was posed: Why go to this trouble?

For starters we decided there's a comfort level associated with meeting in a home as opposed to an institution. By no means is the institution, i.e. the church, bad. We love it very much and consider its presence, both spiritual and physical, a tremendous and essential blessing. But when you think about it in general terms institutions are usually where knowledge is imparted. Homes are where it is applied. Our homes and the simple meals that are shared there lend themselves to greater depth of relationships...and all you need is to make sure there is a spray bottle of carpet cleaner handy. I also feel it is important to mention that we closely adhere to an unwritten rule: No one is allowed to clean too well before the rest of us show up lest an unattainable precedent be set.

Another one of my personal favorite aspects of home-based church groups is that they combat age segregation. Even if all the kids, teens, and adults do is hang out and eat together before respectively playing, catching a ride to practice, and discussing the week's Bible passage, there is a learning how to live together that is taking place. Older kids are sometimes capable of taking responsibility for younger ones, but maybe they just want to do their homework in the next room. Occassionally they may choose to participate in the adults' discussion. Stranger things have happened.  It just depends on the people involved.

And finally, speaking of the people involved, "The Aggressor" (I should probably stop referring to him as such) would never have become an honorary member of our group or my family had we met at the church. Our hunch, indeed our hope is that inviting people who do not attend church or profess faith in Christ into our homes to share a meal with friends (or friends' kids) is much less of a stretch than inviting them to church for a class. After all normal people do eat with guests from time to time, whereas not everyone goes to church. Granted, we're not hiding the fact that we sit around and talk about Jesus after dinner, but dinner gives us time to chat about the news, tease the kids, and exchange recipes first. For these reasons we think our experiment has been a mild success; one that we hope to build on and invite others to embark upon and see what happens.