I have been a pastor through four decades of church ministry, (1971-2015) and am sorrowfully and keenly aware of the major changes that have taken place throughout many faith communities. I have witnessed the decline of many local congregations in central Pennsylvania. I rarely officiate weddings, and I can’t remember the last time I had the joy of pouring water on a little head in baptism.
Looking back, I can see that many of the changes that have taken place did indeed begin about 20 years ago. I was sad to see so few people responding to our worship services, even as we worked diligently to provide good music, meaningful discipleship and effective worship and preaching.
As my wife and I left for a Lake George, N.Y., vacation those now-many years ago, we left behind a church for a couple of weeks that was clearly feeling the strain of cultural change. We were even considering whether we could support a Vacation Church School that summer of 1995. All we could do, it appeared, was to fondly remember the glorious days of 150 children singing “the B-I-B-L-E.” As we packed the car, only 11 children had registered.
In the midst of gloom and doom feelings that seemed to follow our thoughts to New York, lo and behold there was a powerful thunderstorm around Albany that first night. We pulled off the road to the parking lot of a huge shopping center. People were standing everywhere and a chorus of “oohs” and “ahhs” filled the air. Everyone was out of their cars and trucks, young and old alike. We wondered what on earth was happening. So, we looked, too. Filling the beautiful evening sky was an amazingly brilliant double rainbow that blazed from fully left to fully right. There may have even been a few pots of gold involved!
My wife and I were captured by the image of hundreds of people in a shopping center parking lot who stopped their lives for a while to watch a covenant sign. It had a miracle-quality feeling about it. In that moment of beauty and grace, our fears and doubts fled. We experienced that God could still speak to this world and that people would still listen and watch. All these years later, as summer vacation time approaches again, that memory surfaces once more and the memory transforms our lives of faith.
The wise seminary professor told me a long time ago: Christianity is a vocation with no vacation. No matter the month or the season, God is worthy of worship and praise. In every day and place, there is an acceptable time to serve God with justice, mercy and love. Summer rainbows are a bonus.
Charles Fitzgerald is pastor of St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in State College.