For me, church was wood paneling and white brick, tall narrow windows and pews with crosses etched into them. I can still smell the expanse of that place as if it lived in me for my almost 40 years. Church was familiar faces, choir robes, signing the blue guest booklet, being asked to sing ‘Living for Jesus’ with my cousin Autumn, stacking little plastic communion cups of grape juice, singing out of the hymnal, and drawing a picture of my grandpa while he preached. And, miracurously, I am an early millennial who owns these things deep down, incredibly deep and protected in my soul.
Of course, I didn’t know I was millenial. I was just a kid born at the end of 1981 who was raised on Steve Green and Great is Thy Faithfulness, the earliest generation of children who grew up with computers, Star Wars, and Inspector Gadget but with a grasp on the old way of life…a foot in two separate worlds as a child. I can very tangibly feel the old life versus the progressive. I am a container of these two normalities of culture into one anomaly.
Forming me into a child who loved my histories and classics with abandon, connecting me to the greats, but utilizing the future, a nostalgic user of social media.
Again, church was wandering up to the balcony and opening the door to the tiny closet of a sound room where the services were recorded and my dad would let me sit with him to record if I didn’t touch anything. It was touching the covers of all the books in Alice Smith’s church library across from Grandpa’s office and checking several out every week.
Church was my mom telling us to quiet down and my dad rubbing my arm, humming to the sound of the organ. It was my dad being the last one to leave after shutting off every light and locking every door while my grandpa shook everyone’s hands with his soft, tender smile of compassion.
Most of the cassette tapes of my grandpa’s decades of sermons are lost.
It was hearing about my grandpa’s plane crash in Papua New Guinea, or his belongings stolen out of the trunk of a car in Paris, or wondering if he was safe in the jungles of Togo. It was hearing his tender stories of the people in those places, touching the 5×7 print pictures of natives in those countries and feeling like it was so very far away. It was begging God He wouldn’t send me far, far away.
It was living up to the suffocating expectations of a pastor’s family, even when the pastor and the family are more grace filled and forgiving. It was caving under the pressure and begging to be let out and then being welcomed back in and embracing every difficulty, every sadness, every pressure, every memory.
Church was eating my grandma’s pot roast after morning service some Sundays, tramping through the treeline that bordered my grandparent’s backyard, playing wiffle ball, and peeking into the den to find my uncle Paul napping while the baseball game flickered on the television. The Sundays we didn’t go to grandma and grandpa’s we pulled up to the HotnNow drive-thru on Westnedge next to the Putt-Putt, ordering twelve cheeseburgers to take home. It was every Sunday, all day, every Wednesday, every weekend, every summer full of VBS day camp, sleep away camp up North, youth group road trips and missions trips and evangelism. It was all around me and through me.
It was being everything for all people, as the Apostle Paul says.
Church was sitting with my cousins, being dunked in a bathtub full of warm water, wandering potluck tables, and knowing very deeply in my subconscious that my family was collectively rooted down into church community like the brick foundation of the building, like being chained down into Michigan Avenue and the city my family was planted in a hundred years before. When I was fifteen I wanted to run far away from it. Two years later, I embraced the Father as the prodigal.
We talk of our places of being, such as being American, or a Texan, a Virginian, an Alaskan, or a graduate of our alma mater. A firefighter, a librarian, a teacher, a stockbroker, a lawyer, a doctor, a clerk. I can list many things that I am or was, but if I go back far enough and deep enough, I was born Christian, in a household of faith as we call it. I knew deep in my rebellious soul all those years ago that I could never escape it.
He has not lost one of those given to Him.
So while church was all of these tangible things, it was more than them, too.
It has been many years since I’ve stepped foot back into the church where I was born, baptized, raised, graduated, married, brought my children, and remembered my grandfather at his passing and the people came to see him. There is something about that building that makes me feel like I recognize myself when I’m there.
I recited Bible verses and played my oboe there, I sang Pachelbel’s Cannon in D and Lo How a Rose Er Blooming. I sat in the prayer rooms behind the baptismal and pushed on the footpedals of the organ and sat under my grandpa’s desk and smelled diesel while cleaning out the blue bus. It’s probably been almost fifteen years since I’ve sat through a Baptist service there. And why?
The church I grew up in is gone.
And that’s painful.
Jesus tells us to love people, and my grandpa joked once that feeding His sheep was difficult at times, because sheep can be stinky. People hurt one another and disagree, and then they pray together and can shake hands and live through the years of life side by side.
But I am a person of place and tradition.
I can remember sitting on the lakeshore sand in my early twenties, shifting it through my fingers to remember every July of my childhood wash over me as it slipped from my palm and I looked out over the clear water of Lake Michigan from Whitefish Bay. I carry the smell of the cottage as if I was walking through the door right now. I can feel my thighs shifting against eachother with grit from that lakeshore sand and jumping to the rocks and crashing into the waves with my brother and my cousins, the same way my dad and my uncles and their cousins did before us. My grandmother walked through that cottage and her presence filled that space. I remember the summer my uncles took us hiking through the Door peninsula picking wild strawberries and teaching us songs.
I ran my hands over the brick of the church that was built up around me, and I left it after 20 years. Dana Arledge sat dumbfounded when my husband and I came to him asking to join, at 23 years old, the even older Bethel Baptist…the church that founded Berean. We were looking for something familiar and solid under our feet that we could remember.
And I read Steinbeck and Dostyevstky and Lewis and Hemingway and Tolstoy and Dickens and Austen and so many. So Many. There, that was comfort to remember place.
When I stepped into a liturgical service for the first time ten years later, I cried.
I was washed and I wept. My emotion and heart finally erupted, something I was seeking, missing, and knew deep within my spirit, but no longer existed in modern America.
Yet, there it was, solace in the midst. It is why I am now Anglican and kneeled before a priest for confirmation. It is why my son was baptised as an infant.
Only this past Sunday, in that stained glass chapel, we sang from the hymnal and I inhaled ‘He Leadeth Me’ on cello, violin, and piano. A lamentation of my short years that I breathe deeply and know astutely.
Now I understand my grandpa was truly half Baptist, half Anglican. He married us all from the Book of Common Prayer. He read the Eucharist from 1 Corinthians. It is why I feel so completely at home in both.
I took my upbringing for granted, really. While many of my Baptist contemporaries remember their childhoods laced with large doses of legalism, what I remember is people trying to make sense of life with God.
The way of a pastor’s family is that of prayer, and understanding, and above all, taking on other’s cares into their being.
Months ago I told my grandmother this….I am thankful for the church I was purposed to grow in, for it has birthed me into revival. It gave me a compass for what to stay true to.
There is Word and Truth.
There is the Creed.
There is the Baptism.
There are the hymns.
There is the stained glass beauty of the chapel.
There are the people.