jen groeber: mama art

4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.

Going Back to Church on an Island (Easter 2015)

We went to church this weekend.

Kids in church  Easter 2015

Kids in church
Easter 2015

On the one hand, it’s no shocker. It was Easter, and I get after it when it comes to Christian holidays. I was raised Lutheran in a house that desperately craved the emblems of familial love and the dependable consistency that comes with celebrating holidays. Growing up we never missed a Sunday of church and we certainly never missed a holiday.

Easter and Christmas of course, were the best. Even Good Friday night service, the one where the altar boys or girls would silently extinguish the only candles lighting the whole church until only one remained. A hush would fall over the pews and then the pastor would talk about the nailing of Jesus to the cross, slam the Bible closed and then reach out to extinguish the last light. We would exit the church and drive home and go up to bed in absolute silence.

That service was so amazing in part because it was the perfect foil to the service two days later; baskets of yellow daffodils, Easter bonnets, a booming organ filling the church with a resounding JESUS CHRIST IS RISEN TODA-AY, HA-A-A-A-A-LAY-A-LU-U-YAH. And then we would greet each other with a boastful, “HE IS RISEN!” and then “HE IS RISEN INDEED!”

Jennie, sister, sister, father  Easter 1975

Jennie, sister, sister, father
Easter 1975

Somewhere along the way between that childhood church on the highway in New Jersey and here, I stopped going to church. It trickled away during late night conversations in college about women’s rights and diversity, and then emptied out as I worked at a school where monks, some good, some not so much, haunted the hillsides in their black, billowing robes.

Jennie and her siblings standing in the yard in Easter dresses, 1919

Sister, sister, brother, Jennie
Easter 1979

I think the trickling away began though, with a conversation with my sweet, funny uncle when I was about eight, when I said that Adam and Eve couldn’t possibly be real, that it was only a parable, and that there was no way little pagan babies in Africa would go to hell when they died. He replied that if I put a crack in my faith like that then the whole thing would collapse into sin. By the time I was married, mostly only the secular vestiges of my childhood religion remained, just candy canes, jelly beans and an occasional murmured prayer in the dark of night.

But something about the proximity of the little interfaith chapel on the hill and the Easter egg hunt that follows, and my girls’ desire to wear the hand-me-down taffeta Easter dresses that my sister’s girls faithfully wore to service every week, well it all made going to church feel like the thing to do.

And so we scurried up the hill, along the gravel at the edge of the road, leaning in against the bitter wind sweeping off the ocean. We were greeted at the doors by a man in a comically large bowtie, and he handed each of the kids a daffodil to put in the green wooden cross that was apparently made by Barbara in the choir’s first husband, Lou.

In this tiny chapel, about the size of my childhood living room and dining room combined, we sat on wooden pews as old as the stone bridge granting access to this little island, and people shared their good news and bad, about the Johnsons’ old dog who just died, about Betty who came in the wheelchair last year, using the new wheelchair lift for the first and last time as the anniversary of her death is next week, about grown children and grandchildren visiting from far away, about Louise’s cancer and Samuel’s illness. People nodded and shared, layering one call for prayer over another.

This was all lead by the visiting pastor with the 80’s NPR voice and the 70’s waist-length braid and velvet, tie-dyed shawl. She stumbled through her heartfelt sermon showing us the thirteen pages she’d written and then she never read any of it. She pointed out Hugh in the fifth row, and talked about how the two of them had spent hours parsing the meaning of God over the last few days.

She said she didn’t know if she believed all the words of the Bible, that some people thought Jesus and God were the same thing, but some thought they were different, that to some God was the boss and Jesus was just a teacher, that some people used the Bible to support prejudices they had. She invoked Indiana and gay rights and the dinosaurs. On Easter!

