A series exploring Minnesota's favorite season.
They unload their SUV: kids (two girls, one boy), lawn chairs (two), blankets (one, princess themed), water bottles (one each). Dad takes the chairs, the bags. Mom hoists the squirming toddler. The girls don't need to take their parents' hands -- they know where they're going.
With pink purses dangling from their wrists, the girls take the lead, not through the double doors of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, but around to the side, where they lay claim to a grassy spot in the trembling shade of a young maple tree.
They're just in time.
The grass in front of the stage is filling fast, as family after family unfolds lawn chairs and lays out blankets. Shorts-clad ushers hand out bulletins and chairs to those who didn't bring their own. Uneven rows begin to take shape in the parking lot. Just behind us, a lone man sits behind the wheel of his sedan. A white-haired couple in the back of the lot tunes the radio in their PT Cruiser to the station that broadcasts the service.
The weather is not promising: Cool and cloudy, a chance of rain. And this spot where the faithful have gathered isn't a particularly celestial place. Just a side yard, a parking lot.
Still, for 40 years, members of this Burnsville church have flocked to the outdoor services, held every Saturday evening and Sunday morning from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
They come because it's shorts-and-baseball-caps casual: They sip coffee from paper cups, wave and call out greetings to their friends. The kids race up and down in the summer air while the band warms up.
They come because the musical service is strung together on the upbeat notes of a contemporary band.
But, mostly, they come to be closer to God.
The band begins in earnest, a familiar song about Jericho, where "the walls came a-tumbling down." Guitars, drums, electric organ build to a crescendo, then fall silent. The minister, dressed in khakis and a golf shirt, takes the mike, welcomes us and invites us to stand for the call to worship.
We sing a praise to God. The band leads us into a song for confession, for the children's message, the offering.
It starts to sprinkle.
A small boy twirls an umbrella, then slides down a berm Mary Poppins-style. He tries again. This time, mom is ready. She reaches out and gently pulls him onto her lap, settles him with a kiss on the head and together they join the low, polite murmur: "Our Father, who art in heaven ..."
The last song, the "sending song," is just winding down when a few car engines start. Then a few more.
On the stage, the minister raises his hand for the benediction. "Go with the blessing of God," he intones, as a steady stream of cars creeps out of the lot.
None of us wants to be the last one to go in peace and serve the Lord.