I guess we all have our Sunday-morning rituals. For me, the last couple of years, it has included a trip to Manor Grove nursing home in Kirkwood to spend time with my mom, who lived there in the late stages of her fight with Alzheimer’s, and with my dad, who came directly from church to have lunch with her, as he did every day. Earlier on in her illness, I would go on weekday evenings to visit her, but as the illness progressed, she would often go to bed right after dinner, so it became, for the most part, just Saturdays and Sundays that I could go visit.
She passed away on the morning of July 15, just as the sun was rising on the exact midpoint-day of the summer. Her death was the culmination of the long, slow decline that is Alzheimer’s, and was certainly not unexpected. In retrospect, though, I’m amazed at how much my in life has changed since that morning.
It was a Friday that she died. Later that morning, we met with the minister of our family’s church, First Congregational Church of Webster Groves. My parents and my brother Phil have maintained the connection with First Congregational over the years, but I pretty much fell away when I was in about ninth grade. In the years since then, I’ve gone to Catholic masses with Jean when required, but as a non-communicant, I was always there as an outsider.
To digress for a moment, part of the events that led up to my giving up on my parents’ church were described much better than I could by the author Jonathan Franzen, who was in my class in Sunday School and later at Webster Groves High School. In an essay he wrote for the New Yorker in 2005—which was later reprinted in his book The Discomfort Zone—he wrote about the Youth Fellowship program at First Congregational, and a retreat we had in the fall of that ninth-grade year. It was a transitional year for our Fellowship class; the ninth-graders would ordinarily have had the year to themselves (after two years of sharing with another grade), but that year, Fellowship was in the process of merging with another nearby church’s youth group, so there were a lot of new faces.
At the retreat, some of the new kids were caught smoking pot. The situation blew up, and in a lengthy and contentious meeting on the last day, the leaders were talking about the possibility that it could be the end of Fellowship. That draconian result was avoided, but the upshot was that everyone had to go home from the retreat and tell their parents about what had happened.
We were in ninth grade, remember. I was never very good about communicating with my parents, but probably was the worst when I was in ninth grade. After I got home, I put off the telling, and kept putting it off, and finally had put it off long enough that the telling wouldn’t make any sense against what was now the bigger sin of having put it off so long. Even though I wasn’t involved in the offense, I had now converted the guilt to my own. When Fellowship convened again the following Sunday evening, I still hadn’t said anything to my parents, and I had to live with the guilt as the other Fellowship members talked through their parents’ reactions. Truth be told, with all of the new faces, and all of the other transitions I was going through at the time as a teen-ager, I was losing my attachment to Fellowship anyway, and I eventually just stopped going.
(Franzen, of course, took care of telling my parents—faithful New Yorker subscribers—although it was some 30 years later.)
Fellowship was about as non-religious as a Sunday-evening get-together in a church could be, which was fine with all of us. By that time, I’d pretty much given up on the whole business of Christian worship, as I’d never been much of a believer anyway. So when I stopped going to Fellowship, I made a pretty clean break with the church. For a while, my parents tried to make me go with them on Sunday mornings, but I put up increasing resistance, and they finally gave up. I remember one evening at dinner, we were talking about church, and they were pushing the social-justice angle of the church, thinking that might spark my interest. They couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t want to go be involved in that.
“Because every time I go, they make me pretend to worship God!” I said, uncharacteristically raising my voice for emphasis. Uncharacteristic, because we were at the dinner table, and also because it was my voice that was raised. I’m not a shouter.
I still remember the look of shock on my mother’s face, as if it was the worst thing I’d ever said to her. In fact, it might have been.
The subject was dropped, never to be raised again until I was much older, and by then only with a tone of joking resignation, as if they knew I’d never go back.
But on July 15, there I was, with my the remaining members of my family, in the minister’s office, planning for the funeral service.
I liked the minister, Rev. Dave Denoon, immediately; he had cut short his morning run in order to meet with us on his day off. He struck a nice balance between being compassionate and being efficient, and had a lot of good ideas about how the service should be organized. He sported the kind of hairline that denotes above-average intelligence.
We unfortunately didn’t offer a whole lot of insight for him to go on in writing the funeral homily, other than two requests from my dad: that there not be talk about Heaven or the afterlife, and that the hymn “Amazing Grace” not be included in the service. (Apparently he’s not a fan of phrases like “save a wretch like me.”)
The funeral was three days later, a Monday afternoon. My son Jim did a reading, as did Phil’s daughter, Jennifer. Phil got up and spoke briefly about our mom, comparing her, aptly, to June Cleaver of “Leave It To Beaver” fame. More power to him; I knew I couldn’t stand up and speak in front of an audience that day.
