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Lakeside Presbyterian Church in Storm Lake, Iowa, throws out an enormous welcome mat


The church welcomes Synod School attendees even as it prepares for thousands of cyclists to roll into town

September 22, 2023

Combined choirs from Lakeside Presbyterian Church in Storm Lake, Iowa, and Synod School attendees offered two anthems during worship on Sunday. (Photo by Mike Ferguson)

Members and friends of Lakeside Presbyterian Church in Storm Lake, Iowa, recently supersized the church’s welcome mat, welcoming scores of visitors attending the Synod School put on annually by the Synod of Lakes and Prairies even as they prepared further hospitality to some of the 29,000 people who were bicycling into town as part of RAGBRAI, the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.

“We’re getting some pews dusted we haven’t had dusted in a while,” joked Tom Daniels, the liturgist during worship at Lakeside. Daniels later offered a prayer “for people we know and people we hope to know.”

Pastor Jenn Olson uncorked acts of welcome not often seen in even the most outgoing churches. Once she’d completed a memorable children’s time helping the young people act out the Jacob’s Ladder account found in Genesis 28, Olson enlisted three young arms to throw rolled-up church T-shirts into the expanded crowd of worshipers.

Synod School voices joined members of the Lakeside Presbyterian Church choir to sing two anthems, “The Majesty and Glory of Your Name” and “Joy in the Morning.” Lakeside’s organist and music director, Barb Wells, said the combined choir ran through the two songs just once each an hour before worship. It went so well, “we had doughnuts” after the brief rehearsal, said Wells, a collaborative pianist at Buena Vista University, where Synod School is held annually. “Most musicians will work for food.”

In addition to leading worship, Olson accompanied some of the hymns with her flute. During her sermon, she invited worshipers to “take a trip” back to three years ago, after the pandemic had shut the doors of most churches. “That was tough,” Olson recalled. “My husband and I learned quickly how to record a service in our living room with our naughty cat, Rocket, and our dog snoring in the background.”

Closing the doors at church for so long was “as if we had announced God had left the building and won’t be back — anywhere,” Olson said. For some of the faithful, “apparently, God is to be found only at the appointed time on Sunday morning and only for an hour — unless that darn preacher talks too long. For so many people, their place to meet God and find community was unexpectedly ripped out of their lives, and they didn’t like it.”

Genesis 28 records Jacob “encountering God in a surprising place and in an unexpected way,” she said. While Abraham and Sarah were Jacob’s grandparents, “he was not what you would call an upstanding kind of guy,” Olson said.

Still, Jacob uses his pillow — a rock — to build a place he names Bethel, the house of God, “a liminal space where heaven and Earth meet,” Olson said. “How about you? Do you have a place where you can steal away and sit quietly and feel peace? For many of you, this sanctuary is your regular place to meet God. For many of you, Synod School is that space. Your thin place might be mountains, forest, the beach or a corner in your home. Maybe you’re one of those lucky folks who can find God wherever you are. Maybe you can give us pointers during coffee hour.”

Psalm 139, which was also read during worship, reminds us there’s “nowhere we can go to flee God’s presence,” Olson said. “Even during a global pandemic, God is still present. God can meet us in surprising and unexpected places — even on a computer screen or a visit standing 6 feet apart, even through a church newsletter, even right here in Storm Lake, Iowa, on RAGBRAI day.”

Throughout her lifetime, Olson has collected rocks she scoops up at “meaningful times and places.” A friend brought her a small rock from a visit to Jerusalem. “I like to hold that rock and imagine Jesus touched that rock,” she said. “He could have, right? My challenge to you, dear friends, is to find and go to your special place where you can meet God, the God who wants to meet you there over and over again.”

“Surely,” she said, repeating the title of her sermon, “the presence of the Lord is in all places everywhere all at once.”

Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service

Today’s Focus: Lakeside Presbyterian Church in Storm Lake, Iowa welcomes Synod School attendees

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
John Matekovic, Vice President, Income Security, Benefits, Board of Pensions
Karl Mattison, VP of Planning Giving Resources, Presbyterian Foundation

Let us pray

God of grace, we thank you for the joy of serving you by serving others. Continue to open our hearts to the needs around us, and may we show forth our concern with hearts and hands, so that your children may be showered with your love. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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