The family gathers today. Now I realize you playing along at home will notice that I haven't mentioned the actual death of the one for whom we gather. And you're very astute. Indeed, my mother has not yet died. However, with some of us already here, and others chomping at the bit, we decided to hold a private family memorial service for Mom this afternoon at the Methodist Church where she's been a member since 1965 or thereabouts. She may still be breathing in and out and in and...pause...out, but that's just about it. So we'll pull up chairs around a crude wooden cross in their fellowship hall and, for Mom's sake, count ourselves.
I walked around that church the other day. I was shocked by the sanctuary where the long blond wooden pews had been replaced with comfortable stackable chairs set in rows of semi-circles. Those wooden pews weren't very comfortable, but they managed to help keep us awake every Sunday, were easy to slide along when either Mom or Dad shoo-ed us farther along to fit our large family. We also slid on the concrete floor beneath them, holding onto the bottoms and pulling ourselves along, when we played hide and seek during youth group or at midnight when my friends and I wandered through the always unlocked doors. Our church was always a place to sit and talk.
Downstairs is a room where my older brother, next younger sister and I were in junior choir every Friday afternoon, under the direction of Mrs. Cheng, who had really, really shiny fingers, which were mesmerizing as she lifted her hands to conduct our rag-tag little crew. My sister and I can still sing an echoing Palm Sunday duet from those days, which only works if I lead (which may be a commentary about our relationship, but I won't mention that here!). Beside that room, in the 'new' part of the building, is what I always think of as 'Dad's Scout room' because he was the Scout Master when the remodel was completed. I wasn't in that room very often, though. The remodel happened about the time I stopped going to church with my parents. Or maybe even after I left town. I was upstairs in the large fellowship hall an important time or two--for my wedding reception, when Mom retired from her 31-year teaching career, when Dad retired from his 67 Eagle-Scout-producing Scout Master career. And, of course, when Dad died.
Yep, my parents truly lived their lives in this barn-shaped church a block up the hill from downtown in my hometown. They had all of their six children baptized in this church, the first four of us and Dad together. I was about twelve and somewhat horrified that we were 1. on stage; 2. so much older than the babies who cried in the minister's arms when he sprinkled water on their heads; and 3. all in a row, like a bunch of heathens, though I didn't know the word nor understand the concept. It's no surprise that years later, in college, when I saw the meaningfulness of immersion baptism, I was hungry to experience it as a true believer rather than a belligerent, embarrassed pre-teen.
Mom taught Sunday school, played in the bell-choir and proudly counted her kids as they sat in a row between Dad and her in the long second pew on the right side. However, one of the most amazing graces my parents extended us is that they allowed us to leave that church as we asked them. My older brother and I, when we became believers, wished to attend a less liberal, more evangelical church across town. It wasn't easy for our parents to let us leave their church. I remember the conversations, the long, difficult conversations. Mom cried some, I remember that. But they allowed it. And we left. Later, of course, we went away to school, or married, or both, and that barn-like church was never our church home again, and the number between them in the pew shrank to two, then to zero. Then for a few years, far too few, it turned out, Mom and Dad faithfully sat side-by-side in that same second-row pew, served on committees, and taught Bible studies together.
And then Dad died, leaving Mom alone in the pew. Sitting alone in the same place where she'd once sat with eight other people, counting her six kids, husband and her mother, who lived with us for about a dozen years. And still she was faithful, continuing her Bible study teaching--she taught a class based on old hymns for a long time--and serving on committees, until the dementia made it too hard.
Mom loved it when we came back for a visit and came to church with her, or when my sister and her family showed up for a special occasion. She loved looking down that pew and seeing it full again, if just for a day. She'd stand up proudly and sing out the songs she loved with gusto because we had filled the seats beside her, and she could introduce us during the "Joys and Concerns" part of the service. She loved counting us. Just plain counting us.
So today, if she could count, here's the total: WE'RE ALL HERE! All five of her living children, all their spouses, all ten of her grandchildren, all their spouses. Both of her living sister-in-laws, and her one living brother-in-law. Her important niece and family. It's a grand total. One she'd be flabbergasted, and, hopefully, awed by. I hope she'd know--I hope somehow she DOES know. We're here because we love her. And that's the final count. Amen.