This last Easter Sunday the MetaWife and I went to the Church we grew up in. My parents and a brother still attend there and we really needed to get back. We hadn't visited since Claire was born and there are still folks there who feel like family to me.
As I expected it was good to see familiar faces in the sanctuary, exchange hugs and handshakes and watch as all the ladies mobbed the new baby and Rudy, the inveterate baby holder, just watched and waited for an opportunity to claim her... It felt in some ways like a return to something old and familiar.
In other ways, though, it felt ever so strange. I'm not a nostalgic person by nature and my contemplative side tends to be more intellectual than experiential. Sitting in that familiar building, however, with many old familiar faces definitely inspired a mental tour of memory lane. Back in the early '90s, not too long after my parents joined, our congregation had experienced a real growth in numbers. I remember the Church of my youth with perhaps 130 people there at Easter - young families, lots of children running around - the hubbub and clamor of many voices. "Sunrise" services outside on cold green metal folding chairs - singing "The Hallelujah Chorus" in a congregation full of strong voices.
Even the Church of my young adulthood was still vibrant - several families had moved back east or otherwise drifted off, but I still remember a sense of life in the Church yet. So many people willing to serve... Sitting on the pews last Sunday Morning as as we finished singing and waited for breakfast I felt almost claustrophobic. The sanctuary had perhaps 40 people sparsely filling the pews and yet it was absolutely packed - packed with the ghosts of people who weren't there. Gary giving an Easter Morning opening - Arlene helping my Mom fix breakfast - perhaps Bob and June or Dave and Lou setting up and decorating the tables that used to fill the addition that we all built together. Even people I haven't seen or thought of in years filled the sanctuary with spectral presence - Marc and Jenny. Mike and Donna. So much talent and energy and life and service that the room practically shouted with its absence. Gone. All gone.
When I first left my Church - the only one I had really known as an adult - I was very clear about my reasons for leaving and thought perhaps I would write them out so that our many discussions would have a succint summation (from my point of view of course). Somehow I never managed and now I can barely remember all the conversations we had as people left. What I do know is that I am happy in the Congregation I am now part of - not because their theology is superior or the music or preaching is more entertaining or because I like the people who go there - I am happy there because it is my Church! There I am a part of the Body who can contribute to the life of the Church and share in making decisions about our Corporate life together. Perfect? Oh no! But I am allowed to be a part of the family...
I don't want to be entirely negative and so I will say two more things.
I remember a conversation with my Mom when I was a teenager that occurred as we listened to Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion. His radio show is always populated by vivid pictures of the imaginary Lutherans of Lake Woebegone - frequently a gentle mockery that is so well done it can only come from a long experience and even appreciation for the target. Keillor actually grew up Plymouth Brethren - a group not entirely unlike the Dunkard Brethren.
We didn't know, really, whether Keillor had faith in a personal way. Obviously his upbringing left him with a wry appreciation for the culture of the people who fill Lake Woebegone - and lots of stories to tell about Lutheran mannerisms and all the funny things that the Church ladies and Lute and Olaf did. But stories are not faith. I remember my Mom telling me "I don't want you to grow up and be left with only stories."
Well. By the grace of God it hasn't happened yet. I have moved in some ways from where I was when I was 15 or 16 - in theology, in outlook on life and Church. But if any Brethren were so impolitic as to still employ the "Annual Visit" I could still answer the "visiting brethren" with an affirmation that I am yet in the faith. I am not left with only nostalgia, only stories.
And I know that even if they don't claim responsibility for it any longer, that faith was nourished by the Church family I grew up in. Even for those of us with more abstract tendencies, faith is a thing learned by example and strengthened and shaped by the models around us. There is "no salvation outside the Church" - because it is in the Church that we grow and are shaped and strengthened.
At the time it was perhaps the saddest experience of my life, to leave my Congregation. And even now that new relationships have knit me into a new fellowship it is still sad to see what was and now is not. But still we share the same faith. On Easter Morning I recognize that I can say with Faith and with the all the Church catholic "Christ is Risen" in part because of the work of the Saints in the congregation in which I grew up and was formed.
Christ is Risen!
He is Risen indeed.