Sitting in the midst of summertime, as we are today, sandwiched between Memorial Day and Labor Day – in and amongst all the family vacations and family reunions and all the rest – it’s a season where so much of the focus is on family, our national heritage and a common faith.
This time of year tends to put me in a nostalgic frame of mind. And many of my very earliest childhood memories have to do with church.
Indeed, some of my fondest memories include the ritual of Sunday mornings with family: being roused out of bed by Dad; competing with my older sister for bathroom rights; putting on lightly starched and firmly ironed clothing, replete with white dress shirt and clip-on tie, knee-pants and waistcoat, button-top cap and stiff patent leather shoes – all of which saw the light of day a sum of 52 times a year.
I remember piling into the old green Buick and making our way on bright sunny summer Sunday mornings over to Grace Presbyterian Church. Bob and Juanita, two of Grace PC’s permanent fixtures, would always be standing just inside the doorway to greet us with smiles and handshakes and to hand us each a bulletin.
Bob and Juanita watched us grow up. We watched them grow old.
For a child, entering the church was somewhat of an odd mixture of invitation and intimidation, friendliness and foreboding; of paternal-pats-on-the-head and of putting-one-right-with-the-Lord.
The church building itself seemed a place of endless nooks and crannies, whereby a young explorer could test the limits of life’s elementary boundaries and adult patience; both of which typically ended abruptly at one end with an usher at the sanctuary door and at the other end with the kitchen Gestapo.
Typically, we had `Junior Church’, downstairs, alternately supervised by parents and pastors, and which strove to teach wee Presbyterians the ways of true worship.
But on very special occasions, when my Grandmother Della (Renzella) Simmons would have my sister and I over for a `slumber party’, for example, and then take us with her to church in the morning, we would attend the adult worship service.
But always to the same church.
In fact, most of my family—that is the ones whom we considered `churched’—belonged to the same large (1800 member) suburban church.
Grace Presbyterian Church: “The Stone Church with a Warm Heart”.
And when all my `churched’ family came at once we might well take up the better part of two rows of pews in the sanctuary (the back two pews on the right side, to be precise).
We were one big, happy, worshiping family. And those in church to whom my family were not actually related, they seemed to know just about as well as family.
I never felt so snug and secure as those Sunday mornings when, nestled between my Mom and Dad, or perhaps between Gramma Della and my Great Aunt Marian, and I would bask in the aura of familial love, Old Spice and Chanel No. 5.
There I would sit and listen without comprehension to the undulating spell bindings of the right Rev. Dr. William F. Keesecker.
And just when the power of drug-store aromas and stained-glass rhetoric was about to beguile my drooping eyelids, Dr. Keesecker—as if by divine intuition—would bellow home a point, just at the drifting-off-moment, and my mother’s light starch would take sudden full effect.
Even so, looking back, I did love the church – in my own kid way.
Certainly not for the preaching, which was more intriguingly musical than meaningful. Nor, necessarily, for the old traditional hymns; although I have since come to love them, too, as Pastor seeking to comfort or encourage a sometimes wounded and frightened worshiping parish.
And not even for the Sunday School lessons, which are, to this day, a blur of sing-song and memory verses.
Rather, I loved church because of who the church represented to me: Family. Friends.
I loved the church, at that foundational age, because of the particular character and quality of community, which that place and those people faithfully represented to me.
At five years of age, I necessarily brought to church all that I was: the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. And yet, whatever the case happened to be on a particular Sabbath morning, I found that I was always accepted.
Moreover, as a child, the experience of church was not simply relegated to a single place, exactly. But rather to a wonderful, glorious ordeal that was to be both apprehended and embraced. An event that lasted the whole day long; starting early in the morning with our hectic family breakfast and typically ending (in warm summer months) playing in my Grandma Della’s backyard with my cousins.
What are your earliest memories of church?
I once read a book called, Whatever I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Sometimes I think that whatever I really needed to know, theologically, I learned through those first pictures in my `Illustrated for Children’s King James Bible.
Presented to me by Grandma Della on my fifth birthday, it has wonderful colorful illustrations: Adam and Eve in a lush garden, hiding chagrin behind an apple tree; white-bearded Noah, riding high upon the Ark, framed under the arch of a bright rainbow, dove winging overhead olive branch in beak; little David, sling in hand, standing victoriously over Goliath, severed head at his feet.
