When people hear about the Tobacco Trail Church—our little community for runners and lovers of the outdoors in Durham, North Carolina, they are typically excited and intrigued. “Wow, you worship outdoors? Right on the trail?” I see their eyes light up. We talk theologically about concepts like Interruption. Like when we welcome the biker who passes by in the middle of reading scripture. Rather, than turn inwardly to the Gospel on the pages, we pause, greet the cyclist, and then pick up with the reading. It seems to fit, just as the Holy Spirit moves unpredictably as wind through the trees and the birds sing prayers to God that find harmony with our prayers.
And yet, sometimes we get attacked.
Last Wednesday, as folks were milling about making ready for worship on a soggy, but otherwise sunny late-afternoon at the start of Lent, my oldest son, age eight, ran at me like he was on fire or had been attacked by bees.
“My brother has been attacked by dogs.”
My four year old had been playing on the nearby playground and two unleashed pit bulls ran at him from fifty or more feet away, knocked him down, and were walking across his back. He said that he felt their mouths on him. There were no obvious bite marks, only scrapes from the incident.
When I looked up from the hysterical eight year old, I saw the hysterical and sobbing four year old ambling slowly in our direction. The dog wasn’t far behind.
I yanked the dog by his choke collar and dragged him back in the direction of his unhurried owner who until now I had not seen except maybe in the corner of my eye walking leisurely toward his dog.
Not so leisurely, the owner slapped at my arm and grabbed his dog back.
“You better get your hands off my dog. You didn’t have to grab my dog. Your son didn’t get hurt. Now get on back with your family,” he said with threats in his voice.
I responded, jaw dropped at the lack of remorse, “I did exactly what I would have done with my own dog.”
And then the scene came to a head, at least for me. Me, in a black cassock and cincture, sensing the eight year old at my left and now my wife and crying four year old behind me. The owner, bowed up with the out-of-control animal now held by the collar, saying again, “You better get on back with your family.”
Somehow I did get on back with my family. And God intervened and infused peace where there had been violence. I could not hold back my tears as I began the liturgy:
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
(Psalm 51:7-11 NRSV)
Why do we worship outdoors? Why would we put up with dogs, distractions, strangers invested in our failure, our humiliation. We retreat inside during the winter months. Why not every month?
I can answer the question with all my heart, because it’s what Jesus did. In his steps has not lost purchase on my life, I am proud to confess. Jesus got outside and was among the people. But to do as Jesus did or does is what we all claim and if one way or another, we are all living that way, well good for us. But for our little church, we need—no we must be outside. For us, this is how we worship and proclaim the hope of the world.
Our church is made up of restless people. In the winter months, our people miss the outdoors. They long for the trail. They need the green spaces. I need the wind to help me along through the liturgy. I need the birds to fill in with music, and the runners that I know by name to swiftly cruise by just on time, like clock-work when we invoke or say the prayers of God’s people. And admittedly, strangely, we need the dogs and the people who tell us to get on back to our family. So, week after week, we return to the trail and pray that God will protect us even as God calls us to make friends with an all too often, unfriendly world.
Sure, I’ll call the police if those dogs are off leash again, but that’s not the final word. I don’t have the first clue about what God is doing in the life of the man and his dogs. But I can hope for a turn, just as I hope God is turning something in me. Lent has begun in earnest. As we say in the world of athletics, Bring It.
Rev. George Linney, III is Pastor of the Tobacco Trail Church in Durham, North Carolina. Learn more at www.tobaccotrailchurch.com.