And then Denoon gave his homily.
To say he nailed it is an understatement. He captured her perfectly, despite our dearth of details about her in our meeting. It was as if he’d known my mom for years, but of course he hadn’t; he only came to First Congregational in 2010, and by then Alzheimer’s had already taken most of her.
“She offered us a vision of just how much may be possible in a life characterized by commitment, dedication, to love and service,” he said. (I’m able to quote him here because he was kind enough to provide us with a printed copy of his sermon afterwards.)
A bit later in the homily, he noted that my dad had asked him not to talk about the afterlife, and he admitted that even he, the minister, prefers to remain agnostic about the subject:
“…The cosmology of heaven and hell, and the earth in between, is not something that many of us around here perceive we ought to be wasting our time about.
In the Prayer of Our Savior we speak the words, ‘Your will be done on earth,’ in a strange, imperative phrase. Strange, because when we say those words, we enjoin ourselves voluntarily to the purposes of God, and we speak hopefully that God will be about the same business. Thus, we assert that divine purposes may be worked out and holy goals achieved around and through (and hopefully even despite) us.
‘Your will be done on earth.’ Things are undoubtedly just fine in heaven, for God is solely in command there. How can things not be fine?
But earth… earth is a different business. And earth is the business that the Christian is supposed to be busy with, we know. Earth is the proving ground of faithfulness.
Faith for us is less a matter of believing than it is of doing. Thus, the goal of faith is more in the here-and-now than it is in the hereafter.
Our joy is in discovering God’s will and working in concert with it. Our heaven is in accomplishing what God desires. If we can do that, then we sense that God is near, that our relationship with the very Source of our being is solid, and that peace in some subtle way is gaining a foothold in our troubled world….”
At times during the sermon, I felt like I might as well have been the only person in the pews, that Denoon had written it specifically for me. This was the kind of faith I could take part in, the idea that we could “work in concert with God’s will,” maybe without even having to emphasize the “God” part of it. This isn’t exactly what he was saying, I know, but it seemed, to me, like a reasonable compromise. “Faith for us is less a matter of believing than it is of doing.”
Afterwards, at the reception, when I thanked him for the service, I told him I felt like it was targeted at me, trying to pull me back into the church. He laughed. I also mentioned what I had assumed my brother or father had already told him, about my ancestor, the Rev. John Robinson, who was, in a sense, one of the founding fathers of the Congregational church. Denoon knew all about Robinson. “I quote him all the time,” he said. “‘I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from His holy word.’”
Six days later, Jean and I got dressed up and went to church at First Congregational. Phil was out of town, and we wanted my dad to have some family with him when he went back to church for the first time since the funeral. It was, I felt, both something I could do for my dad, and a tribute to my mom, to go back to church at least this one time.
At First Congregational Church, they have a system whereby visitors to the church are made to feel as welcome as possible. There is a church member stationed at the door to open it for everybody who arrives; there’s another greeter inside the door to wish you a good morning and lead you to an usher, who also greets you. And then the usher will take you to a pew and seat you next to someone he knows, and introduce you. You get a week’s worth of “Good mornings” before the service even starts.
The service itself was fascinating. With nearly a week of separation since the funeral, I was more able to look around and absorb what was going on. I had been to one other funeral service at the church a few years ago, but other than those two funerals, I had not been to services there in decades. The church sanctuary is completely different from when I was growing up — they underwent a complete, controversial, but ultimately successful renovation process in the 1990s — but the worship service itself had some of the same elements from four decades ago. There were the two mini-hymns — the Gloria Patri (with its promise of “world without end!”) and the Doxology— staples of the Protestant church service, but unheard of in the Catholic masses I’d attended. I hadn’t thought about those songs since I was a kid. Correction: I’m almost certain I had never thought about them. But now I remembered them, along with other Bible stories and characters from my childhood that never seemed to make it into the Catholic masses.
My dad seemed to enjoy our presence there, and after the worship service, when we greeted the minister, he told Denoon, “You have wrought a miracle!”
The next Sunday, I was back, and the Sunday after that. For my dad, but also for myself. Turns out, church can be interesting. When schedules permitted, we would go to First Watch restaurant for brunch afterward. I had a new Sunday-morning ritual, to replace my visits to the nursing home.
Within a few weeks, I began toying with the idea of actually becoming a member of the church. Denoon sent me a letter suggesting the idea, and I attended a luncheon for “inquirers,” people who were interested in joining up. I still had my doubts, though, and in late September I wrote an e-mail to Denoon to outline some reservations I had. “I feel I’m in tune with everything the church is about, except for the main thing,” I wrote.
