“The View from the Back Pew,” column for May 5, 2015

I hate to be late for church, especially as a visitor. If you come waltzing in late to church as a visitor, you might as well wave a sign that says, “I’m a potential new member who wants to pay off the mortgage on the parsonage, bring fried chicken to every social and rock crying babies in the nursery!”

Plus, you might get nabbed by some eager beaver usher who’ll drag you down front (back rows are hogged by the regulars) to sit under the preacher’s nose, where you’ll have to try to pay attention to the sermon instead of checking out what people are wearing.

Not that I care what people wear. I’m just saying. I didn’t want to be late. And I wasn’t. Well, not much. They were still doing announcements when I slipped in breathless from running up the steps and took a seat (yes!) in the back pew.

The great thing about a back pew is you can see everybody and everything. And when the service is over, you can duck out without socializing. Unless you want to socialize. Which on this particular day, I did not. When I visit my family in my hometown, time is always at a premium.

Sunday in the South has long been the day when families go to church and gather for Sunday dinner. It still is, more or less, even if nobody cooks. We still eat, but we go to Cracker Barrel or order pizza.

Wonder what my grandmother would say about that? She might think it’s the best idea to come along since store-bought snuff.

Anyhow, I had things to do after church, family to visit, pizza to eat, so I was thrilled to get a seat in the back pew. Growing up here a lifetime ago, I called this beautiful old building and its congregation my “church home.”

See that pew near the front? That’s where I sat most Sundays teasing my brother to make him laugh and causing our mother to nearly lose her religion.

The baptismal tank behind the choir loft? That’s where my sins were washed away when I was 12. I quit teasing my brother after that. Well, more or less.

The organ and piano played the hymns I learned word for word, every note, every verse. The pulpit held a pastor who preached sermons that taught me things I needed to know, some of which I still recall. And the stained glass windows cast long fingers of holy light that reached into our souls and lifted up our prayers and dreams and hopes and fears, all the way to Heaven.

That’s what this church was to me, in those tumultuous and tender years when I was growing up, a good place to be on Sunday morning or any time, a safe harbor for sinners, young and old.

It still is. I visit once a year or so when I’m in town. The only difference is now I’m a guest. They welcome me warmly, say they’re glad I’m here. I smile just as warmly and say, thanks, I’m glad, too. But they don’t know me from Adam’s house cat. And I don’t recognize a soul. Faces look different. Things change.

I could tell you the names of dozens of people I loved in this church. I could show you the exact pews where they sat, repeat endearing things they once said. They’re all gone now, moved on from this world to the next. On this Sunday, for some reason, I found myself missing them a lot. I felt ill at ease, a guest on hallowed ground where I once felt entirely at home.

We rose for one of my favorite hymns, “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing.” I sang extra loud, no need for a hymnal, taking comfort in the words and the music and the Truth.

That’s when I saw the plaques on the stained glass windows. I’d been fascinated by them as a child. They said the windows were placed in memory of people who worshipped in that church almost 100 years ago.

I grinned. If those folks came back today after so long away, would they feel like strangers? Or would they settle into a back pew and make themselves right at home?

Things change. Faces age. People die. Babies are born. We are here for just a while. But the church is an everlasting family of faith. Here, gone or visiting, we aren’t guests. We all belong.

I left at the final amen. Maybe next time I’ll stay to socialize.

Comments

  1. Tom Babington says:

    How can I receive/ or read your columns regularly?
    Loved this one!!!
    Thanks

    • Sharon Randall says:

      Thanks for asking, Tom. If you’d like to receive a weekly email link to the column, send me a request at my email address (randallbay@earthlink.net) and I’ll add you to the mailing list. All the best to you and yours!
      Sharon

  2. Randy Putt says:

    I loved your essays whenever I have the time to read them. The picture on your website looks better than the one in the Reading Times. A lot of your essays touch home and are great reading. Keep up the good work. There are too many people crying woe is me, being grandparents ourselves I enjoy your work. Keep it up,and never change the style of your writing.

  3. Kate Sciacca says:

    The Church of my childhood has all but shut down… The school attached to it shut down a few years ago… Changing demographics… But the school and Church are bursting at the seams in my memories – happy, holy places. ?

  4. Jo says:

    Amen!

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