Not long after moving to Oskaloosa and beginning my new call here at St. Paul, I came to the church one morning and found a man sprawled out on the office door steps. He had a heavy-looking pack beside him, and he appeared to be sunning himself while listening to music on a bluetooth speaker.
I approached the steps and the man quickly began to gather his things, apologizing profusely. He said, "I thought the building was abandoned. I never see anyone here and the windows are all covered." I assured him that there was indeed good life inside this building, and reminded him that people hadn't been at the church due to COVID-19 precautions and closures. But his window comment has always stuck with me.
After asking around, I was told that the yellowed, plexi/plastic coverings had been placed over the stained glass windows years ago in an effort to protect the windows. The thought, at the time, was that the windows would not only be protected from would-be vandals, but they would also be better protected from the elements.
This summer, the church's Administration Board, which oversees Building and Grounds projects, and I met with a stained glass company to get an estimate on maintenance and repair of the stained glass windows. During that meeting, we learned that the coverings every church was scrambling to put over their windows years ago to protect the windows, were actually causing more harm than good by trapping moisture between the covering and the glass window, causing more rapid deterioration than would occur with no covering at all. The window expert shared with us that the window covers could be removed from any window that did not need repair.
Out of a desire to be cautious, it was decided we would remove one window cover to determine if we should do more. So, last week, members of the Cohrt family removed the window cover over the stained glass window right next to the western office steps to the church (by the double glass doors). The change was immediate, breathtaking, and stark. Sure some paint and some clean-up needed done, but the one little change on the outside offered a more accurate reflection of the church and the people and wild love and inclusion sought on the inside. Of the 36 stained glass windows, all but 14 have covers that could be removed today with the right amount of help and equipment.
All of this has made me wonder about all of the ways we people of God have covered ourselves with what we thought would protect us, only to find it was deteriorating us instead. Have we held on to old ways of working and being that felt comforting once, but now choke out the light of growth that comes from trying something new? Have our hearts remained closed off to others only to leave us wondering why we feel so isolated? What would it mean to remove the old, weathered, yellowed coverings around our souls? Might we find that the beauty and light of God that is in us is just waiting to burst out from behind the barriers of our own making so that others might see them as well?
I don't know, but I hope you'll join me in finding out. Maybe a fresh start for our spiritual lives comes pane by pane, as we chip away at everything we thought would protect us but hasn't. Maybe we'd find the truth that has been staring at us all along: That protective layers often don't keep the damaging elements out, they keep us sealed in.
Uncovering the beauty and light of God within,
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen was called as the pastor of St. Paul Congregational UCC in June of 2020. Prior to her call to St. Paul, Pr. Melissa worked as a hospice chaplain in the Ames, IA area, following pastorates at rural churches in Central Iowa and Southern Illinois. Pr. Melissa is a second-career pastor with a background in agribusiness and production & supply operations. She received her M.Div. from Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, and holds a MA Ed. in Adult Education and Training, and a BA in Organizational Communications.