"Here's your sign."
It's not what you expect in church, certainly not in the "Joys and Concerns" order of the service.
Unless you are a part of Eccles United Methodist Church, located deep within the Hell Hole Swamp community of Lowcountry, South Carolina.
I took my sign, handed to me by Diane Thomas, one of my fellow congregants, and noted the twinkle in her eye. It was a 10 x 5 inch piece of white foam board strung with a piece of beige twine end to end, making it clear that the sign was to be worn. On the sign were four handwritten words, double lined with black and various other accent colors.
It read, "Sharon is under construction."
I looked up at my husband, Bill, who already had his sign hung around his neck and displayed across his chest, and at the other seventeen attending members in process of hanging their signs. Everyone was smiling. A few words were shared here and there as Diane continued crisscrossing the aisle handing each individual their sign. I understood that we were wearing these signs for the duration.
Neither the content of the sign nor the sign itself, really, were the subject of the sermon that day nor did it coordinate with the range of songs we sing every Sunday. It was a tribute to our pastor, Bill Burke and his wife, Judy, who were leaving us to journey on in their service to others.
"Bill has always said we are a work in progress," Diane announced before initiating the newest Eccles UMC ritual - the hanging of the sign. Of all of the words Bill gave us over his eight years of ministry, these rang truest in that moment. Though we did not speak of it again - there were other last minute exhortations and ways of saying goodbye to come and go - we were in agreement in the wearing of the sign throughout our service that we have been and still are "under construction."
I have been a part of this small, lovely, cinder block church of twenty pews seating an average of fifteen members for about seven years now, and I am only just beginning to understand the depth at which service is valued and relationships are formed. Though in many ways I am still an observer more than a participant, that says more about me than it does about the warmth with which I am embraced without fail each time I join in the activities and services of the Eccles UMC community.
I marvel at this and at the magnitude of ministry that flows from the service of so few. In my short time, I have watched mostly as these men and women created a meal service to people who are elderly and shut off physically from attending church, a "My Father's Food Pantry" ministry to the surrounding community, a weekly soup kitchen, and in collaboration with several other church communities, a free medical clinic for the uninsured. Fifteen members ... FIFTEEN members ... what, I wonder, could we all do in service to others if we simply joined together in this kind of effort?
Our closing hymn was a fairly new one for us, "A Hymn of Promise," and its first verse was instructive:
In the bulb there is a flower, in the seed, an apple tree;
In cocoons, a hidden promise: butterflies will soon be free!
In the cold and snow of winter there's a spring that waits to be,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.
Singing these words, tears flowing freely down my cheeks (and I suspect others), I felt in part as though we were experiencing a Winter's death, saying goodbye to one season that we might welcome another, a Spring yet unrevealed.
It seemed appropriate suddenly, even more so, that as we sang through our tears, we also wore signs of assurance across our hearts.
We are still "under construction," and for this I am so very grateful.