Namely, the God thing. Much as I was enjoying being part of the congregation each week, and following along with the hymns and the prayers and absorbing the sermons and doing my part to be a friendly congregant, I was still coming up short in the “belief” area. I’m no less agnostic now than I was a year ago, or 20 years ago. Trust me, I’d love to be able to believe in a God who created the world, sent his son to redeem us, and receives our prayers. But it just doesn’t happen for me. Not yet, anyway.
That, I can live with, though. But I was also worried about the aspect of vocally becoming part of a community in which I didn’t share the core belief. I mean, I was receiving something from the church, but was I not being a hypocrite by taking vows and becoming a member?
First Congregational Church has an “ Open and Affirming Statement” about the church’s policy of not discriminating against anyone for any reason. The statement ends, “No matter where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” Well, I’m on a journey, all right, a journey that starts with the question: how can so many people who are so much smarter than me believe in this mythology?
I met with Denoon, in his office once again. He walked me through several concepts that helped to melt away my concerns about hypocrisy and taking vows. First of all, he emphasized—as he had hinted in my mom’s funeral—that “faith is more important than belief,” and by faith he meant not necessarily religious faith but integrity and ethics, commitment to family and community. There is a whole spectrum of levels of belief represented in the church congregation, he said, including, on one end, “people who tend toward the agnostic.” I guess I had known this, but to hear him say it was important. He even offered a workaround for my concerns about the vows one takes when becoming a member, which include liberal use of the word “believe.” Denoon led an entymological journey back in time, where he said the roots of the words “believe” and “belove” are the same; until recently, he said, “believe” didn’t even require a direct object. So when I avow that I believe in God, what I’m really saying is that I “belove.”
I be love. I can deal with that.
So on October 23, I stood before the congregation and took the vows and became a member of First Congregational Church. Phil was my sponsor, and when he introduced me he mentioned that one of the reasons I was joining was I were so impressed by Denoon’s homily at the funeral. Denoon said, “Well, if, as they say, religion is the opiate of the masses, I’m glad to be a gateway drug.”
And so it has now been five months since the funeral. The only Sundays I’ve missed at First Congregational were two or three Sundays that I was out of town, and I have truly missed being there those days.
I find myself intensely curious about the workings of the church and of the worship service itself, to which I pay close attention: the subtle changes to the order of the service from week to week, the swelling of the organ at the end of the offertory into the celebratory Doxology, and even the calling forth of concerns from the congregation of people to pray for. (I still don’t really understand prayer, but oddly, that’s one of my favorite parts of the service, to learn what my fellow church members are concerned about or celebrating each week.) And, of course, the always-brilliant sermons: I drive past the church just about every day on the way to or from work, and by Wednesday or Thursday they usually have the message board updated to show the title of the next Sunday’s sermon, which gives me several days of anticipation and guessing what the tone and idea of the sermon will be. On Sunday morning, I listen intently, trying to absorb every bit of it, to make sense of what the whole experience is about. I have even gone to a Wednesday evening “Sermon Talkback” meeting, at which a dozen or so church members sit around a table and discuss the previous Sunday’s message and then, led by Denoon, engage in Bible study for the remainder of the time. That’s something I want to do more of in the new year. (Yes, friends from college, I said “Bible study.”)
Hanging Of The Greens
On December 11, the church held its “Hanging of the Greens” ceremony. I’d heard about this over the last few years, and this fall I was particularly looking forward to seeing what it was all about. Turns out, it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever been a part of. And in this service, everyone had a part. In groups, at specific times, congregants left the sanctuary and returned with a succession of items with which to decorate the space: first wreaths, then candles, a crèche, poinsettias, etc. All along, various musical pieces are played or sung, by either the congregation or the choir or the bell choir.
Jean and I had signed up for poinsettia duty; we had also “sponsored” poinsettias in memory of her parents and my mom. At the appointed time in the service, we left our pews and went to get plants to bring back in. Poinsettias are the last, and most numerous, decorations to be placed; the line snaked back through the church hallways. By the time we had finished our duty and returned to our pews, the church was fully decked out for Christmas, and it was beautiful.
And we had been a part of it, and that, too, is something of beauty. Six months ago, I couldn’t have imagined spending my Sunday mornings there, now I can’t imagine not spending them there. For the first time in my life, I’m there not because I have to be there or because someone wants me to go, but because I want to be there.
Merry Christmas from Shoublog!