A favorite poem of mine, T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding,” came to mind a few weeks ago as Susie and I joined St. John Lutheran Church, Hollywood Township, in celebrating its 150th anniversary. In Little Gidding, a remote village in the English countryside there is another St. John Church, this one Anglican, which in 2025 will celebrate its 400th anniversary. That church in Little Gidding (there is also a Great Gidding) caught Eliot’s attention in his only visit there in 1936. It’s as if he couldn’t get it out of his mind and so it became the focus of the final poem in his “Four Quartets.”
Eliot, a devout Christian, wrote “Little Gidding” while WWII was raging in England. The London bombings may have caused him to set the poem aside for a time and then pick it up again. What he found in St. John Church was a reason for hope in the face of desolation, destruction, and death. Against the fires of destruction he presents the fire of the Spirit at work in the church, turning endings into beginnings. He writes: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.” So we die to self each morning and rise again renewed. So we death by grace through faith becomes the portal to life. An end becomes a beginning.
Perhaps the most striking and memorable contrast in the poem is that between time and timelessness. For Eliot there is great hope in the simple truth that at work in time is the timeless love of God. That is what he sensed in St. John’s Little Gidding. This was a place where the timeless truths of God held fast and fiery, rich and lasting. This was a place where the dead were spoken of as still alive and the living were dying and rising each day in their baptism. So the most famous of Eliot’s poetic lines come as he considers a country church over 300 years old. He writes: “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”
This is a time in American culture when exploration abounds. Chasing the latest trend, redefining what is God’s to define, reconstructing a hybrid Christianity, self-serving and devoid of truth and evangelism, we seem bent on spiritual destruction. Yet to see St. John Church, Gidding, Huntingdonshire or St. John Church, Hollywood Township, Minnesota is to be confronted by timelessness in the midst of a very messy time. It is to know the value of these places for the first time or for the first time in a long time.
In other words, every one of our churches in the Minnesota South District is a crucial beacon of hope. Not just the buildings but the believers who gather there bear witness to One who does not change, who is the same today as He was yesterday and will be tomorrow (Hebrews 13:8). He is the eternal truth we carry (John 14:6). We are set aside to bear the timeless truth of the Word of God (John 17:17). Churches 15 or 150 years old are not passing fancies of a once-Christian culture. They are not museums or concert halls. They are proclaimers of the timeless truth of Christ and the Scriptures.
We can forget all this on a lazy Sunday morning or after a feisty voters meeting, but this is who we are and who we must be. It is why every community in Minnesota and beyond needs our churches to raise the cross high above the exploration of our times. That great sign calls everyone to make the Crucified and Risen Christ the end of all our exploring, to arrive where the journey of every Christian starts and to know that place for the first time.