There’s a church in the valley by the wildwood,
No lovelier place in the dale,
No spot is so dear to my childhood
As the little brown church in the vale.
-- William S. Pitts
Okay, the church that we went to Sunday was surrounded by corn-stubble fields made recently into impromptu lakes by two days of continuous rains, not woods—wild or otherwise—and here in northern Ohio, valleys are distant rumors. But still, it’s fair to say that few spots from my childhood are as dear as Zion U.C.C., in Fireside (a spot you probably won’t find on a map).
Going there at least once a week for the first eighteen plus years of my life, there’s probably nowhere other than my childhood home that I spent more time. Walking into the sanctuary yesterday, much was familiar—the same Christmas banners were hung along the sides (they could easily be 40+ years old, but they look the same as I remember them), the same hymnals are in the same pews (they were upholstered while I was growing up, so I also remember them as bare wood), the same altar, the same lectern and pulpit, the same carpet and the same stain-glass windows.
And quite a few of the same people—familiar old faces lit up when they saw me with my mother and my oldest daughter. There was no one from my generation there, just the parents and grandparents of our generation. Of course, those were some of the adults I most respected as a child and young man. Some from that generation are no longer with us, but it was a delight to see the ones I did.
There were also changes--they've been through a few ministers since I left, there was a new organ down by the lectern where a piano used to be, instead of above the back of the sanctuary, and a grand piano on the other side, by the pulpit, and there were large screens at the front and back of the sanctuary (though there wasn't much of import up there).
I was there to hear your borning cry,
I’ll be there when you are old.
I was there the day you were baptized,
To see your life unfold.
--John C. Ylvisaker
The minister asserted--against all the obvious evidence to the contrary--that “I was there to hear your borning cry” is one of the most beautiful hymns ever written, as she prepared to baptize a father and daughter yesterday. As it happens, the father was a classmate of mine in school, though he just recently started going to my childhood church. His daughter is not quite four months old.
But it was perhaps all the more striking to me that all the people who graduated from high school with me--there were more than a half dozen of us just in my class--and those who graduated in the years before and after mine--my generation is otherwise completely absent.
I realized recently that my family's ties to this church are deep--I'm relatively confident that I've understood the historical record to say that one of my ancestors back in the 1800s played a big role in building the church (or, anyway, the church that became this church--it burned down sometime in the mid-20th Century). Something like five generations--that's a guess, I'm too lazy to look it up this morning. But I don't go there any more. From what I could see, a lot of the older people in the church were people that have known me all their life and been more or less life-long members, and there are some younger families there too, but by and large the younger and middle-aged folks there all seem to be new. Which is great for the congregation--with so many people of my generation leaving our small town, they have to bring in new members to survive, but there's also something that sees it as unfortunate that families that have been part of the church's history for generations have left and been replaced with entirely new people.
Maybe that song, "I was there to hear your borning cry" played into those thoughts, as it speaks to the continuity in one's life and from generation to generation that God, theoretically, provides. I shouldn't be surprised if it generations some nostalgic feelings in me, some vague desires for a past that's gone--after all, it's the greatest hymn ever written.