Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The "Church in the Valley" ... or a Downtown Corner


There's a church in the valley by the wildwood,
No lovelier spot in the dale;
No place is so dear to my childhood
As the little brown church in the vale.


That was an old hymn that we sang often in the churches of my childhood - and it always reminded me, even as a young boy, of the little church that was, for me, my first memories of organized religion. It's a little white church on a bit of a hilltop in rural Harrison County, Kentucky. One summer afternoon a little boy about as big around as he was tall played in the front yard of a poor ole' farmhouse just down the road from that little white church. As a child, I would spend quite a bit of time - particularly during the summer - at the home of "Dee Dee & Uncle John" - dear friends of the family who were like a second (or third, or fourth) set of parents to me. The farm house belonged to them. Up pulls this BIGGGG shiny gold cadillac, with a woman almost twice as big around as she was tall. That kind lady - I can still remember her face - invited me to attend a Vacation Bible School at that little church that was to start that evening.

In many ways, my relationship with 'religion' began that day. My mother and grandmother had taught be about prayer, about God...I knew how to sing "Jesus Loves Me". I said my prayers before going to bed. But organized religion really wasn't a part of our experience in those early days. Until that first time I went to Vacation Bible School at the little Salem church. It was white, with a steeple that actually held a bell. Ringing that bell when I was little was one of the neatest things I could think of - and the pastor of that little church would sometimes let me do it before church time. It was still the call to worship.

That little church in Harrison County - and its pastor - soon introduced me to another loosely affiliated church in Lexington at the corner of Cramer & Hanover near downtown that became my home church. You know - as I sit here and write this - even without having stepped foot in that church for several years, it still feels like home to me. In fact, one of the things I really want to do before heading off to seminary is visit the church - and spend some time sharing love and memories with its people.

You see - all of who I am spiritually has its roots in the work God was doing in and through the loving people at those two little churches over 20 years ago. It was in those churches that I learned to lead in worship, learned to preach a sermon. I think I was 12 or 13 years old the first time the Elders of the little protestant church allowed me to preach my first sermon. Following around the Pastors and leaders of those churches - men and women alike - taught me a lot about what it means to serve God in big and little ways. In fact, all of the things that led me to the Catholic church...all of the tools I had at my disposal to seek God's direction for me toward the Catholic faith, toward the call to priesthood...it all had its beginning in the love, and ministry, or those two little churches.

I'm no theologian - I don't have the answers to lots of big questions - chief among them how the divisions in the body of Christ came about, what purpose they serve, how the Spirit of God may work in and through all Christians...how we all form the body of Christ on Earth. I don't know the answers to all those questions. What I do know, though, is my experience. And for me, I'm happy to call the men & women at Salem (in Harrison County) and Cramer & Hanover (in Lexington) my brothers & sisters in Christ. And I'm forever grateful for those "churches in the valley" so to speak - for all they meant to my life as a child, and they still mean today.

1 comment:

robert said...

Thanks for referencing "The Church in the Wildwood." Today is the 91st anniversary of the death of William Pitts, the author of the song. I've told the unusual story of the writing of it on my blog today, at Wordwise Hymns.

Though it is found in some hymn books, there is not really much biblical truth in the selection. It is more of a sentimental ballad. But it does reflect the affection many of us have for a particular local church, either because of the people we knew there, or because of some spiritual milestone we marked there.

With your personal reminiscences, you have captured the spirit of the song precisely. God bless.