I have always gone to church. Always. I was born into the church of my parents and grandparents and was baptized there. Throughout my childhood my family and I were at church every Sunday. My siblings and I received awards for perfect attendance every September on Rally Day. Once I fell down our basement steps about thirty minutes before we were to leave the house for church. I tore my panty hose, bruised my elbow and skinned both knees. We went to church anyway. But it was never a burden or an onerous obligation. I loved church. I loved Sunday school. I loved vacation Bible school in the summertime. And I loved God and Jesus.
The church I grew up in, the church where my grandparents and parents were married, the church where I was married and my children were baptized, is a very old church. Founded in 1770, with construction completed in 1776, the church is visible somewhere in the background of every historic photograph of my hometown. Its steeple served as a lookout point during the Civil War. To me, a girl whose presence in the congregation began nearly two hundred years into the church’s history, it seems as if it has always been there. Certainly it has always been in my life.
That church was a second home to me. It is astonishingly beautiful, full of stained-glass windows by Tiffany and boasting a Moller pipe organ. The pews have velvet-covered cushions and the Communion cups are tiny pewter goblets. There are mosaics and a vaulted arch and candelabra that hold smooth white candles. It is stunning, awe-inspiring, and humbling. It was in this church that I experienced, as a young child, my first numinous emotions, although I didn’t understand what they were, didn’t have words to describe them and didn’t know there was a name for such deep feelings until I took an anthropology course as a college freshman.
I loved my church life. There was a poetry and a mysticism to the words of the Scriptures, to the liturgy and to the order of worship we followed. I loved returning to our pew from the Communion rail with my parents, after they received the sacrament and I received a blessing. My mother would turn to kiss me and I would smell the red wine on her lips and feel very much at peace. By the time I was six or seven I had the service memorized. Most merciful God, we confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves . . .
How comforting it was to know that I had no power to save myself, that my salvation is out of my hands and already promised by the unimaginable sacrifice of Jesus. How calming and steadying to be surrounded by a community of believers, to grow up with teachers and choir directors and youth ministers and fellow congregants who loved me and cared about what happened to me.
For many years I have lived approximately ninety miles, one way, from the church of my youth. I attend services there whenever I can but it is not often. Every time I do, it is like coming home. There is a certain smell to the building that defies description. It is not a bad smell, nor is it a floral smell. It is not the smell of cleaning products or mustiness or old books or even of candles and melted wax. It is just what it is and I would recognize that smell, in the dark, one hundred years from now. The interior of the sanctuary has not changed at all. It could be 1975 or 1983 or 2006 every time I step inside. It feels familiar, comfortable, eternal.
Today I read the obituary of a ninety-four year old woman I have known all my life, a woman who, like me and my family, has always called that church her home. It was startling to read of her passing, to realize that the next time I attend a service there, she won’t be there. Something I have always been able to rely upon when I return to this church is the familiar faces I will see. People I have known all my life, grown-ups who taught me in Sunday school or who brought the most delicious Texas sheet cakes to church picnics in Doub’s Woods, kids I grew up with, sang in the youth choir with, served as an acolyte with. It’s true that I can’t look across the crowded expanse of Mary-Martha Hall during coffee hour after church and see my grandparents sitting together, or find an aunt or an uncle standing on the Oriental carpet drinking lemon punch from a styrofoam cup. They are all gone now. And that’s why the passing of a woman I knew so well jars me. There may well come a time when I walk into that church and no longer recognize anyone from my youth. They can renovate the bathroom, rearrange the furniture in the public spaces, change the refreshments they serve, even indulge the younger crowd with “contemporary” services and praise band theatrics, but as long as I can walk in those doors and see some of the same faces I have known since I was a baby, it will still be home. I wonder what it will feel like when I am the stranger.
This worry isn’t all-consuming. And it’s not even a worry. Not really. God has given me a home and a family, both within the church, and external to the church. I carry my memories and my love for Him inside of me. Those things cannot be destroyed or taken away, and even the passage of time will not erode them. People will come and people will go. Even the church may be gone eventually. I have been perhaps too fond of the things of this world, forgetting that the physical is far less important than the spiritual. I have the promise of my eternal home, where I will rest in Him. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.