The church responsibility I would like least of all—and every member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a church responsibility—is being in charge of recruiting families to clean the church every Saturday morning at 8:00. But Jim does not seem to mind, and called to remind me that my turn would be this Saturday. The six families had last names beginning with the As and Bs, plus a holdover Y. Jim set me to work vacuuming the cultural hall (a carpeted basketball court and social hall). Until my first decade in life, if Church members wanted a church meetinghouse building, they funded the building, built the building, operated the building, and maintained the building with their own labor and funds. In 1971-1972 Dad worked nearly every night on our nascent New Jersey church building, digging footing trenches, laying brick, mountain baseboards, painting cinderblock walls, stretching carpet. Dad had been put in charge of the enormous volunteer project, in addition to his job as an international corporate lawyer, his job as a lay minister, and his jobs as husband and father. My siblings and I have marveled at how he did it all, and did it all ably and well. Everyone that helped with the construction project received a small plaque made from scrap wood trim showing the number of hours worked: Dad’s plaque announced his 312 volunteer hours. Half a century later, the Church now builds and operates its meetinghouses with Church funds, collected from the tithing of members worldwide. But Church members clean the buildings that they attend. My willingness and cheerfulness about rising early on Saturday to scrub toilets and vacuum floors in my Utah church building is one of several built-in barometers by which I can measure my mental health. (The frequency and virulence of under-my-breath profanity is another faithful manifestation of stormy emotional weather.) My cheerfulness this Saturday to rise early and clean the church was a good sign, in contrast to past years where despair and tension and exhaustion kept me in bed. And I only swore a few times when tripping on the vacuum cleaner cord—no one knew but me. Other church members on our A-B (and Y) team were a commercial litigation lawyer, a pediatric anesthesiologist, a happy shy Downs syndrome man, a retired long-haul truck driver, and assorted children. Wielding our rubber gloves and spray bottles, status and position meant nothing—we all put our shoulders to the wheel, counted our blessing of service, and counted our blessing of being together in the community of our Church. And on the other side of the country, my younger brother was scrubbing toilets and vacuuming carpets in his North Carolina church building, his barometer reading gentle spring weather with wisps of clouds in a blue sky.
Taylorsville Utah Temple
Church President Russell Nelson announced the construction of 17 new temples, from Montana to Texas, the Congo to Spain, New Zealand to Peru, bringing the total number of temples to 282 worldwide. I drive past two temples under construction every morning and afternoon, one near my home—the Taylorsville Temple—and one near my work an hour away—the Deseret Peak Temple. While I could drive an alternate way, I feel drawn to the temple route, where twice a day I get to see the construction progress. Through the winter, the crews completed the steel framing of the Taylorsville temple, and dressed the ribbed walls with foam-panel insulation. Behind scaffolding, marble and granite slabs began to clad the ground floor, and just today enormous cranes lowered the steel-gray steeple. In Tooele, the Deseret Peak temple shows only the steel-beam super-structure forming the ground floor, mid-section, and tower, the walls yet to be built. These temples are sacred edifices to the Latter-day Saints, Houses of God. There Church members learn about the purpose of life on earth and the possibility of eternal life with an omni-beneficent Father. There we make covenants to be determined disciples of Jesus: chaste, sacrificing, kind, generous, and honest disciples. And there we are “sealed” or joined to our families in eternal unbreakable familial links and bonds. I look forward to seeing what the crews accomplish each day, and I rejoice in the progress toward the ultimate stunning exalting beauty of the final buildings. I wondered aloud to my siblings about this fascination of mine, and realized that the slow incremental transition from the foundation cornerstone to the steeple capstone gives me hope, hope in the life process of slow and careful creation toward a perfect end. Like the temples, I hope my character is being similarly dressed and shaped and polished. I know this: as I age, every act of meanness and gossip and pride and stinginess brings me pain, and every instance of kindness and compassion and generosity and forgiveness brings me pleasure. So it is that I joy in driving by these two temples, twice a day, knowing they will be finished and perfect, in time, and hoping the same for me.
Deseret Peak Temple in Tooele, Utah
(Photos from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Used under the Fair Use Doctrine.)