Holy cow! As I listened to this house of cards collapse, I kept looking around, eager to see Barbara or Hugh or Betty’s widowed husband stand up, or wag a finger or shake a head or something. My recently departed Uncle was watching from heaven and having a conniption, I could feel it. I kept waiting for the huge metaphorical shepherd’s hook, held by the octogenarians who sang in the choir, to tug her right out from behind her little pulpit.

She was saying that she didn’t know.

And to be honest, the whole thing was a bit disorganized, a bit of a ramble about the week she’d had, how she’d tried to convince Hugh to find a different Pastor, about her conversations with people on the island over coffee at the General Store, about how her brother had passed away on Wednesday, about how she had been raised a Catholic. It was a muddle. It was a mess. I felt for her.

Over the heads of my four kids I whispered to my husband, “The sermon has good bones. But it’s like a guy from that show, My 600 lb. Life.”

Good bones under 600 lbs. of overwrought flesh are awfully hard to access. Even by gastric bypass surgeons, apparently, and especially by a group of twice-a-year interfaith Christians on a windy island in Maine on Easter Sunday (plus a handful of kids jacked up on Cadbury Cream Eggs.)

But I have to say, I was moved to tears. I was moved by the humanity of it all, and about how we all sat together and witnessed this hot mess of a sermon, these heartfelt calls to prayer, the heaving efforts of the gray-haired choir. I was moved by her not knowing.

Because I don’t know. And I think I thought that was a shame, literally shameful.

She’d begun her not-a-sermon asking if anyone wanted to volunteer what Easter meant to them. Only poor Hugh saved her, saying that Easter means that he doesn’t have to worry anymore. That through the sacrifice of God and his son Jesus, he is saved.

Later that night we asked my seven-year-old son what Easter meant to him, and he said it was about Jesus dying on the cross and then rising, and that it was about family being together.

I wish I had the courage to raise my hand in this chapel I’ve only attended on Easter for the last three years, in front of Lou and Barbara, my Uncle’s ghost and the NPR pastor.

I would have said that I mostly don’t know, but I’d guess that Easter is about love and family, it is about rebirth and the possibility of forgiveness, it is about the hope that we can fix things and the chance to try. And for now, that is enough.

A group of people running across the hillside, a few clouds overhead.

Looking for something (Easter eggs, actually)
Easter 2015

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28 comments on “Going Back to Church on an Island (Easter 2015)

  1. talesfromthemotherland
    April 10, 2015

    This touches something very fragile in me… that I can’t really grasp yet, but as always, your writing really touches me, Jen. Beautiful.

    • jgroeber
      April 11, 2015

      Ah, I hope you are not feeling too fragile these days. But I’m glad I could keep you company there if you are. Fragile with a friend is never as bad as fragile alone. And I have to say, I was feeling a wee bit weepy and fragile during those precious calls to prayer, with my little monkeys all leaning into me on those old, old wooden pews.
      Thank you for such a beautiful comment.

      • talesfromthemotherland
        April 13, 2015

        I’m in a very fragile place right now, Jen… and your comments are always a perfect salve. Thank you. xo

        • jgroeber
          April 23, 2015

          I’ve been watching your news unfold, all the good, well-deserved things, anyway. I’m hoping the good is outweighing the bad these days and that spring has found you where you are. Xoxo

          • talesfromthemotherland
            April 23, 2015

            Spring has sprung, and while there are some tough things happening, I know this too shall pass. 😉 Thanks so much, Jen.

          • talesfromthemotherland
            April 23, 2015

            PS) Come to the conference and hang out with me!! Maybe we could bunk together!

  2. Burns the Fire
    April 10, 2015

    I love what Dawn wrote above. Thanks for bringing your soul into our world.

    • jgroeber
      April 11, 2015

      Whenever I wonder if I’m writing something too private, I realize how it connects me to the people around me (whether in the next pew or far flung places like Canada) and I press on. It’s the connecting to people like you that inspires the sharing. So thank you.

