Laura Stern: Cut off or cast away?

As a tough winter gives way to spring, a pastor on an island cut off many times during the season wonders if her church has fared a little too well in isolation.

The American landscape changed this winter. With record low temperatures, snow, ice and wind, backyards and city centers filled with snowmen, abandoned cars, icescapes and broken tree limbs.

On the remote island where I pastor, we saw children sledding down snow-covered dunes and icicles dangling from T-shirt shop signs. Perhaps most unusual for this island accessible only by boat, however, was the sight of ferries tied up in the harbor, going nowhere.

To a certain extent, Ocracoke residents accept isolation. Heavy fog, strong winds and maintenance issues often result in canceled ferries. When the ferries do go, they travel at 10 mph and take nearly three hours to cross the sound. Travel north on the island is not much easier, as there are frequent complications with the channel, roads or bridges. One simply cannot go anywhere fast or easily.

But even by our standards, this winter has been particularly trying. The polar vortex’s strong winds, ice and power outages left island residents grounded for days. Nor’easters whipped up the waters so badly that one passenger ferry got stranded for 10 hours. On several occasions, our remote island became a cut-off island.

This hiatus has practical implications. Prescriptions fail to get delivered, mail stops arriving, and dumpsters fill to overflowing. Some tourists cannot start their vacations; other tourists cannot end theirs. Everyone starts eating locally caught fish.

Yet unless one is in dire need of a root canal, day-to-day life remains pretty much the same. People continue to go to the post office for news and gossip, regardless of whether they actually get their mail. Kids dangle from monkey bars, wetsuit-clad surfers paddle out for waves, and old-timers swap stories.

Church life, like the rest of community life, goes along much the same as before. People drop by the church office with bulletin announcements or hymn requests, not with longing or existential angst.

But is this a good thing? It seems to me that the ability to continue on, regardless of being physically cut off, speaks highly of a community and poorly of a church.

The village has both the infrastructure to survive and the type of people who fare well on their own. Yet it is concerning when the stranded church works much the same as the connected church.

God told Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1 NRSV). The promised land is a land beyond our own tightknit communities, a land that is foreign, a land where kinship is defined by faith, not blood. The work of God’s church, the life of a Christian and the way of salvation all require seeking lands outside the familiar.

When the biggest concern of an isolated church is whether or not the poinsettias will get delivered, there is a problem. It’s not that I want the daily work of the church to be canceled; I want it to feel inadequate.

As we go about worship, study and fellowship while stranded, I want us to feel a palpable sense of loss and impatience -- to model ourselves after Tom Hanks in the movie “Cast Away,” relying on our creativity and resourcefulness, all the while scanning the horizon for signs of renewed contact.

Perhaps our easy acceptance of isolation is actually just relief. The world and its constant needs, tragedies, heartbreak and turmoil can crush even the most hardy of souls. Well-intentioned organizations bombard local churches with requests for funds, goods and participants in their particular cause. The temporary reprieve of isolation limits both the scope of ministry and the solutions required.

But however tempting it is to retreat, the true church is focused outward. William Temple’s maxim “The church is the only society on earth that exists for the benefit of nonmembers” speaks to orientation as well as evangelism.

While our church is literally cut off, many other churches are metaphorically cut off, operating as if they too were on isolated islands. Yet if churches continue to hunker down, fooling themselves into thinking they are doing so only for the duration of the storm, they risk being separated from the work of God’s kingdom as well as one another.

Perhaps as the spring breeze replaces the winter gale, the church will sense the Holy Spirit blowing it in a new direction.