After 341 days of living on the road, we were just 24 days short of one year as we drove to our last stop in Sweet Home, Oregon. The drive through the Willamette National Forest on the McKenzie Pass-Santiam Pass Scenic Byway was bursting with so many wildflowers it looked like early spring on the top of the mountains. George Washington Carver once said, "I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in." I wholeheartedly agree.
Among the lava beds atop the mountain we passed from time to time little patches of snow so that finally we were moved to get out of the van and touch it, especially because just a couple hours west, the Willamette Valley was experiencing record high temperatures.
As we pulled into our RV Park in Sweet Home we noticed the lumber mill across from Foster Lake seemed to have picked up a bit after all these years. As we passed it, I enjoyed imagining the employees there, hot, itchy and sweating, enjoying a jump in the lake for a swim after work to cool off.
The congregation in Sweet Home Oregon holds some memories for us that go all the way back to August of 1983 when Mark and I had been married for over four years. I was twenty-one and he was twenty-four. Our firstborn child was in her first year of life so Mark was juggling, fatherhood, training to be a preacher, and working full time at a local grocery store. For about three years, just about every Sunday he would be gone all day preaching, mostly for smaller congregations who were without a preacher. Sweet Home was one of the first congregations that reached out to Mark and invited him to come preach for them.
That was all almost 40 years ago, and still we found that when this congregation sings, it produces perhaps more volume than other groups twice their size. In fact, Mark noted that he felt like he needed to keep one hand on the songbook and the other gripping the pew to keep from being ejected, like maybe they need little signs mounted on the pew in front of you with a seatbelt logo that warns “just jump in and hold on”.
As always, the congregation in Sweet Home was very welcoming and incredibly generous. Sweet Home’s preacher, Dave Miller, perhaps twenty years ago did what a lot of men only consider doing, and that is retiring from a secular job in order to preach full time. After morning worship, we were given multiple offers to plug in our van at different individual’s homes to keep our cat alive in the 109 degree heat and Delbert and Debbie Goss opened up their beautiful country home to us for lunch. After a good long chat, we spent the rest of the afternoon with Nick and Juanita Hutchens who told us an inspiring story of how a logger in Sweet Home took note of the warnings of high winds approaching when the wildfires were headed the way of Sweet Home, but instead of waiting to see what might happen, he had all his crews and logging buddies load their cats onto lowboys, fueled everything up, filled to capacity every single water truck available and used the water first on the power poles because he realized that as dry as all the vegetation was, if a power pole went down in that wind, the fire would be completely out of control by the time the Forest Service could reach them. Sure enough, a fire did start and quickly grew to 15 acres, but this group of ordinary citizens worked together to put the fire out and save the city--- an accomplishment quite noteworthy, seeing that the fire had started just two miles from the little town of Sweet Home. Without their personal initiative and forethought, there is not doubt that the town of Sweet Home would probably not exist today. What a lesson in the reality that we are really in charge of our own well-being because even the most effective government agencies cannot always move fast enough to save you.
The same could be said spiritually speaking. If you are not growing spiritually, a kind of fire is headed your way, and you have no time to wait for someone to come along and take over the fire hose of your life. If you are about to go up in flames, it’s time to move. It’s time to repent or perish. Others can often help you, and are more than willing (Galatians 6:1ff), but more times than not, only you can motivate yourself to repent, praying for your own forgiveness (Acts 8:22ff). For that logger, Sweet Home was his town and he cared about it. Let’s care most about the part of us that lives on throughout eternity. Let’s save ourselves! (Acts 2:40) no matter what we must sacrifice to do so.
Sometimes smaller congregations may pause and wonder what they have accomplished. The answer is always “quite a bit”, actually. Your labor is never in vain in the Lord (1 Cor. 15:58). Just giving a young man, like Sweet Home did, the valuable opportunity to develop preaching skills means that all the souls these young men go on to bring into relationship with God, were brought to God because a small congregation was there to get him started. All that Mark accomplished these forty years since, is in part to this little congregations’ willingness to be a part of the process. May congregations always remember that a good portion of the fruits of our labor are not seen locally, rather, those fruits are continually being borne by the ones who once came your way, were watered, then went on to bear fruit in other parts of the world. .
The church of Christ in Sweet Home will always be a special group to us because not only did they say to Mark "Come preach for us" when he was just getting started, Dave and Linda Miller housed our son while he got his schooling at Oregon State, saving him a lot of debt and gifting him a family life.
Satan has tried and tried, through various spiritual wildfires to take down Sweet Home --- spiritual wildfires that consumed many souls when I was growing up during the seventies and the decades that followed when too many churches in the Northwest suddenly decided Jesus didn’t really mean what He said about marriage, divorce and remarriage (Matthew 5:31-32; 19:3-9) so they traded in their wives for a newer, more interesting ones because “of course, God's grace is enough to cover all sin and grace will abound” (Romans 6:1ff). Others took a sort of middle ground approach of "love the one you're with" (no matter who she belonged to (Matthew 14:4) and still others thought they’d opt out and in essence had the policy of “Don’t ask. Don’t tell. And please, please, please don’t talk about it” so that they could at least enjoy a feeling of unity by not discussing the full counsel of God. Sweet Home didn’t do that. They were too hearty, “Like a piece of oak that the head of an axe bounces off the top off as you try to split it” as Mark put it.
If you are a smaller congregation, you are making a huge difference for good in this world, and you most assuredly make the world a better place when, even during spiritual wildfires, you just keep giving the souls around you the “full counsel of God” (Acts 20:20; 27).
Sweet Home Church of Christ
Dave Miller - Evangelist
3702 Long Street
Sweet Home, OR 97386