2021- Lenten Meditation- Lynne S

When the phone rang, I had an earworm, one of those recurring inner tunes you can’t shake. Usually my earworms are old folk or rock tunes from the 70s, occasionally an annoying ad jingle. That morning it was the haunting hymn by Ralph Vaughan Williams, “Come Forth, O Love Divine,” which asks God to “seek now this soul of mine, and visit it with your own ardor glowing.” Why? No idea. It was Rebecca on the phone, calling to invite me to give this meditation. I tried to say no. I really did. I reminded her of what I’d said during our Explorer meeting, that my faith was anything but “An Oaken Staff”.  But this was Rebecca. Saying no was not an option. And I took the morning earworm as a vaguely “woo-woo” sign that maybe I should give this a try.

I grew up with a child’s unquestioning faith. The First Trinitarian Congregational Church in Scituate, MA, was what we did on Sundays.  The UCC, then 10 years old, was a mere footnote on the signboard. Mom sang in the choir and was a deaconess, which meant she poured grape juice and cut up Arnold white bread for the male deacons to serve.  Dad sang hymns enthusiastically off key and snoozed through the generally dreadful sermons. Childhood was a blur of Strawberry festivals, church fairs, and Pilgrim Fellowship. Snoozing myself through Sam Young’s confirmation class in a stuffy upstairs office.

At 15, I was asked by the music director, also my high school music teacher, to be the interim organist. I was a good enough high school pianist that I accompanied the school choral groups. And so, I took organ lessons (on my parents’ nickel) while earning a princely $20/week on the job.  Either I was good enough (or the budget was tight enough) that they didn’t resume the search until I went off to college.

My child’s faith took a blow after I took an Existentialism class in English.  In retrospect, I’m confident that it was “Existentialism Light” – we were pretty young- but I took away some headlines. Satre: There is no Creator. Camus: Man’s existence is absurd. And Kierkegaard:  While faith is the most important task of humanity, we cannot believe in God by virtue of reason. Choosing faith requires the suspension of reason and a qualitative leap to bridge the gap between knowledge and God. Not a leap I felt I could take. This stuff rocked my world. I went to my teacher (never parents!) and told her that I didn’t think I believed in God any longer.  She told me, “Don’t worry, you’ll grow out of it.”  I’m 67 now and in some fundamental ways I still have that adolescent’s problem.

Like so many confirmands, I went off to school leaving church behind. It wasn’t until nearly 20 years later that, aching from a failed marriage, mother of a toddler, I returned to church in a St. Louis suburb, looking for the same kind of comforting support for my son as I had had myself. The liturgy and the Pilgrim Hymnal were basically unchanged from my childhood and that was enough for me then. The sermons were better, often founded around Social Justice, and I was able to skirt away from the harder questions about just what I believed and didn’t believe. I found a community, served on the Social Action Committee, taught Sunday School and eventually met David Mehl, UCC minister and the love of my life.

When we married, I assumed a new role, Preacher’s Wife, in addition to my full-time Cardiology practice. Perhaps in part because of my profession,  and in part because David’s was at a small church filled with large generous hearts, I was spared many of the social expectations my mother-in-law had experienced in the role in an earlier time.  I became the choir accompanist and filled in at the organ and later was part of the Organ Committee which selected the church’s new Harrison and Harrison organ. That was a wonderful experience- traveling to churches all over the city and as far as Chicago with the consultant, honing our ears to the differences in sound.

During those sweet years at Hope Church, I became very conversant with liturgical seasons and lectionary cycles. I am admittedly biased, but David is an exceptional preacher and writer, subtle and thought provoking, and I relished immersing myself in his thought processes during sermons. A belief in ethics, love for one’s fellow beings and Social Justice as exemplified by the life of Jesus were easy for me to embrace. Other core Christian beliefs, most notably a belief in Jesus as the literal Son and personification of God, a literal Resurrection and a literal afterlife  continued and continue to elude my scientist’s brain. I was also maturing as a Cardiologist during this period and had learned that one of the roles most precious to me in my care of patients and their families was that of counselor and support during the difficult transitions through disease and even, sometimes inevitably, end of life. I discovered that what was most helpful during these times was telling the truth, even when it was hard. Explaining complex medical issues in language which was clear and understandable. Taking the time to sit (not stand) at the bedside for as long as it took to bring those in my care to a process of shared decision making. Not being afraid to show that my patient’s pain hurt me as well.  Surely there is grace (and God?) in these things as well. David and I joked about how similar our roles sometimes were, and a friend called us “Heart and Soul.”

After 13 years at Hope, during which he had nurtured and grown an at-risk urban church, David transitioned to a large suburban congregation. We were there five years, during which time I learned just how poisonous the culture can be in an institution which calls itself the church. Worship of the past and disdain of change.  Poison pen notes left anonymously in the pew racks. Longterm committee chairs hoarding perceived power.  Most famously,  David literally broke up a fist fight between the woman tending the flower beds and the man responsible for the lawn over a pile of mulch. A choice of paint or the site to hang a portrait of a lily white Jesus could provoke blood feuds.  What was hardest during this time was  feeling that I needed to remain silent for David’s sake, even though this was nominally my church too, and seeing the effect this had on our youngest child who has not returned to church since. After David’s resignation, I found myself unable to go to any church consistently for the next 5 years. The knowledge that the congregation that we left has had a total of 6 Senior Ministers in the past 8 years has been cold comfort.

After 30 years in first private then academic practice, I retired in 2019. David, who had been happily serving as the Executive Director of the Interfaith Partnership of Greater St Louis, retired later in that year. We made the move to Rhode Island to be closer to family and to return to the New England landscape which had haunted me since childhood. We agreed to find a church that suited us both, and to commit to a new congregation together. Searching for a church is a bit of a Goldilocks endeavor- one’s too big, one too small, another too cold—you get the idea. We are very happy to have found our church home at Central. We were drawn by excellence in the pulpit, warm pastoral care, an exceptional music director and a wonderful challenging choir with people we have begun to care for.  We look forward to getting to know more of you in the “After” of the pandemic.

So where is my faith now? The passage in Hebrews says that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” I can clearly say that I’m nowhere near that conviction. I know that sometimes, in settings of natural beauty, in a garden, in the joining of my voice with others in song, sometimes- if I’m lucky- when the music I’m playing transports me beyond technique, or when I bask in the love of family, I have intimations of the divine. When they come, they are always surprising, always a blessing. To me, faith in many ways remains aspirational. I know I am called to live the best, most ethical and generous life I’m able. Beyond that is inquiry and yearning, both of which I’m confident will last a lifetime. And that may be enough. The Vaughn William hymn says it: “And so the yearning strong with which the soul will long, shall far outpass the power of human telling; For none can guess its grace, till love create a place wherein the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling.”  Amen.

Posted in 2021 Lenten Reflections, Lenten Reflections.