About a week after we arrived at our new pastorate in Stephens, Arkansas (pop. 891), my parents came up to visit and to help care for our newborn daughter. That weekend, I took my dad on a walking tour of the town (it didn’t take long). As we were passing by one house, a man called out to us from his front yard: Are you lost? Do you need help? He knew from one look that we were from out of town.
It was my first lesson about how, as a small-town pastor, you can forget any semblance of anonymity. Everyone knows where you live, because the parsonage has been in the same place for ninety years. It doesn’t take long before everyone knows what car you drive, because it’s the one that’s always parked in front of the church building. New faces in town are rare, and once you add in the high-profile nature of your position, most folks in town know who you are before you can even introduce yourself.
It seems everyone in town knows when I am running and getting in shape and when I am slacking off and getting fat. And they don’t mind telling me about it. There’s a saying that pops up whenever this type of small-town omniscience pops up: “only in a small town.”
But this post is not going to be about the hardship of “life in a fishbowl,” even though it does come with certain challenges. Today, I want to talk about the blessing of being known.
A year and a half ago, my three-year-old daughter had a seizure on my son’s seventh birthday. She seized for over an hour as we waited for an ambulance to finally arrive and take her to the emergency room in a nearby town, where they finally got it stopped. She was then flown to the children’s hospital in Little Rock, where she stayed a couple of days before we came home. It was a terrible scare, but my little girl was fine.
Our church family was wonderful, with many making the over two-hour drive to see us in the hospital. We arrived home to find the lawn mowed and more shows of love and concern. It was a good example of the Body of Christ acting in love, just as God intends, and I trust that people and pastors in churches in every setting have a similar testimony of feeling God’s love through His church.
But then I went to the post office, and the garbage collector, who had seen the ambulance at the house, asked me how my daughter was doing, showing genuine concern. It was probably the first real conversation I had with this man, but he knew our situation and cared. I went to our town’s little grocery store, and I knew before I walked in that the people there would already know some of the story and want to know how Hope was doing. For months afterward, at the bank, on the streets, at city functions, people asked about my daughter.
This past week has been another lesson in small-town love.
About two weeks ago, my mom passed away. Upon returning from being with my family in Houston, the outpouring of love has been unbelievable. My church family has, of course, been great. Two of them even made the seven-hour journey to be at the funeral. But again, the love has not been restricted to our little congregation. We have received cards, meals, and words of sympathy from other churches and individuals all over town.
I am generally an introverted person. I am not someone who easily mixes and mingles, “pressing the flesh” all over town. Time alone, unwatched and unhindered, appeals to me. But I have discovered how God uses even the dreaded “fishbowl” to deliver His love to His children. Maybe not “only in a small town,” but especially here.