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Last Sunday, I went to church with my dad.
We entered through the back door, avoiding the social banter in the foyer. And I immediately saw the people I was looking for toward the back of the sanctuary, some in the soft seats, others a few pews ahead of them. Once the center of church life, they now sit together in the back — the widows and older couples — the ones I most wanted to see.
They are diminished in the world’s eyes, to be sure, accompanied by canes and wheelchairs, scarred by loss and age. Yet their eyes light up when they see me.Their hands reach out to grasp mine, and they are quick to ask questions about my dad and my husband and family. I find comfort in their resilience, in their staying. They will never know it, but they are my touchpoint at this church now.
When I was little, the church was my playground. With its orange carpet and stained glass windows, it was a welcoming space on Saturday mornings when my twin sister and I accompanied my mom to the sanctuary and listened to the rich tones of the organ as she prepared for Sunday’s service. We watched her stocking feet dance on pedals and admired her fingers as they waltzed on keys. And when we got tired of that, we would play under the pews, sometimes playing hide and seek and sometimes coloring with crayons to pass the time.
I remember very little about Sunday services — save for the music — and the mints and dollar bills that my parents would tuck into our palms to keep us quiet, and to instill in us the practice of tithing. We arrived early and were in one of the last cars out of the parking lot. We always sat close to the front, so that mom wouldn’t have far to walk when she left the organ bench and joined us in a pew.
Most Sundays remain a blur to me, but I remember the events more clearly.
Eighth grade graduation — my sister crying as she spoke of the loss of our custodian and bus driver, my embarrassment of her tears, my inability to see strength in her grief.
The funeral of my grandfather –the peach rose bud in his hands, the kiss my grandmother gave him before we walked down the center aisle to the front pews, the rain that spilled down stained glass.
My last Sunday in California before I moved to Colorado — the juxtaposition of anticipation and loss, the encouraging words and soft hugs from those who had watched me grow up.
The wedding I’d long dreamed of — the trumpet descant, pews filled with family and friends, my husband in his too-small shoes gamely smiling for photo after photo.
Christmas mornings with my Colorado family in tow — our children the focus of warmth and attention and “are those Tami’s kids?”
And then a string of funerals, all leaving my mom and dad standing more and more alone.
Last August, the church opened its arms to us again when we celebrated my mom’s life with organ and piano music that she would have loved. And the people who have watched my comings and goings were there once more: overflowing with grief, yet steadfast and faithful and kind. They have propped us up with prayer in these long and lonely days. And I am grateful.
And so I sat next to my dad on Sunday. The organ was silent but I remembered the golden tones mom used to play, the voices singing “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine” at Grandpa’s funeral, the cousins gathered to honor Grandma, and all of the other blurry moments that shaped my early faith.
Perhaps it was my imagination, but it seemed the voices intensified as we sang “O Jesus, Lord and Savior, I give myself to Thee, For Thou, in Thy atonement, didst give Thyself for me; I own no other Master, my heart shall be Thy throne; My life I give, henceforth to live, O Christ, for Thee alone.”
We left quickly, ducking away from questions and conversations, heading home to a house that is simultaneously empty and yet full of memory and love.
When I was young, the church was a building, a destination, a venue. It was on those steps that my brother was baptized and my sister and I first sang a duet, in the classrooms that we taught Vacation Bible School, and the chancel where we affirmed our faith. We celebrated anniversaries in the social hall, daydreamed in pews, and rocked babies in the nursery. My faith was simple and shallow then, a tiny seed in fertile soil.
Now I recognize that church is far more than a building. It is a people who have weathered life together, who have navigated disagreements and disappointments, who have held onto the promises of God, who still stand to sing four part harmony in the now-rare hymn, and who continue to extend God’s grace to me, a now-middle aged woman with a more complicated faith, a grieving heart, and a determination to follow their lead and stay.
Organ photo by Joey Huang on Unsplash
A people who have weathered life together-
enjoyed your memories of comfort and joy
We forget all of the moments that form us and our faith, thank you for the reminder, I needed it.
Loved this. Thank you.
So very beautiful, I started reading thinking how this sounded like the Tos family and quickly realized oh my goodness this is Tami’s heart pouring out her love. Thank you for this beautiful tribute , so touching and true. Many blessings flow as do my tears. Love you.
Thank you for the word picture of church from years ago! Many of us in our Reformed Church world can relate to those days when “church” was the center of our weekly family life. You remind us of what life was like worshipping in those hard oak wood pews as well as realizing once again what we have lost. There is grief in losing the simplicity of those days gone by!
I echo that! Ron. My youthful experience of the First Reformed Church of West Sayville, Long Island, NY, with its old Dutch ladies who joked alot and made vatbollen, and evening services and long funerals and sermon peppermints, and Case Van Hulsentop the janitor who rang the bell after solemnly putting the glass of water on the pulpit for my dad the preacher, and kids misbehaving in the balcony, and the elders seated around the Communion table for the Liturgy, and people grieving in our living room, all that will never be again.
Lovely, Tami. Thank you for sharing.
Thank you for these words. This is exactly my story except you would substitute Minnesota instead of California. A few tears in my eyes.
Thank you, Tami, for taking us home. You speak for so many of us.
Those were the days, my friend.
We thought they’d never end.
Forever and a day….
Thank you, Tami, for this beautiful reflection on the Church, grief, and the importance of remembering who and what has shaped us into the people we are today. I hope we will see more of your writing and reflections here in the future!
This is beautiful. Thank you!
Beautifully written, Tami. Brings back good memories in my California church—Immanuel CRC in Ripon so many decades ago. Thank you!
Thank you for sharing this, Tami. Your sister-in-law suggested I read this when I bumped into her recently and I’m so glad I did–I really resonate with your experience which you conveyed so beautifully.