Friday, May 27, 2011

part 2 - Love Letter To Grace United Methodist Church

 My Love/Hate Relationship With The Church & Denominationalism

Grace United Methodist Church-Plainfield, VT
 I like the Methodists.  But, my perceptions of them were conflicting growing up.  My father's family loved the founders, John & Charles Wesley.  They were drawn to their passion for the lost and how they took the Gospel to the streets, preached revival and reform to the crusty saints of their day and followed the same strain of Arminian doctrine that my  family believed whole-heartedly.  My father was given their surname as his middle moniker, John's homilies were read as devotions and often quoted in the sermons of the preachers in the Wilkerson clan; we sang Charles' penned hymns, Hark, The Herald Angels Sing at Christmas and Christ The Lord Is Risen Today every Easter morning, and my uncle and father lived by John's motto, "When I have money, I get rid of it quickly, lest it find a way into my heart."  I think too, these devote 18th century brothers were worthy role models for the brothers Wilkerson to follow, as they began their own evangelistic pursuits in the 20th century.  So for the paternal half of my family, it wasn't so much about the Methodist denomination, rather the influence really was simply that of the life and times of the Wesley brothers.

Yet, I was given an entirely different view of the Wesley sect from my mother's side of the family.  She was raised in the idyllic New England town of Plainfield, Vermont.  Norman Rockwell and Thomas Kincaid would trip over themselves to capture the simple, pure beauty of this little hamlet.  Set in the rolling hills of central Vermont, outside of the capital Montpelier, Plainfield's layout harkened back to the humble beginnings of the American ideal.  Dotted with white-washed, clapboard porched houses, a babbling brook, a 5 & 10 general store to buy your various sundries & staples, town hall, small community theater, firehouse and cafe that served french toast with maple syrup the owner tapped from a tree himself.  And at the center of it all was Grace United Methodist Church. Though it really is not that large of an edifice, as a little kid I thought it was a majestic place.  It's most distinguishing feature was the granite-rock slabbed fence that marked it's place from the main road into town.  It was a favorite hang-out for teenagers and wandering hippies from Goddard College---just up the road aways, and was a courting spot for young lovers.

As I reminisce about my visits to Vermont during my upbringing, I'm realizing that this church played a significant role in helping to mark the Hudson family milestones.  As the years passed and the pastoral staff changed hands, the one unchangeable fact in the history of this little congregation was that one or more of the Hudson clan would most likely be in attendance on a Sunday morning.  Being a very large and formidable family in the town's life, my mother's kinfolk kept Grace United extremely busy for several decades.  Many were wed at the altar of this church;  starting with my Grammie, Dorothy & Grandpa, William, along with many of my mother's brothers and sisters, and she, herself walked the aisle in 1961 when she married Donald Wesley Wilkerson.  Then, in due course, came the myriad of baby showers and baptisms; and inevitably the memorials and funerals.  The saddest and most moving of such events was my Grammie Hudson's funeral, where the Hudson brood showed up along with several townfolk to pay respects to a much beloved matriarch.  I never got to really know my Grandfather (although I understand he held me when I was 6 weeks old), but apparently he was the one that passed the gift of song on to many of his children, including my mother.  I understand he often sang solos on Sunday mornings, and Grace United was also blessed by various renditions of hymns and worship song by my mother and her brothers.  I remember marveling the first time I heard my Uncle Danny's melodious voice, and moved to tears when he sang at Gram's memorial service.  

I have fond memories of waiting for my Grammie to come down the stairs on Sunday mornings before church.  It was the one time she could don her pastel suits or dresses, wear her bright pink lipstick, clip-on pearl earrings and matching necklace.  I do remember that, at times, there were even white gloves which matched the iridescent white curls that were her crowning glory. Church attendence was important to my Grammie.  Getting 'gussied up', as she called it, and walking around the corner on Sunday morning was considered an essential component to family life.  It's just what you were expected to do, a part of being a Vermonter, an American, a moral, upstanding human being. 

I remember being struck by the contrast of this congregation's worship-style to the one I was used to at Teen Challenge chapel services.  Methodists considered worship to be a reverent, orderly affair; in other words, they valued silence and contemplation over ecstatic, joyful outbursts of praise.  My father's mother would most likely describe such ambience as 'dead religion', but I never really experienced it that way as a girl.  It was refreshing to be able to really hear my own thoughts and prayers in a church service.  The other unique thing to me was, [gasp] they read their prayers from a book and had responsive readings.  Pentecostals felt pre-recorded prayers and liturgical practices might become acts of squleching the Spirit of God.  Prayer and worship, for them, should always be spontaneous, immediate, an expression of heartfelt praise to a very personal, intimate God.  But, I grew to appreciate the contrast at my Grammie's Church.  I was introduced to awe and peace before God and as far as praying aged old documented prayers, I realize that Jesus gave us one of the most famous of formats for prayer.  Don't all Christian traditions, whether Catholic or Protestant, pray that one at some point in their services.  Worship to God, in this context, was more about the corporate nature of a townsfolk taking a Sabbath rest in the presence of a sovereign Father.  So much of how they expressed their gratefulness to God centered around the unity of the faithful.  As if to say, "we may have our problems as a community outside these doors, but right now, as always, we stop, listen and humble ourselves before a Holy God in unison.  There was something so meek and measured, so safe and comforting to give devotion in this way, as a community of common family-loving folk.
I am thankful for the part Grace United Methodist Church played in the life of my family.  It is where my mother accepted Jesus as her Lord and Savior, and laid some of the foundation for her journey of faith.  And it is a place that taught me the invaluable role a small local congregation can play in commerating and celebrating the most treasured events of a family's life.

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