Tuesday, April 10, 2012
Crowds and Mountains
It was a sunrise service, the first I've participated in since beginning my ministry. You need to get up early for those services , and I'm usually up before sunrise anyway. But this was an hour's drive away from Annandale. So the alarm went off at four.
Waking at four for a four-thirty departure really does mark a day as different. And so into the Prius I went, and drove through the dark traffic-less morning. From the Beltway to 270 and northward I drove, quaffing coffee the whole way, as alertness began to seep into my mind. From 270, I hopped off onto Route 109, and moved westward, into the Ag Reserve, that sweet expanse of land in the north of DC suburban Montgomery County untainted by sprawl. The destination was a mountain, although this was hardly Denali or the Eiger.
It was the menacingly named Sugarloaf Mountain, which sits amiably in the Ag Reserve offering up lovely bucolic vistas to any with the courage and stamina required to drive up to the top. At an overlook facing the sunrise, an amphitheater sits, and there every year in recent memory the pastor of the Presbyterian church in nearby Boyds, Maryland has organized a sunrise service, helping direct the joint effort of a team of congregations.
I arrived in the darkness, and walked over to the overlook, which sat in the faint light of a setting moon. People milled about like shadows, and I settled into a semi-central position, where I chatted with another pastor for a while. Cars arrived. And arrived. And arrived. From the overlook you could see them coming, headlights clearly visible on the country roads. The place began to fill up, and light began to brighten the air around us.
As the scope of the amphitheater became clear, it became equally clear that it would be a challenge to fill it with even my large-venue voice. Open air is rather unforgiving acoustically, and no matter how good the sermon, it ain't nuthin' if folks can't hear it.
Thankfully, one of the five other pastors helping lead had brought a portable powered lectern and amp. The light grew brighter, and then brighter still, and I realized that I wouldn't need to read my sermon from my iPhone after all.
And the gathered group grew, and grew, and grew some more. It was a beautiful, beautiful morning, clear and crisp but not frigid, and the light cast into the sky seeped smooth and gold-blue even into the dark. When the time came for me to preach...for preaching had been my assignment...I looked out over the gathered faces and realized that this would be the largest crowd I'd ever preached to in my just-over-seven years of small church ministry. The tally, confirmed by thems who counted later, was somewhere around five hundred. Five times the capacity of my sweet little church. Not a wee kirk. Not a family. But a crowd. A throng.
And yet not yikes. My public speaking anxiety dropped away years ago, worn away to nothing by years of weekly practice. Whether it's fifteen or five hundred, it's almost the same so long as you're prepared.
When you've gotten to know a little church, every face is familiar. Every face has a name, and a backstory, and you understand the character and interrelation of the community. But when you bump up over one-fifty, the group is different. You do not know them, and even those you do know can get lost in the sea of faces. They do not deeply know each other, not all of them, and while the web of human connectedness weaves them all together through mutual friendships and/or Kevin Bacon, they are a different sort of entity.
But that difference was difference in a good way. As the organizing pastor put it, every one of them was only there because they wanted to be. And that made the gathering a church in the real and best sense of the word. So with the sun rising, we sang, and heard scripture, and when it came time to preach, I did.
It was fine, in the best sense of fine.
And then we sang some more, and gathered up an offering for a local charity, and prayed, and with alleluias were blessed on our way.
It was a delightful beginning to what would prove to be a really joyful Easter day.