Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Memory Lane

Certain experiences call up distinct memories, transporting you instantly to a time and place long forgotten. Oddly enough, the doxology did that to me the other day.

For those of you unfamiliar with the doxology -- in this case the Gloria Patri, or lesser doxology -- it is a brief expression of praise to the Holy Trinity used in many traditional Protestant and Catholic services. Let loose with a hearty doxology around any random group of worshipping Christians and chances are they'll be able to hum the tune and possibly catch some of the words before you finish. You could even call it a drinking song if communion is being served.

Having grown up in a family of Methodists (we drank grape juice instead of wine), I sang the doxology every Sunday when I was a kid. So, it came as no surprise I didn't need to read the lyrics from the program the other morning when the doxology popped up in the Presbyterian service we were attending. Twenty-plus years of Methodist training took over and I bellowed the Gloria Patri to the best of my ability. Unlike the Lord's Prayer that changes slightly from church to church -- seriously, why can't everyone just use the word "trespasses?" -- the doxology was played exactly as I remembered it.

Instantly, I was taken back to the church of my youth. I could have been sitting next to my Mother, fighting for pew space with my brothers, our Dad leading the ushers in their weekly collection duties. Even the familiar aromas of the old church seemed to surround me.

The United Methodist Church of Hempstead, located on the corners of Washington Street and Front Street on Long Island, is a modestly majestic structure built in the 1800s and expanded over time. It has that old-timey feel to it that keeps you mindful of why you're there. My brothers and I whiled away many hours at the church as our parents attended meetings and served in various leadership roles. Once we were old enough we got involved, too, helping run flea markets, painting Sunday school rooms, and serving as waitstaff for fundraisers. We knew every nook and cranny of the old and new buildings and the various passages between them by the time we left for college.

It was easy to get lost in the beauty of the historic sanctuary. With seating for several hundred people in classic wood pews, it opens tall and wide when you enter through the swinging doors from the narthex. Towering stainglass windows line each of the side walls, my favorite of which depicts an angel speaking to the two Mary's outside Jesus' tomb. The muddled darkness of a grainy cellphone snapshot does no justice to the artistic rendering best viewed at sunrise service on Easter morning as the light pours through and illuminates every last detail of the story. The other seven windows also are lovely to behold, but they pale in comparison.

We typically sat near the back of the church, preferrably the back row, center section, on the left. From that vantage point you could watch the entire ceremony unfold and people-watch all of the other parishioners. You could easily spot which of the old ladies had a new hat, which couple had the prettiest daughter, and which family was kind enough to bring a baby at which to make faces during the service.

The front wall of the sanctuary held two massive banks of pipes our organist would employ to rumble the foundations of the building with the thundering voice of God, or maybe just Bach. Whichever you prefer, the effect was impressive. He literally would pull out all the stops, his hands and feet flying from key to key and pedal to pedal during the postlude. Many times I would remain in my pew and wait for the end of the mini concert. I suppose that organ is one of the reasons I prefer a traditional service to this day. Church simply doesn't feel like church without the dynamic range of a pipe organ rattling my dry bones.

I had the pleasure of revisiting the old church a couple months back when I traveled to New York on business. Rather than waste the lunch hour sitting in some fast food chain, I drove to Hempstead and wandered in through the main doors of the newer building near the small office. Immediately, I was eleven years old, fully expecting to see my Grandfather rounding the corner from the old social hall, his full head of hair slicked back and a broad smile stretching under his bulbous nose.

I'd like to say the old place hasn't changed, and in many ways it hasn't, but as I moved through the familiar spaces I could feel the age of the structure weighing it down. Cracking paint, water-damaged ceilings, worn out carpets, and a general lack of capital improvement could be spotted at almost every turn. And the building stands now like a box in the open, all of the beautiful shrubs and bushes that lined the outside walls long since torn out. I wouldn't say the building was being neglected, but it was easy to see the money wasn't there to sustain its former glory.

Even so, the nitpicker in me fell away the moment I entered the sanctuary. Yes, the carpet inside the main door is threadbare and paint is cracking off the walls, but you simply cannot deny the grand effect of the design of the worship hall. Just entering the room causes you to speak more quietly, tread more lightly, and approach with respect.

I found it difficult to keep a dry eye as I meandered up and down the aisles, recalling who regularly sat where, envisioning my Father putting up the hymn numbers for the next service, watching the little kids leave for Sunday school after having their moment with the minister before the sermon, standing near the altar railing for my brother's wedding, kneeling at the railing for countless communions, sitting at the front of the church with my Grandfather's casket on display in front of the altar as the minister's voice faltered during the funeral service... If not for work, I could have lingered for hours.

Perhaps some day the old church will be properly restored. Maybe an anonymous donation will fund improvements, or it will be declared an historical treasure and restored for future generations to enjoy as a living museum of religious art and architecture. Who knows? I'm just happy to see it's still there and know I can return to wander down memory lane if I'm ever feeling so inclined.

In the meantime, there's always the doxology.

© 2011 Mark Feggeler


  1. As ironic as it is to say this, "Amen.". - Brother Tom

  2. Quite ironic, indeed! -- Mark

  3. Wonderfully written and voicing the feelings of those of us still attending weekly .... copies will be made and passed along on Sunday - especially those who remember you as the eleven year old boy you mentioned. Thank you - Jean Bearak

  4. I'm glad you liked it! Hopefully others will, too.