Going to church has always been a part of my life as long as I can remember. Even
though I grew up in what is now the large, trendy city of Miami, Florida, the church
my family attended was in the suburbs……a small, country Southern Baptist Church.
In my child’s memory Baptists seemed to go to church a lot. For sure we went Sunday
morning and Sunday evening and Wednesday night to prayer meeting. There were
revivals in the summer and vacation bible school, homecoming in the fall and various and sundry other opportunities during the rest of the year. My senses also remember
that small country church…. My nose remembers the damp, somewhat musty smell of a
cement block Sunday school building that for a while my family cleaned on Saturdays in order to raise a little extra money to make ends meet, my eyes remember the simplicity of the lecturn, the wooden cross and the baptismal pool that I was baptized in when I was 12 years old, my fanny remembers the hard wooden benches where every child set quietly even when you were four or five years old, listening to the preacher whose words you really didn’t understand. But my ears remember the most! There were old timey hymns like “The Old Rugged Cross” and “Just As I Am”, there were prayers that seemed to go on forever and there were big, bold voices and even an occasional AMEN. Over the years I think we went through a series of pastors. I’m not sure of all the circumstances of the coming and going but I suspect it had something to do with church politics, moving and the natural course of events that takes place in churches of all denominations. However, there were some characteristics of each minister that remain in my mind to this day. The demeanor was often larger than life, booming voices, bibles waving and words that to a young child were often frightening. I heard much about a God who was judging, and punishing and who must be looking at me every minute to see if I was doing something wrong. I knew in my heart if I slipped up my reward at the end of my life was not going to be a good one. The expectation of spending eternity in a place filled with “hell fire and brimstone” was pretty frightening.
However, besides going to church, there were other things I remember about my childhood. Probably the most favorite thing I did every year was to leave Miami at the end of each school year and go to my Aunt Polly’s house in Dillsboro, North Carolina. Some of you may have even visited there. It’s a tiny town in the mountains about 3 hours from Atlanta where Thomas the Train comes to take children for rides every year. My aunt still lives in the very same house where she has resided for 74 years. Most often my mom, dad, sister and I would drive to Dillsboro in our station wagon which took about 23 hours if you went straight through. Occasionally we would stop to spend the night in a motel but most often my parents took turns driving and we would make the trip in one day. Once my Aunt came to Miami before school was out and we took the train to North Carolina. That too was a long ride but was one filled with the wonder of what I saw out the window rather than constant arguing with my sister about whose space was whose in the back seat of the car. When we got to my aunts my four cousins were waiting and even though the one cousin closet to me in age was five years older we still had a great time hanging out.
Hanging out in Dillsboro, North Carolina often meant walking through the woods, skipping rocks in the creek or climbing trees. This was the favorite part of my visit. My cousin and I would walk two miles to her grandparents, passing a creek where milk was put to cool because there was no refrigerator, we jumped out of a hay loft, and played hide and seek in the root cellar that was spooky, dark and damp. We also picked flowers and branches of trees to take home to be put in vases on the kitchen table.
As I got a little older and began to think about how this all related to what I believe about God and faith and the journey we each take in life, I realized the God I loved was not that judging and punishing God but rather a loving, forgiving and life-giving God. When I looked at the beautiful dogwood or mountain laurel blooming on a North Carolina mountain I could only imagine God’s pleasure at what he had created. When I saw and heard water babbling over a mountain brook, or rushing in a mountain river I thought about a God who made the world a beautiful place for us to enjoy and take care of for ourselves and those who will come after us.
But God is not just in those beautiful North Carolina mountains. He’s everywhere around us. When I’m up early in the morning running before I come to school and I look up and see a million stars and a moon so full and bright it takes your breath away I know that God is good and loves me. Just last week I turned onto Johnson Ferry Road leaving my neighborhood and saw the sun coming up over the horizon, bright and round and orange, holding the promises of a glorious spring day. This is the handiwork of a loving God, who forgives my sins and through the bounty, beauty and every changing glory of nature makes me whole.
This is what I believe. Amen
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