On the last day of August my church died. This was the place where I grew up beside my parents and grandparents, my sisters and brother. Beside great-aunts and -uncles who watched me misbehave and gently corrected me, surrounding me with love in our family pew. And when I was young, church was a hushed mystical place where I took for granted that at some point I would have a revelation of some kind; would hear voices from beyond the grave, or the voice of God Himself calling me to tell me that I was chosen and special and that I had something to give that He wanted and needed. I was ready and I waited for it for years. During church Family Night dinners I would slip out into the quiet velvet dark of the sanctuary and sit at the altar, the only illumination the small light on the brass cross. Alone in the dark, I waited patiently for God to whisper His wisdom into my ear.
I was certain the pastor was God’s mouthpiece, his voice booming out to the congregation during the sermon at vespers, the lights dimmed, only the pulpit light lit and the candles on the altar. In that quiet I paged through the red hymnal with the tissue paper pages, reading the old words, the “thous” and “thees” with “dost” and “verily” peppered through. The voice of antiquity and tradition, and echoes of the angels themselves. I had no doubts and no questions. It was all true and good. All I had to do to be reassured of that was watch my grandfather, a big sturdy man with an unshakably vibrant faith and carpenter’s hands, booming out the hymns, his deep voice rumbling the prayers, the creeds, the words of the holy eucharist. He believed with all his heart and soul and so, I did too. I went to the altar for communion with him, to receive the sign of the cross on my little worried forehead, and I watched him and my sweet tiny grandmother, cradling the bread in their hands. They closed their eyes and took the body of Christ into their mouths, and then their wrinkled hands delicately holding the glass communion cups like transparent shells for their sip of the blood. Believing. And I believed too. God’s promise of love and forgiveness for all eternity was reassuring to me and echoed what I felt from my family, securing my whole world from harm. The words of the Nunc Dimittis resonated in my heart from a very early age:
“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace; according to thy word; For mine eyes have seen thy salvation: which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles: and the glory of thy people Israel. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”
I was baptized in my church, confirmed in my church, married there, one warm sunny day in August 32 years ago, and then our own three children were baptized at the same altar. My beloved grandparents and all those great-aunts and -uncles died and were buried from that altar along with a river of my tears. There is a strong rope of faith tying me to that small brick church that sits on the only street of the crossroads town in which my grandparents and my father grew up. I know every inch of the stained glass windows, liquid color in the early morning sunshine. I know the coffered plaster and pressed tin ceiling, painted yellow and white, all cool butter on warm summer Sundays, and the golden walls, hand stenciled, that I thought looked like my grandmother’s dried corn that would be on the table at the family dinner afterward. For me, my church wasn’t just about faith and the triune God. It was inextricably woven together with the family I love.
“….Faith of our fathers! we will love
Both friend and foe in all our strife;
And preach thee, too, as love knows how,
By kindly words and virtuous life:
Faith of our fathers, holy faith,
We will be true to thee till death….”
My grandfather was a stalwart church elder, president of church council, leader of work parties, member of the infrequent call committee, friend of pastors and member of interfaith councils. He taught the adult Sunday School class forever. His Bible was well-thumbed and often read. He was a man filled with open-minded love and purpose, fueled by faith and deep love for what God created. My grandmother was his helpmate in every sense of the word. They raised my father during the Great Depression, she kept the house and tended the garden, made sure Ruggy Snyder, the elderly bachelor living across the street in shabby squalor, had Sunday dinner delivered in a tin pie pan. In return, he gave us apples which she made us wash with soap before eating. She rolled bandages with the ladies of the Altar Guild for the wounded soldiers of the Vietnam War. She served as Sunday School Superintendent and taught my Sunday School class for as long as I could remember. She collected soap, tissues, and combs for Christmas gifts for residents of the State Hospital For The Mentally Retarded. Privately, I had my doubts about the value of tissues and combs as Christmas presents, but one didn’t question the wisdom of the women of the Altar Guild. She made browned chicken for church dinners, and elderberry and rhubarb pies for the dessert table, and a lemon Jell-O salad with chopped walnuts, raisins, raw apples, and celery for which I still get hungry. She always had cookies waiting for us in the cookie tin, Avon cosmetics samples for us to play with, and teaberry chewing gum in the cup cupboard. We were allowed half a stick so we wouldn’t ruin our teeth. We ran back and forth from their house to the church. A path that perfectly parallelled my childhood.
I have a memory of standing in our pew during a Sunday night vespers service in the darkened church. I was very young; tall enough to just look over the back of the pew in front of me. In the dark I listened to my father play the piano. Everyone was quiet, listening as he played the prelude. It was something special. Young as I was, I realized that, and I was proud that was my father. A son of the congregation, my father was the pianist there for 60 years. Before him, his aunts and an uncle also served as pianists. Strengthening and enriching all those years of church and family, woven deep into the fabric is the music that was part of all of it. Truthfully, my worship experience was, and continues to be, more attuned to the music of worship than theological doctrine. Music is tremendously evocative for me and I have deep appreciation and not a little awe for the inspiration that moves composers, artists, architects, and writers to glorify God through their work. I have sung in choirs all my life, privileged to sing the great sacred music of the centuries. I have stood in silent wonderment in soaring cathedrals all over the world, moved to tears by beauty that is the expression of the depth of the architect’s faith, the stonemason’s faith, the sculptor’s faith, the painter’s faith. In those places, I have been occasionally indelibly transformed.