  3. Amy Reese
    April 10, 2015

    I’m moved that she didn’t know, either. That’s the reality. Who really does know? The older I get, the less I know. A beautiful piece of writing, Jen. Your posts are always a treasure. I wish I would have found a service to go to now. I could picture myself there at this one, marveling at the oddity of it but, like you said, the humanity of it, too. It seems kind of refreshing.

    • jgroeber
      April 11, 2015

      You would have relished the oddity I think. My husband was a bit disappointed but I had to point out, a good Easter service happens all the time, but this authentic heart-spilling circus show is a gift. It was totally refreshing and got the point across better for me anyway, than a perfect sermon ever could.

  4. adventureswiththepooh
    April 10, 2015

    I have to respect someone who can get up in front of a crowd and be a bumbling, rambling mess, and also admit that she doesn’t know while being a leader of the faith. That takes humility. Which is one of the big parts of Easter and Christianity anyway. Lovely, Jen.

    • jgroeber
      April 11, 2015

      You are so right! I hadn’t thought of it in terms of humility, but that is exactly what was present in that sermon. Absolute humility. When do we ever see that?

  5. kellylmckenzie
    April 11, 2015

    I was right there with you. You had me grinning at ” … the green wooden cross that was apparently made by Barbara in the choir’s first husband, Lou.” What a wonderful sense of community. That’s what church should be, to me. I used to go to Easter service with my grandad at his church. Over the years the area around it evolved into skid row. The walk from the car to the church was an eye opener. Addicts, drunks, beggers galore. My grandad had a smile and kind word for each one.

    • jgroeber
      April 11, 2015

      I am so glad you got that moment. Because that was the second the whole thing truly went AWOL. It was such a random thing. Was she widowed? Or divorced? You couldn’t tell by her face and it was such a strange nugget of information to announce.
      And my childhood church was on the town line between Pennsauken and Camden New Jersey and Camden New Jersey was the fourth poorest “city” (hardly enough to call a city) in the whole US (maybe just New Jersey, but I thought it was the whole US) when I was in high school. My Mom had lived right around there as a kid. It’s amazing how things changed.
      Your granddad sounds like a gem.

  6. tomapeterson
    April 12, 2015

    What I wanted to say after Hugh las Sunday:

    Jesus said and did many wonderful things during his life that ALL of US would be better off following. The fact that Jesus died on the cross and arose from the dead after three days, all say one thing to me – – that the significance of the Easter Story is “to put an exclamation point” on the fact that Jesus’ Teachings are very much worth contemplating and discussing all year long and all of one’s lifetime long.

  7. tomapeterson
    April 12, 2015

    Jen,

    There is more to the truncated version that I sent above and am attempting to send it is parts.

    Part 1:

    I was also at that service with my and the Guest Minister’s 12 year old son, our first time there, to support her on a sermon that caused her much deep soul searching over the prior week, which I was very much a part of. We are a divorced couple, who now happily live together again with our beloved son.

    Hugh, rightfully spoke first, and I wanted to also comment, but somehow got lost in the idea that, as a guest, I wanted to speak third, but no one spoke second. So, thank you, Jen, for giving me the opportunity to share now.

  8. tomapeterson
    April 12, 2015

    Jen,

    Part 2:

    I am also a former Catholic and a few other Christian denominations along the way, but still a follower of Jesus’ teachings. The problem that I have following the doctrine (a.k.a. dogma by some) of all of the Christian Churches (or any other ones for that matter) that I have seen, is that most doctrine often enters into the self-serving realm (i.e. Anglican Church breaking from the Catholic Church, etc.) and does not really closely follow the teachings of Jesus, which are interpreted differently by even the writers of the Bible. How many Catholics or any other Christian Faiths have followers that all truly believe the same exact doctrine? My guess is none, because faith and any specific beliefs about God/Jesus are all really between us individually and our relationship with God & Jesus. Sharing beliefs about Jesus is GREAT (“whenever 2 or more share….”) for deeper understanding of his Teachings, but judging another’s beliefs about Jesus as “right” or “wrong”, to me, goes against what Jesus taught about judging others.

