It was a beautiful night. A lot of people came; the band was fantastic. The cost for admission was $20 and one gentleman handed me a hundred and told me to keep the change. The room was fairly vibrating with generosity and love.
It’s times like this, of course, when living in small town and being known to everyone is a beautiful thing. I remember once a conversation about going to church; about everyone’s ideas about “spirituality” and the sort-of individual quest for meaning so many seem to be on now—I take this class, that class … I walk in the woods, etc. I know you can find meaning in those places and most certainly a respite from the wearing world, but the person speaking made a good point: “that’s all great, but your yoga teacher isn’t going to bring you a casserole when your mom dies.”
I’ve never taken yoga so I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I do know that to be a part of something larger than oneself most definitely has its benefits, especially in times of need. I have witnessed the casserole-bringing in action for the four years I’ve been a pastor. It’s real. It’s profound. It brings you to your knees.
Small towns can be exhausting because you have no choice but to know everyone. You can’t go to the post office in under 20 minutes—you will always run into someone you know and it will always be a long conversation. Sometimes this feels oppressive, but in your time of need it’s everything. It’s all things, it’s … surreal, when you learn just how generous and eager to be of help all of your neighbors are.
I remember with perfect clarity the day I was sitting in church, after I had gotten out of the hospital, in the summer of 1987. I was in church, the one I had grown-up attending, alone that day, stretched across the pew in my leg brace, and when we came to the prayer list my name was spoken out loud. I had no idea, no idea that that an entire church had been praying for me the entire time I was in the hospital. And believe me when I tell you, I spent a lot of time in the hospital that summer.
It meant something; it meant everything, actually, that strangers were praying for me, my mother’s friends were praying for me, kids were praying for me.
I don’t really care about research or evidence that prayer works. I don’t need scientists or gurus to tell me anything about the power of prayer. I’ll tell you this: when an entire room of people intentionally come together to mingle their voices in song and prayer and your name is one of the things that gets lifted up into the sky, it matters, it’s powerful. Things happen.
So, yes, the night was great. We raised a goodly amount of money for Emily to support her in her new adventure. She is alive and well, navigating the world in a chair with wheels now, vibrating on a whole new plane. Everyone who gathered at the Barn Restaurant came out on a rainy spring night to support Emily. It was lots of fun. It’s what small towns do so well—pick up the slack, pitch in, show up.
Mark and Margaret McChesney, the owners of the restaurant, pulled the whole thing together; their staff came to work on a night they usually have off. Mark and Margaret have been doing this kind of thing for as long as they’ve owned the restaurant in this little town (where Mark grew up). They have hosted countless fundraisers: worked their asses off to get silent auction items, cooked all day, cleaned up half the night and then given the proceeds away. Their son, Jack, and his magnificent band, played; their fabulous daughter, Olivia, worked the floor.
Everything about the night was beautiful: all the folks hanging out together and talking; FaceTiming with Emily so everyone could see her and talk with her; the staff working so hard; music and dancing; tacos!
But there was one moment; two actually, that stick out for me. The first was when Margaret took the mic and thanked everyone for participating. She tried to deflect the credit to me, for having planned the event, which was nonsense. I conceived of the event and I asked them to help and they took it from there. So there was Margaret being grateful and humble in her chef outfit, working hard in the shadows the whole night and not wanting to take an ounce of credit.
The other was a fleeting moment and if I was not a photographer I would have missed it. I prowled the room most of the night with my camera; it’s one of my favorite things to do. It allows me a measure of intimacy I would otherwise not have.
I watched as Mark and Margaret went to look at the table with the silent auction items. They were going down the table, looking at each thing with a kind of enthusiasm only those two muster. They’ve been married for a million years now and they are still totally adorable together, still a force of nature. They just bought the most dilapidated house in town and are renovating it together, because running a restaurant and a catering business and the continual restoration of their own gigantic old house isn’t enough. Mark and Margaret’s is a world in which there is always room at the table for one more, always time for a meaningful conversation, always about ten kids spending the night.
I watched them look at all the auction items and so I got to see Margaret gently touch Mark’s arm. And I saw in that moment a whole world, of kindness and love and generosity. Two tired, overworked, underpaid, people, in a moment of real and true and abiding love and generosity that runs so deep they’re probably not even aware of what they’re doing.
It means everything. Stay on the look-out for those moments, those kinds of people and when you find them don’t stray far. They are the treasure of this life; from there springs everything. Amen.