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The usual late afternoon snowstorm had mercifully subsided. From behind the steering wheel of my car, it was theoretically possible to make out traffic signals again and approaching cars with their headlights blazing.
In one of the distant Minneapolis suburbs an unpretentious little sign by the roadside of a chapel offered the traveler an invitation:
“Try Church Again”
There was no elaboration. There really wasn’t room for it on the sign.
Smaller churches today are hurting. It’s not exactly a secret.
The church sign’s suggestion had nothing much to do with the unsocial behavior of the winter of 2014. It was an appeal for passing motorists to consider the outside possibility that a return to church might make life more sensible again; and if not that, at least a little more orderly....
I would be among the last to argue. Church today is part of my life. But you probably need to know that I have not fallen into the clutches of the Amalgamated Ministerial Societies of Minnesota and its neighbors. I’ve spent substantial years on both sides of the question of whether organized religion makes sense or is relevant. I pick no fights with those who say it is not.
But in later life, especially, I find church-- beyond its other gifts—is, well, a renewal.
As a kid I grew up in the Catholic Church. In many ways the years were endearing. I’m still ready to break out in tears when Notre Dame loses. But I fell away entering adulthood, and later felt the pain and anger, along with ,so many others in the revelations of predatory priests—although I was aware there were and are thousands of priests who serve their church and its members faithfully and unconditionally. And I joined millions in cheering the arrival of Pope Francis from Argentina.
But I’m alive today because a church pastor I’d known distantly through my newspaper work invited me to attend services with his Lutheran congregation. I’d been drinking, looking for stability in my life and wasn’t smart enough to know that it was impossible unless I realized something had to change.
It did, with the intervention of a traffic cop, a hard-headed judge, my family and a reaffirmation of belief. After awhile I felt at ease probing the mysteries in my new comfort with faith and thought I would take some of those mysteries and imagine—in a small book I wrote—how God himself might respond to the usual questions about the dilemmas of faith. I created visualization. What would I ask God if God granted a one hour interview?
It would have to be a God with whom I could converse, and probably in the English language, this being a limitation of my human condition. In this imaginary meeting, God arrived in comfortable clothing and a reasonably cordial attitude, reminding me that He heard all of those Notre Dame prayers but had to be just as fair to the folks at Southern Methodist, to say nothing of Brigham Young in Utah. Pleasantly He granted me an hour. We talked about my fallibilities, but He suggested that I was still far from being a basket case.
I found this comforting. I brought up some of the mysteries one encounters trying to square faith with the realities of today’s world. After which God said, “One problem you have when you talk about mysteries of faith is that being human you have a limited mind.” This I acknowledged. “Don’t complicate it,” He said. I said I wouldn’t in the future. He smiled pleasantly and said, “I’ll be seeing you,” a farewell I viewed with a certain shaky optimism. We left, you would hope, on good terms.
One doesn’t want to get preachy entering the mixed bogs of faith, belief, worship and the unknown. What I know about the hereafter is minimal. I know that my renewal of faith and belief needs affirmation and that a place where I can receive it is in a gathering where I can raise my voice with others in a hymn, exchange greetings and, every now and then, hear the choir sing Mozart’s “Ave Verum” — a lovely motet he wrote six months before he died, music his wife cherished. It offers a serenity, in that setting, that is altogether beautiful.
For some, it may be beautiful enough to try church again.