For over a century, my Church has preached a ministering program called “home teaching,” where Church members, two by two, visit with assigned families to make sure their temporal and spiritual needs were being addressed. At the awkward age of 14, I was Dad’s home teaching companion, and he was the “bishop” or unpaid lay minister of our large congregation—he knew all the Church members and their many problems and hardships. He saw on the records the name of a young woman he did not know, Continue reading
The men of my Church historically were divided into two groups or quorums, one for the older men and men with leadership responsibilities (called “high priests”), and one for the younger, less-experienced men (“elders”), where each could relate best to his peers. Dad has been a high priest from his mid-20s, having been assigned to lead larger and larger congregations. The Church recently merged the two quorums into one, for the purposes of (1) eliminating an age hierarchy within a single priesthood, (2) giving the younger men the benefit of the older men’s wisdom and experience, and (3) becoming a more cohesive group of “priesthood brethren” focused on church instruction and service. For Dad, at 86, the combining of quorums has been counterproductive, and he feels anonymous and isolated and invisible, due to age and condition. His legs do not work, so he staggers and uses a cane, and rising from his chair takes all his strength. He raises his voice a bit because his ears do not work, and he uses hearing aids. But in the minds of some, the cane and the voice and the hearing aids and the trembling effort indicate both physical and mental decrepitude. In quorum last week, Dad raised his hand to comment, the lesson topic being faith in Christ. The young instructor did not acknowledge him, calling on others with raised hands. He raised his hand several more times, but was ignored. The elderly gentleman sitting next to Dad got the instructor’s attention and demanded, “Nelson has something to say.” But the instructor said the class time was up and he had not been able to call on everyone for comment. “I used to be relevant,” Dad lamented to me when I returned from my weekend trip, “but I don’t matter anymore. The teacher thinks I don’t know anything, that I’m an old useless fuddy-dud.” In my 30-year career of professional acquaintances, Dad remains the most intelligent, learned, and discerning man I have ever known. He graduated top of his class from the University of Utah law school, received a master of laws (LLM) in international corporate law from New York University, and worked a 33-year career as legal counsel for a major international corporation. He presided as lay minister over congregations from 200 to 2,000 souls for 35 years. He reads a book a week during his late-night solitude. He holds his own discussing the world’s great philosophies, histories, religions, and personalities. But at age 86, with his stumble and his cane, his voice and his hearing aids, he feels invisible to his younger peers. Actually, “invisible” is the wrong word, for they are aware of him. But they misjudge, seeing him as irrelevant and obsolete. He thinks he does not matter anymore. And it makes me furious.
(Pictured above: Dad circa 1972.)
From my seat in the choir loft, I looked out upon a sea of 500 faces. Panning slowly, I looked at the details of each face, especially the eyes. And I could tell that all these people sitting in church on a Sunday morning were good people, wanting to do their duty to each other and to God and the Church. Many couples sat beside each other, their children by their side, or alone where their children had grown. A number of adults sat without partners. Like mine, each face held a story of heartache and loss and grief, and joy. I pondered how their stories are not part of mine, and how my story is not part of theirs. We may cross paths from time to time, but we do not walk the same specific path together. I experienced again the sensation that I would walk the remainder of my path alone. The possibility remains that I might meet a compatible companion, who I now cannot imagine—it might happen. But to flourish in this present moment I have to let go of that ephemeral possibility. Several times I have worked hard to make a relationship happen, but these fabrications have always failed, painfully. In this and other oceans of faces, good faces, I have found no face or soul to belong to. And that is just as well. I have written elsewhere about my setting out to find wildlife in nature, how the harder I search, the less I find. I have learned that when I relax, and breathe, and labor faithfully without expectation, when I prepare myself and allow nature to arrive on her own terms, she and her creatures arrive, beavers and bullfrogs, muskrats and turtles, herons and kingfishers, wild iris and rose. As with nature, so with natural relationships: I must relax, and breathe, and labor faithfully without expectation—I have to be prepared for the universe to arrive with her abundant blessings. For the present, my job is to get used to being alone, to sacrifice and to love alone, to contribute alone, to maintain spiritual standards and practices alone, to be healthy and fit alone, to cook and eat gourmet meals alone, and to forego the pleasures and pains and joys of intimate companionship. My opportunity is to learn the lessons of living from my particular life. Your opportunity right now is to sing with the choir, I thought, emerging from my reverie. To end the long church conference, the choir director led Mom and me and the choir in singing Be Still, My Soul, arranged by Mack Wilberg. The women sang with one clear voice, to which the men added another, moving together into a pleasant perfect eight-part harmony. A spirit of beauty washed over the ocean of faces. After the benediction, Dad walked slowly beside me toward the exit, his arm heavily upon mine. Stepping through the door, we saw that the snow had begun to fall, and remarked upon how beautiful it was, and how cold upon our bald heads.
(Pictured above, Utah’s Jordan River from my kayak.)