  9. tomapeterson
    April 12, 2015

    Jen,

    Part 3:

    My simple thoughts that I wanted to share on Easter (minus what is in brackets):

    Jesus said and did many wonderful things during his life that ALL of US would be better off following. The fact that Jesus died (or not) on the cross and arose (or not) from the dead after three days (actually 1-1/2 according to the Bible and my math), all say one thing to me – – that the significance of the Easter Story is “to put an exclamation point” on the fact that Jesus’ Teachings are very much worth contemplating and discussing all year long and all of one’s lifetime long.

    Post script: While it is not easy or maybe even possible to continually walk in Jesus’ footsteps, following the direction of his path will definitely head you towards whatever Heaven you believe in. Also, anyone who changes your thinking and points you in a better direction could be seen as a Savior and Jesus certainly fits that definition.

    BTW: I very much enjoyed the service and meeting the Church Community last Sunday.

    • jgroeber
      April 12, 2015

      Phew! So much to think about. And thank you for sharing your thoughts. I’m amazed that you found me here.
      What I love about writing about the things that stick with me throughout the day is that I come to a better understanding of things myself (like when I wrote about how much I don’t like seven-year-old boys but then came to the realization that being a seven-year-old boy is impossibly hard.) Comments by people interested enough to read and comment also shed further light on the things that are swirling around in my brain. On a good day I end up somewhere different than when I started, as I did here.
      One comment above honed in on the humility of the sermon, the authenticity and humanity. And I think for me, that visceral sharing in such a profoundly naked and humble way took me back to my beliefs about Jesus from when I was a child, before that fearsome conversation with my dear uncle and those days of pushing up against those monks who mostly professed to have all the answers. It took me back to those basic ideas about kindness, forgiveness, and acceptance of others that touched me before doctrine and synods got in the way for me. I was glad to have brought my children to be a part of the gorgeous music, the heartfelt songs, the sense of community, and the freedom to find our own answers, and to have been there to witness it myself.
      Honestly, conversations about religion disturb me. I’m not sure why or what this means. Maybe it gets back to what you wrote above about each person’s relationship with the teachings of Jesus being unique to every individual. When I saw your four part comment, honestly, my heart sank a bit. Ack! But I’m glad you found your words, too.
      Last Sunday our guest minister’s revelation that she didn’t have the answers and the congregation’s acceptance of this were a stunning and heartwarming thing to behold. It seemed to say that we are all welcome to find our own way.
      Thanks for finding your way here.

  10. Gayle
    April 12, 2015

    I enjoyed reading your post. I am one of the younger members of the ICC choir. Your assessment of the service was spot on. I love that we are exposed to varying ideas and are asked to think beyond the obvious. The sermon was rambling and never quite came together, but knowing Elizabeth, I know how big her heart is, that she lives by Jesus’ teachings, and that she is one of the kindest people I know. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and I do hope you will visit with us again soon. One pastor who comes, Mair Honan, gave us a message: ”If we believe every day, than we are not thinking, we are just accepting what others think.’ I stop and think and decide what is true for me and honor what is true for others.

    • jgroeber
      April 12, 2015

      Oh, no! I knew I should have said “very good-looking choir”, or at least, “mostly gray-haired choir”. Ha! How, I wonder, did everyone find this humble little blog?!
      And thank you for leaving a comment. The music was lovely by the way. Easter service music always gets to me the most. Even more than Christmas, I think. And everyone sang with such a feeling of joy. My kids loved their view of the organ and the choir. They were riveted.
      The wandering quality of Elizabeth’s sermon, her willingness to be authentic in her own journey, made room for the rest of us bumblers, for sure. Her big heart came through in her earnestness and her bio in the bulletin with it’s multitude of good works supported that as well. (And by the way, the loss of a loved one automatically gets anyone a free pass in my book. It’s why I mentioned it. I can’t speak of my brother in front of an audience without choking up, which can be supported by hundreds of high school students who have seen me do it.)
      I can’t help but wonder how my personal spiritual journey might have differed if I was raised with a congregation that was so open to honoring the views of others. I’m glad to be introducing my children to organized religion through these glimpses of community and tolerance.
      Thank you again for stopping by.

