Such love does the sky now pour, that whenever I stand in a field, I have to wring the light out when I get home. ~ St. Francis of Assisi
My childhood religion taught me that God loves us, but God is also a punishing God. Sunday school classes included coloring pictures of a rather sensuous, longhaired, sandal-footed Jesus surrounded by children, but the basement classroom was also cold, damp, and held a faint odor from the kids’ bathroom next door. Sermons were interminably long, filled with words I didn’t understand. The only things that kept my interest were the programs that included people—family night dinners, volleyball with the youth group. Looking back I see it was the people that made the connection for me as a child and teenager. But as a young adult, the pain of a personal loss was greater than a connection with a caring community. Accepting caring from others would mean having an open heart and my heart hurt too much. I had cut the line that connected me to God.
In 1975 I had made a conscious decision to tell God, “Hit the road, Jack.” I was broken. Devastated. Shocked and what I thought of as betrayed, when my first husband, my Everything, died. He didn’t just get sick and die or just fade away. He was killed in a violent, messy, bloody accident. Even today that one sentence goes straight to the category of “’nuff said.” I back away from thinking and writing how his physical presence and beautiful life was ripped out of him in about seven seconds.
Although I was in my mid-twenties, my emotional development was somewhere back at age fifteen. I remember thinking I must have done something really awful to have him die. If that’s God’s modus operandi, I’m outta here. No church services for me for sixteen years. And a lot of energy spent in holding the doors of my heart closed to love and trust in God and other people. Pretty tiring to say the least.
I’ve had a relationship with two churches in my life. My childhood church at which I absorbed the above rendition of good, connections with people, as well as punishment. And a church on the North shore of Long Island which was the idyllic church of my childhood summers. This Miller Place LI church service was an hour spent in a small white clapboard church complete with bell in the steeple, choir loft up and back, and dark cranberry velvet-covered seats on long wooden pews.
The soothing part of that hour was that each pew bordered the carpeted aisle at one end and a long narrow window that opened out onto view of the Long Island Sound at the other. If I scooted ahead of my parents and sisters, I could claim the window seat. I think I spent summer Sundays daydreaming and looking at the changing Sunday skies. Pale blue, wispy clouds in front of bright blue, or billows of morning thunderclouds, and hearing the rain as it hopscotched down through oak leaves to the ground. I recall not one sermon or song from that summer church. But when I think of it today I find a small contented sigh slips up and out of me.
So what made me search out my childhood church? After almost two decades of ‘don’t give me any of that God loves you’ stuff, I lived part of two more decades slowly peeling back the layers of resentment, hurt, and abandonment to nurture the seed of an adult woman who really had yearned for love and trust in her life.
About ten years ago I ‘happened’ to get a newsletter from my childhood church. It was tri-folded and taped shut but had that little logo sketch of the church and the newsletter title “Tower Chimes” visible in the upper left corner that served as the return address. Curious, I opened it. Seemed the building was still the same size, but the population had shrunk. And still struggling economically. The front page letter from the minister, Rev. Nancy Jennings, was filled with love, inclusion, and compassion. Not a bit about punishment. Just what I was looking for.
I wrote a letter to Rev. Jennings thanking her for the newsletter and explaining my childhood connection with the church. She published the letter in the next newsletter with an invitation for other distant members to “check in and say hello.” I put myself on the mailing list. A tenuous lifeline to a church.
Each month I read about the church activities I remembered from childhood. Deacon meetings—my Dad always went to those. Potluck suppers—my mother’s yellow Jell-O with pineapple and the opportunity to have Mrs. Doscher’s scrumpious brownies. I read about joint church meetings, 12-step groups, in everyday language about love and helping others.
Even though I lived a hundred miles from the church I began to think of it as my church. Perhaps the geographical distance was what I needed to dip my toes into the lake of faith. I read the monthly newsletters from cover to cover. Health updates—who was sick, who had fallen and was in rehab. Most of the names were unfamiliar, but then there’d be a recognizable family name—yes, we knew them. Who got engaged, how many pennies the Sunday school kids had collected. Special events—One Great Hour of Sharing, Coffee Hour after the Sunday service, The Annual Easter Egg Hunt. Did the church get more humane? Did I? Who changed?
When my first book was published I wrote to my new minster friend and told her. She put it in the newsletter. A man who was my parents’ friend read about it and contacted me about my family. We exchanged news from the last thirty years, and another lifeline tied me to the little church.
Geographically I moved from a hundred miles to three thousand miles from the little church. The lifeline strengthened with each newsletter. I ordered poinsettias for the sanctuary at Christmas—did we do that when I was a child? When Seedlings was published, the minister, who is now on my email list, wrote a paragraph about it in the Tower Chimes labeling me as a one-time member, and I kind of like that.
And now I am going back East for my Seedlings book tour. I will be staying a hundred miles from that church. I will drive near the town where it is. Maybe I’ll go visit it in person. My heart beats faster at the thought. Not with anxiety, but with anticipation. So I guess my heart has known all along what to do.