My Mother's World

At Camp Canonicus with my mother

Lessons for Finding Church When the Building Is Empty

The earliest memories I have of my mother are her singing to me before bed. There are a number of songs that she sang--hymns mostly--but one was almost always in the mix, and it shaped me:



"This is my Father's world, and to my listening ears,
all nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.
This is my Father's world: I rest me in the thought
of rocks and trees, of skies and seas; his hand the wonders wrought.

This is my Father's world, the birds their carols raise,
the morning light, the lily white, declare their maker's praise.
This is my Father's world: he shines in all that's fair;
In the rustling grass I hear him pass, he speaks to me everywhere.

This is my Father's world. O let me ne'er forget
that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father's world: why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King; let the heavens ring! God reigns; let earth be glad!"

Here's what I absorbed in hearing this lovely hymn before bed each night.

1. There is music all around us if we stop and listen. We were a family of musicians. My mother played the oboe; my father and brother played the trumpet; I played French Horn and piano; we all could sing. But this taught me that human music was not the only music. God had amply provided for those who didn't have access to recorded albums, live concerts, and church choirs. "All nature sings." The soprano of bird song was answered by the rhythmic bass of the frogs, supported by tremolo of the crickets rubbing their legs together. In the city it might be the music of lively conversation to the rhythm of utensils on plates, supported by the drone of workers in the streets doing what God has gifted them to do. I always hear music now.

So as it sinks in that congregational and choral singing is a danger to people's lives in this pandemic, I mourn that loss as much as anyone. But I also know that the great composers and stunning choirs I have been privileged to join aren't the only ones producing music, and humans are not the only ones singing. My mother taught me how to listen for it; and she taught me that it, too, was praise.

2. The created world is God's house. We went to church every Sunday and every other time there were services. We went to church on vacation. In my teens I was so eager for church that I went to two other churches who had services on Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights because my own church didn't have services then and church was where I wanted to be. I understand wanting to physically be in a church building, to see those I came to love there, and to participate in the rituals.

But now, in a time when to gather puts both myself and others at risk of death, the shift outside church walls is both a no-brainer and seamless. I have no sense that I am not "in church" on a Sunday morning; because I was taught from infancy that God "shines in all that's fair; in the rustling grass I hear him pass, he speaks to me everywhere." I couldn't be out of church if I tried. Church is where God is; and where is that? Everywhere.

3. Bad things happen--really bad things--and it seems sometimes like evil will win. But it won't. I can't count the number of times those lines from the third verse have pulled me up from the darkest pits of my life. "And though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet." And who is that God? Love.

I may not live to see it. My own situation might remain dire; I or my loved ones might die--and they have. Too many, too young. Horrors will come, and as long as I have breath I must respond to them as Jesus did: To give aid and comfort to those who are hurting and to call out a "Woe to you!" for those inflicting harm. But in the end? There will be justice--however far off it might seem in the moment. However mighty and impenetrable the evil seems, the ultimate power it claims is a lie. "God is the ruler yet."

The wrong these days does seem incredibly strong. There are days I can scarcely bare it, and I'm hardly touched by it directly. But those immense wrongs are the call to the church to go be the church--to get out there and help to right them--to be Christ for the world. The pandemic has literally tossed us out of our lovely buildings, and the time that would have been used for choir practice and church meetings is now free so that we can do what all those years in the pews should have been teaching us to do: Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

My mother also sang, "The church is not a building; the church is not a steeple; the church is not a resting place; the church is a people." We are the Church, Creation is God's sanctuary, and showing our love of God by loving our neighbors as ourselves is the way to eternal life. There is absolutely nothing about being the church that has been lost in this moment. The wrong is strong and we have been dragged out of our pews and away from our cantatas and forced to look at how we have failed to be the church outside the walls we erected for ourselves.

The picture I posted here is me with my mother at Camp Canonicus, the American Baptist church camp in Rhode Island where I went every summer. At camp we always sang: "And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love; yes, they'll know we are Christians by our love." Those outside our buildings have some well-founded skepticism about that claim. There is no better opportunity than this unprecedented time to prove it.

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