Arriving home from choir practice, I found Dad sitting on the edge of his bed in his undergarments. I needed to leave immediately to get Mom to church on time, and I could not come back to get him right away because the choir was performing, and I was singing in the choir. “You go ahead and take Mom to church,” Dad read my mind. He seemed very tired, and without Mom to help him with his socks, and exhausted from yesterday’s long funeral, this Sunday seemed like a good day for him to rest. Mom and I had been sitting in our customary pew for only ten minutes when Dad appeared in the aisle beside us, hunched over his cane. Surprise understates my reaction—I was shocked. Mom and I leapt up to allow him into the pew (we could never have climbed over him to join the choir), where he huffed and heaved to regain his breath. He had walked to church with his cane in one hand and an umbrella in the other. “I tried 100 times to get my socks on,” he whispered, a bit too loud, as the young men distributed the emblems of our Lord’s body and blood. “I was collapsing—I wasn’t going to make it.” That is when a teenager in white shirt and tie jumped from his car and grabbed Dad, walking with him to the church doors. “You don’t really need my help,” the boy reassured as Dad leaned on him hard, “but I’ll just stay with you until we get into the church.” The boy helped him past the doors and down the chapel aisle to our bench. “I must have tried 20 times to get my socks over all of my toes,” he bemoaned. “My knees are still hurting.” After his breathing calmed, I reached over Mom and patted him on the knee, giving him a thumbs up sign. He smiled and brightened at my recognition of his heroism. “After you left, Rog, I realized how much I wanted to be in church.” Yes, I say heroism. Walking 50 feet to the mailbox is a major effort, taxing him for hours, and he had just walked 20 times that distance. “I only have this much strength in a day,” he gestured a distance of two feet, “and I have totally used it all up.” How many times have I decided ambivalently that I was too tired or discouraged to go to church? And this old man, nearly lame from post-Polio—this old man, with a big heart full of love for his Savior and humanity—he wanted very badly to go to church and worship, and he defied his circumstance and went.
(Pictured above: a fairly typical church meetinghouse of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Image used under the Fair Use Doctrine.)
Mom and I left Dad at the kitchen table half-dressed, his suspenders dragging to the floor, to have his breakfast of Quaker granola (hardly sugar free, but he doesn’t care anymore) and to finish buttoning his white Sunday shirt. Always a suit and tie man, he has given up on ties, or rather on his shoulders, which he cannot raise to fold down his shirt collar, and on the collar button that cannot find the button hole under command of his trembling fingers. We found him in pretty much the same state an hour later after choir practice, with ten minutes to get him ready for church. “I’m slow, aren’t I?” he said to me with a grin. “I know it. I’m like a tortoise.” Mom and I exhaled exasperated sighs. “I’m slow but I’m steady.” And that he is. Steady in his love and acceptance and absence of judgment and discerning intellect and in his love of chocolate chips. I rushed outside to sweep the snow off the faithful Suburban, to shovel and salt the driveway, and to turn the car on and turn up the heat setting and the fan, all in time for Mom and Dad to hop in, or rather to creep up and in. The church meetinghouse is just around the corner, but we insist on seatbelts, even though Dad’s seatbelt clasp cannot find its latch for his stiffened hands and shoulders and back, and in frustration he let out an “Oh, for cripes’ sake!” which I have learned is a euphemism for “Oh, for Christ’s sake,” which I will not tell Dad, for he loves and reveres Jesus Christ, his Redeemer, his Savior, and has spent his life in Christ’s service, and he would never in a century take his dear Lord’s name in vain. I stood by his car door, knowing not to shut the door for him, but merely close it to the mid-point so he could reach out and shut it himself. In the men’s priesthood class after sacrament services, an ancient welcoming sympathetic man gestured Dad to a chair next to him. I could tell that the chair looked a long way down as Dad turned to point his backside to the chair and joked to his friend, “Point and fall, Brother, point and fall.” Having pointed, he allowed himself to fall into place, where he enjoyed the group’s discussion about exercising our particles of faith.
Dad has complained to me often about his extra big white Sunday dress shirt. In the larger sizes, retailers skip from neck size 20 to neck size 22. There is no size 21. But he is neither a 20 nor a 22—he is a size 21. The 20 strangles him, and the big and tall 22 hangs on him like a clown suit (his words). Add to this indignity that his shoulders no longer work, and he can neither affix his tie nor fold down his collar. Thus, the bow tie, relentlessly crooked, which he grumbles only accentuates the suit. I turned to JCPenney for a solution, knowing that Stafford makes the Men’s Wrinkle Free Stain Resistant Big & Tall Stretch Super Shirt, which builds an elastic into the collar button, effectively expanding a size 20 neck to a size 21. I knew the shirt might not work, but decided it was worth a $40 try to diminish Dad’s distress. When the shirt arrived, Dad reported it fit perfectly, though due to Covid-19 we were not able to attend worship services for the next two months.