And then there is Jesus himself: standing atop hillside teaching throngs of people; lash overhead, chasing the money grubbers out of the temple; sitting on a rock and smiling, with children on his lap and gathered around him. And then, finally, seeming strangely out of place, hanging limply on the cross, dark clouds gathering overhead.
Those depictions told me what was essential to know then; and perhaps even now. It was the Book of our Faith, I was told: “My First Bible.” One I still treasure and refer to often (mostly for those wonderful, simplifying illustrations).
I actually think that seminal `pictorial language of faith’ also gave me a way by which to understand those other things kids knew were magical in life: a cocoon hanging tenaciously to a quavering limb as it mysteriously changed into a beautiful butterfly; fireflies captured in a mustard jar and then set free at once to scatter chaotic shimmering light through the backyard mists; the glory of a bruised purple, crimson and orange sunset after a dusty Kansas twister; a wishful shooting star that punctuated an oppressive summer night with a brief flicker of eternity; my aunt Carlene nursing yet another cooing baby cousin; or the family simply sitting around Grandma Della’s ample Sunday dinner table of roast beef, brown gravy, mashed potatoes and those amazing homemade rolls.
To me, growing up, those were the basic elements of faith.
It’s meaning, perhaps, still untested and residing in the unspoken recesses of a young child’s heart. But nonetheless prophetic in its power to shape and transform a life.
For faith was more than a just word; both then and now.
It was rather more a living picture imbued with all of a child’s imagination, innocence, and unfolding experience; a burgeoning vision of something which defied the power of description; something that no mere words could comprehend; something colorful, something bright and hopeful; and, at times, something unknowable, unplumb-able; mysterious, cautionary, and bewildering.
It is the very thing which, perhaps all these years later, I am still trying to find words to aptly express that which is largely inexpressible: that the experience of faith is just that – an experience: of the sudden joy which comes as a scripture passage leaps off the page with new meaning; of the profound sense of peace that inexplicably sweeps over the troubled soul during an anxious moment; of the unbidden compassion that compels one to reach out to a stranger in pain; of the unexpected tears that well up as bread and cup are passed.
It is the experience of growing up unto Christ.
An experience, perhaps, which will never be completed on this earth.
At least I sincerely hope not. For we can never fully become that which we aspire to be; if we aspire to be perfect in faith as our Lord was.
“When I was a child,” declared the Apostle Paul, “I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became an adult, I put away childish things” [1 Cor. 13:11]. Frankly, I always thought that to be kind of a sad conclusion, especially after such glorious description of what love is. Somehow, it seemed to overlook Jesus’ admonishment for us all to have `faith as a child.’
And without faith can there be any love? Much less hope?
At any rate, it seems to me that adults are all too eager to relegate such matters as faith, love and hope to mere words: doctrine, litanies, theological tenets. Conclusions.
Sometimes, it seems, adults think that the ability to contain a thing within a concise definition is the same as understanding it. That by capturing it with words it then becomes theirs to possess. And yet, I find that words can just as often cloud, rather than clarify, the truth of such things.
Indeed, faith is not just a word, held between an `f’ and an `h’; but a kind of life to be lived open-endedly. Primarily on Sundays, it seems, unfortunately, for some. But lived, nonetheless, in such a way, perhaps, so as to linger on joyfully long enough in heart and mind that one might become a Sunday driver throughout the week. Maybe even throughout one’s life.
Beyond that, faith represents a way of experiencing God’s promises as they are realized through the people we care most about and who care most about us.
`For the promise is to you and to your children and to your children’s children; to all who are both near at hand and far away’ [Acts 2:39, my paraphrase].
One of the girls in the confirmation class asked me why church was important. Why couldn’t someone just be a Christian on their own. And this is why: Because faith is not experienced in a vacuum.
From age to age God’s promise of love and grace are preserved and passed down that the next generation might discover an experience of this faith that we’ve known.
We sit between two pillars, you and I. Nestled in the bosom of this glorious crucible between God’s past faithfulness and the promise of God’s love yet to be.
Let us share that experience of faith with those in our charge today.