  11. Matt
    April 12, 2015

    I, also, want to co-sign with Dawn up top.

    Except I do know one thing.

    The “I don’t know” thing. That’s kind of a big one and it only happened in the last few years.

    That comes with it all sorts of identity issues and existential questions I’m ill-equipped to answer.

    I like the stories of people who never had faith, but found it.

    I like the stories of people who lost their faith, and regained it.

    But I have no idea what to do with the story of the man who wants to believe, but isn’t sure because every single thing that’s ever happened from birth ’til this moment has led him to that very conclusion.

    (Forgive the third-person reference, please.)

    But it’s a fact I can’t escape: I don’t know.

    I want it to be enough that I don’t know. I want it to be enough that I care about being one of the good guys. I want it to be enough that trying to emulate Christ in terms of the way we treat others is how I try (and fail miserably; but try!) to conduct myself.

    But I don’t know what’s going to happen after I die. And I don’t know whether one group is “right,” and everyone else is “wrong.”

    I don’t know whether it’s all random.

    Or maybe whether there is so much more and you can’t always see it when you lose your childlike faith.

    But somewhere in this vast universe is truth. There IS an answer. Something is true.

    And maybe when the lights go out, so long as we spent our lives genuinely seeking that truth, everything is going to be okay.

    One can always hope.

    Happy belated Easter, Jennifer. I hope your family had a lovely time.

    • jgroeber
      April 12, 2015

      Ah, such a very thoughtful comment. Thank you. And I have to say, I hadn’t really digested the thought that at some point, one group is actually right, that some one thing is actually true. I’m going to have to sit with that one a bit. I’m such a good girl peacemaker I think I want to drag all the good guys along, or line up behind them, depending on how you see it. I think that’s what pushed me up against my uncle and those monks, “So you’re saying all the innocent babies who’ve never heard of Jesus, they go to hell? Because of this book written so long after it happened? Written by a bunch of dudes, by the way. Just saying…” And yes, I said things like that in confirmation class and also in faculty meetings with monks who were literally the boss of me.
      Being a good person, or trying anyway, has to be worth something. Why would all the religions point that direction in one way or another (or at least all the biggies) if it weren’t at the crux of it? And I’m sure Bill Maher et al have an answer for that and when that answers comes is when I politely say, “Is that a butterfly? Which way to the bathroom? Can I get you a drink? Birds?” and I slide away from the conversation. Because it’s so misty and gray area I can’t grab ahold of it enough to fight a battle one way or another. Which always seemed shameful. (Still does. Ugh.)
      But it was so refreshing having uncertainty affirmed this past week.
      We do what we can. Seeking the truth for myself and doing good (or the best I can) are things I think I can manage for now.
      Happy Easter yourself, bock, bock.

  12. Mary Robinson
    April 13, 2015

    I was also at the Easter service and enjoyed seeing you and your family there.
    Have just perused your blog and admire your engaging writing style!
    You have surely created quite a dialog on the Easter sermon to which I won’t add anymore.
    Hope to see you back again at ICC as our other visiting speakers, in my opinion,
    usually deliver more robust, flushed out talks of much better caliber.

    • jgroeber
      April 23, 2015

      Hello! So good to have run into so many new friends here. We loved our visit to the little church on the hill and hope to return again soon. Thank you for your sweet welcome and comment.

  13. maryannparker99
    May 27, 2015

    Jen, I FINALLY got around to reading this post, and it’s lovely. God bless you . . . Mare

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