Sunday church services focus on what we call “the sacrament” in my Church. The sacrament consists of small pieces of bread and small cups of water, one of which we each eat and drink in remembrance of Jesus. After Covid-19 forced churches to close, Church leaders authorized the men of the Church to use their priesthood authority to provide the sacrament at home to their families and others. While the church buildings are again open for in-person attendance, Mom and Dad have been too weak to go. How pleased and privileged I felt to use priesthood authority to prepare the bread and water, to kneel and offer the prescribed prayers, and to distribute the sacramental emblems to Mom and Dad. After we partook, Mom looked up at me from her chair and said sweetly, “Thank you so much. That was very special.” As a threesome, we discussed how the sacrament serves several purposes. We remember Jesus, his infinite loving sacrifice for us, and his ongoing atonement. We covenant anew to obey God’s commandments, and to love and serve our neighbor. We recommit to repent and to strive to be our best selves. And we express our gratitude for our life and blessings. After our intimate church service, we broke our fast and enjoyed leftover creamy vegetable soup and toasted ciabatta.
Today is the Sunday Sabbath. My laptop is hooked up to the flat screen via HDMI chord, and we are watching church by Zoom—the sacramental service, the hymns, the prayers, the speakers, the Sunday School class. I have brought to Mom and Dad bowls of six-grain hot cereal cooked with apples and cinnamon, cooled and enriched with cream. When church services are over, Mom asks me to take her envelope with her tithes and offerings—her alms—to the bishop, for the support of the Church and the poor of the Church. And I walk home to discuss with them the deep doctrines, and what to cook for dinner: chicken fricassee in creamy red wine paprika sauce with steamed zucchini and corn on the cob. After dinner will come attempts to read, and naps in recliners.
When church services ended, Mom led me to choir practice, held in the home of a neighbor. The director was thrilled to have a new bass, and gave me a choir folder with my name on it, filled with favorites like Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, Consider the Lilies, and John Rutter’s I Will Sing with the Spirit. Mom was the ward choir director when I first started singing at the age of 12 in our New Jersey ward. I learned from her so much about the beauty, complexity, and dynamics of choral singing and conducting. She held this position for nine years. In my forties, I was asked to direct the choir in my Utah ward. I borrowed Mom’s choral music library, cleared the mental cobwebs, and put to work all the knowledge she taught me decades before. At the same time, I sang in a wonderful Salt Lake City community choir, learning even more. I have not sung with the church choir for a long time. While choral singing can be uplifting and therapeutic, too much pain kept me away from people for too long. I am happy to be singing again in the ward choir. And as Mom expressed in choir practice today, “I am so grateful to be singing.” Amen.
We drive 200 yards to church—walking is just not an option. I belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. First, a little context. Our local church units are called wards. The ward one attends depends on where one lives. So, moving from Tooele to Sandy, my church record was transferred from the Westland Ward to the Crescent 18th Ward. A bishop presides over each ward. Every ward member is given the opportunity to contribute to the ward’s functioning (e.g., teaching youth classes) and to minister to the ward’s members. All ward members serve voluntarily, without pay. My first Sunday in the new ward, the bishop stood at the pulpit and invited to stand, telling the congregation of several hundred that I was new to the ward, and that I had moved in with my parents to help take care of them. As I stood up, I resisted the almost irresistible urge to tuck in my shirt and pull up my slacks. I am what I am; let them see me. I felt the unusual nature of my situation: an older single man moving in with his octogenarian parents. And I was sure Dad felt chagrined and being identified publicly as needing to be “taken care of.” But these are all good people, many of whom approached me after the meeting to welcome me enthusiastically into the ward. “I’m Brad.” “I’m Ann.” “I’m Bishop Callister.” “So glad to meet you. Your parents are such wonderful people.”
Church can be a welcoming, joyful experience or a lonely, isolating experience, depending on from where one is coming and to where one is going, and on one’s frame of mind along the way. This poem shares one perspective, where the influence of little children and of love make all the difference. That I could do for someone what they did for me–that is a wish.
Front Corner Pew
the front corner pew
is least conspicuous for one
who desires to be both
faithful and unseen, for the pastor
looks long across the harvest
to who occupies the back
corner chair signaling
I am broken and belligerent, but here
where the hard metal numbs
the mind, the Good News
half heard across the distance
and having given both ample chance
I had chosen to sit unseen
alone on the front corner pew
when a father marched by
with his three fidgety lambs
who looked at me and relaxed their faces and uncrossed their arms
to each smile and wave
and incapable of resisting I
twitched a smile
and convulsed little waves
and wondered how
something so soft
could chisel stone
and without excoriation
alter me forever
though they were quickly gone
through the chapel side door
Roger Baker is the author of Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road. The book tells the true life story of an obscure farm road and its power to transform the human heart. The book is available in print and for Kindle at Amazon. See Rabbit Lane reviewed in Words and Pictures.