Church Under the Oaks

Now that certain restrictions have been lifted for the coronavirus pandemic, our church is going to meet outside. The song (for those old enough to remember) below indicates some of the sentiment our congregation may feel. Although there may not be a dale (“an open river valley in a hilly area”) nearby, or even a vale (“a valley”) of note, we do have the wind, sun, trees, grass, and leaves. There are also sticks, stones, pollen, birds and insects and we may also see occasional birds, snakes, spiders, and foxes, indicating some “wildwood” may be nearby. 

The word wildwood may be familiar to some from a song that Dr William S. Pitts wrote in 1857. It is entitled “Come, come to the church in the wildwood,” and has several verses. Here are the first two and the refrain: 

There’s a church in the valley by the wildwood
No lovelier spot in the dale
No place is so dear to my childhood
As the little brown church in the vale.

How sweet on a clear Sabbath morning
To listen to the clear ringing bells
Its tones so sweetly are calling
Oh come to the church in the vale.

(Oh, come, come, come, come)
Come to the church by the wildwood
Oh, come to the church in the vale
No spot is so dear to my childhood
As the little brown church in the vale.

The song reminds me of my own early church experiences. There were two churches in my rural farming community in Pennsylvania, nestled among the Allegheny mountains, but neither were in the “wildwood.” Many such churches had a cemetery “nestled” nearby, with gravestones marking the remains of former villagers. The churches were also invariably painted white, not brown, but they were “little,” with the average congregation of about 30 or 40, “swelling” to 60 or more at Christmas and Easter.

We did do some things outside, like Sunday School picnics and baptisms—but not in the winter—and our services were always inside. The weather was often unpredictable and disagreeable, not like Texas where, except for the occasional tornado and summer sun, it is safe to meet outside.

Of course, “safety” is the issue these days, with COVID-19 germs potentially lurking behind every face mask and cashier’s plexiglass separator. Meeting outside and following the six-foot separation will hopefully keep any nasty microbes at bay.

Older people (you know who you are) and those with “predisposing medical issues” will need to be especially careful, so the church under the oaks will need a restraining area for them, much like a “holding pen.” No hugging or handshakes, but a thumbs up or (perhaps) elbow bumps will be allowed. Singing will be difficult and muffled if people wear masks, but music may take on a new dimension, much like the ringing of a broken church bell, off in a distant vale.

Be aware: when we meet outside, there could be signs from the heavens: a hawk or vulture circling an area may mark a “dead” church, but a male cardinal could show that the church is “on fire” with red-like (not redneck) zeal.

The last verse of the “wildwood” song is more sobering:

There, close by the side of that loved one

‘Neath the tree where the wild flowers bloom

When farewell hymns shall be chanted

shall rest by her side in the tomb

If thin in terms of theology, the farewell is poetic and sentimental, allowing reflection and medication. That is appropriate in our outside service as well. 

Karl and Joice Franklin
Longing for the Outside