The narthex was a long room just inside the church doors where the ushers greeted everyone. They gave us a pamphlet called Order of Worship and we went in.
The sanctuary arched high over us like a loving cloak. As we walked forward down the aisle, I looked to either side. Between the ribs of each wall were tall stained glass windows illumined from without by the bright sun. We found a place to sit on the smooth wood. Sometimes I scooted so I could sit where the colored light from a window streamed down onto the pew.
In the center of the back wall was a rough cross. Light shone through chunks of stained glass which had been imbedded in the cast fiberglass. I found myself reminiscing about when Dad & I visited the sculptor in his studio where the cross was being made. Since it was sunny California, he worked outside in his grassy, jumbled backyard. Wow, a real artist! It meant a lot Dad doing that with me.
Waking from my reverie, I heard music coming from behind us. Both the choir and organist were situated in a balcony above the narthex. In Tucson, which was our next church, the choir and director were in front, behind the organist. I was in the youth choir and all of us wore red robes. It was a great experience singing in that choir. We toured the states one summer. The choir director was a great teacher. It was he and Dad taught who me how to use my diaphragm.
The high wooden pulpit was in front on the right side of the platform. Dad stood behind it so everyone could see and hear him. A purple cloth with an embroidered cross and gold fringe draped over the top in front of the microphone. On the left was a lectern for the associate pastor. Under the cross in the back was a large wooden table, which Dad stood behind to officiate weddings or celebrate communion. At both ends of the table were large white candles on gold candle stands. Sometimes the table was covered by a blue cloth decorated with liturgical symbols. My father wore a black robe and a scarf around his shoulders.
When I heard the soothing sound of my father’s voice in the call to worship, I reached for the hymnal and opened it to the first hymn. Then he began to sing. I have to say, I think the rich sound of his voice may be the dominant memory of my childhood, aside from the palpable presence of God himself.
I wrote a list of favorite hymns in an old hymnal of mine. When my father sang A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, it moved me deeply..
A mighty fortress is our God,
A bulwark never failing;
Our helper he amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great,
And, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
What the hell was my God preparing me for?! For example, there was
O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home!
These songs have stood by me all my life. Recently I worked on a guitar version of Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus and sang it in the Princeton Methodist Church.
Come, thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us;
Let us find our rest in thee.
I'll cite one more by Charles Wesley, He, along with Bob Dylan, have been my greatest influences as a songwriter. Wesley wrote the hymn I just mentioned and he also penned O For a Thousand Tongues To Sing. It’s the first page of my hymnal:
O for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer’s praise,
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of his grace!
My young soul basked in the glories of this music. You'll just have to take my word on it. The lyrics alone do not convey what power they have. Before the golden age of fifties rock n’ roll, before the rich and varied music of the sixties, before the classical music I grew to love as a young man, there were these great hymns. They still resonate deep in my heart.
And then there was the visual counterpoint to the sublimity of the music - the stained glass windows. They weren’t just scenes or illustrations. How could they be? The colored glass was all broken up into shards, separated into fragments! The form defied taxonomy. A stained glass window didn’t just refer to a subject. It called up the thing itself. Here in the sensuality of the sanctuary, suffused with beauty and kindness, riding a wave of ineffably rich music, amidst the color and light streaming down, I could touch the Spirit. This is where I learned the act of contemplation, of knowing God - and it became the bed of my life's creative work.
Between hymns, the congregation spoke aloud:
Our Father, which art in heaven ,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,
On Earth as it is in Heaven.
Some refrains we sang. I so wish you could hear the music of them now. They’re in my bones:
Glory be to the Father,
And to the Son and to the Holy Ghost,
As it was in the beginning
Both now and and ever shall be
World without end, Amen. Amen
The service culminated with my father “delivering” his sermon. The term fit. On Sunday it was like he gave birth to a child that had been gestating all week long.
I knew firsthand how he labored. Once I looked into his study and tried to get his attention, but he didn’t look up. It was like I wasn’t there. Why was I so deeply hurt? It was because I loved him so much, that’s why. It remained a sore wound for years.
Perhaps this is why I still have so much trouble praying. I’ve never been absolutely sure that God was listening. It remains a persistent quandary - is what I desire to say important enough to hold his attention? I've never doubted that he loves me, though. I know he loves me. I feel his love.
During one of my father's last days, I thankfully got what I really needed. He must’ve sensed what I was asking for. Looking up from his wheelchair, he said, “Dan, you’re a wonder to me.” I’ve sealed those words up in a secret vault in my heart. I don’t know what I would’ve done if I hadn’t heard him say this before he died.
His actual sermons are vague in my memory. I guess I was preoccupied, too. Young men do tend to get wrapped up in the throes of their own emergence, so wrapped up they either can’t or plain don’t want to listen to what their father is saying. I do know that what he said sometimes got him in hot water. I remember hearing in Tucson about the parishioner who objected to what they called “profanity in the pulpit.” I was never told what that particular fuss was about. I do know Dad liked to rock the boat, and I know he enjoyed it when I rocked a few myself.
I caroused a bit and, either he didn’t know, or didn’t think it was important enough to stop me. Sometimes I think it might’ve been better if he’d done it a little more - stopped me, I mean - stopped me and talked. But here again, I'm not sure I was always on his radar.
You know, I don’t hold it against him anymore. I’m grown too painfully familiar how oblivious I can be myself.
His sermons always returned to themes closest to his heart. He usually got around to social justice, racial equality, or, and this should cover it - the kindness and compassion of God. I have a photo of him in Africa at Albert Schweitzer’s compound, helping an old woman churn buttermilk. I think the picture says it all. Most of the time he lived to love people and give himself for others. That’s why he respected Schweitzer so deeply. Faith can’t be just what you talk about. It has to be a life you live.
When I was young, my father represented God to me. That’s why my parents’ divorce had such a devastating effect. I thought the kingdom of God was crumbling. Eventually I got over that notion, but it wasn’t until I got a lot more familiar how difficult being a parent can be. I should say being a person..period.
At the end of the service my father stepped off the platform and spoke these words to the people. They have rung down through my life:
“Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy: to the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever, Amen.”
The Dad walked to the back of the church, turned around, and said:
“The Lord bless you and keep you: the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you: the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. Amen.
Then arose gradually the usual Sunday after-church rustle - people getting up, the sound of Bibles and hymnals being put back, voices muttering softly - all this over and against the swelling chords of the organ.
Reverend Gilbert S. Zimmerman walked back and stood beside the front doors. I scurried back to sidle up next to him, close enough to feel his soft, cascading robe. I loved standing there with him, as the people filed past to say a few words, shake his hand, and go home.
Notes on the vicissitudes of the creative life.