“….A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.
Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Soon bears us all away;
We fly, forgotten as a dream
Dies at the opening day….”
As an adult, however, things have gotten sticky and complicated. In the last 10 years, my faith flagging, faltering, unraveling, changing, now I question it all for the first time. Allowing myself to walk the unfamiliar territory of daring to doubt. I pray, but it feels like I’m being greedy and opportunistic. I wonder if I have the right to pray to a God whose existence I question, even if it’s for direction and guidance on that very question. And I have no answers and don’t expect to have them anytime soon. I have seen too much of Church used as a weapon of judgement, a hammer of oppression. It has deeply hurt people I love by excluding them, wounding them, forcing them to the periphery, even out of their families, with hatred and fear masquerading as righteousness. Loving the sinner, but hating the sin, is a poor brittle substitute for real solid love. For several years, I listened to a pastor decry modern society from the pulpit over and over – the society in which I make my daily way, and the society in which my children have grown up. Too much reminiscing about the good old days, when men wore suits and women wore hats to church, pining for Sundays when no one played soccer, and not enough of how to navigate the chaos of the here and now, and how to find and keep God in there somewhere. I watch a nearly-dead church come back to life, growing and adding members, where the joy of revitalization and renewed community gradually gives way to preoccupation with vision of the Church as Bank, the Church as Corporate Committees, and the Church as Renovated Showplace, rather than a spiritual home for the beating heart of its members. Especially the quiet members, who aren’t wealthy or influential. The ones who struggle. The ones who sometimes have deep desperate need of a shepherd, even if it conflicts with a pastor’s vacation and the timing is inconvenient. I admire those who serve silently and in their own way, doing for others, not for recognition or “credit,” but because they believe they are God’s messengers of love on Earth and it is what they are called to do. Those are the truly faithful who have my respect, and the ones I try to emulate.
I stopped going to church every week after sitting in the pew one Sunday, waiting to go to the altar for communion, and a voice made itself heard like a bell in my bowed head, behind my closed eyes. It said, “I don’t belong here anymore.” Our church struggled for years. Membership was always small. The yearly winter oil bill was a hardship. Maintaining the sanctuary with its historic architectural integrity intact was expensive. My family worked hard to keep it going. As the congregation dwindled, there were battles for control that flared up, then subsided, but always simmered just below the boil. Stakes were high. Everyone felt their way was the best way to ensure our survival. Words were harsh and unguarded, words wounded, lectures were delivered, and I tired of being scolded for forgetting to do things, when I, one of the “youngsters” in our aging congregation, was working full-time, raising 3 busy children, barely keeping my head above the rising water. It was a relief to stop making the drive every Sunday morning. Not, however, a relief without guilt. I tried not to think about what my grandparents would think of my abandonment of my church family. Over time, it became apparent that we could no longer afford to sustain ourselves and the date was set for the final service.
My father rightly decided to make it a celebration. He enlisted the help of musician friends and prepared solo pieces to play on the 1930 Mason & Hamlin piano, whose purchase and refurbishment he had arranged for the church years before. He determined that St. John’s would “go out with a bang” and not fade away with a whimper or drown in a sea of maudlin sentiment; that our church’s reputation of helping others would be the focus of this painfully joyful day. My brother, an ordained Lutheran minister, asked to be allowed to preach the final service. My father asked my sisters, my brother and I which hymns we would like to sing and we chose our favorites. The big iron bell was rung to begin the service. It is the bell I used to help my grandfather ring. He’d pull down the fat rope with the gigantic knot at the end, and then let us hang on to it as it pulled us up off our feet into the air. We rang that bell with him the day the Vietnam War ended. He rang it the day World War II ended. The congregation rose as the clergy procession made its way down the aisle and to the altar, the brass processional cross, given by my parents in memory of my grandfather, leading the way. My father played the hymns sure and strong, the way he always plays them, and it was wonderful and fitting to hear so many voices singing the beloved old words.
“But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day:
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on his way.
From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost:
My vibrant colorful family filled two pews. The music my father played rolled over me and through me, and I sat side by side with my mother, with my husband, with my now-grown children and their partners. I sat there in our pew in that little brick country church for the last time with my sister and her wife, my other sister, her husband, and her two little Ethiopian daughters, with my brother guiding our prayers, with my two best friends, one a gay atheist designer, one a deeply faithful black woman with a heart as beautiful as her face. And gathered around us, I know, were the souls of Grandma and Grandpa, of Aunt Mamie, Aunt Minerva, Aunt Mary and Uncle Clarence, and of Uncle Grant. I wish I could say I resolved all my doubts and questions about God and faith in this last journey, but I didn’t. I may never have answers. I may never attend another church. But in those last moments, in the tolling of the old bell, in the singing of the last hymn, surrounded and sustained by the love of my family, even in my grief, perhaps there was the whisper I’ve been waiting so long to hear. I think I’ve been hearing it all along.