Our family first discovered the phenomenon of the church conference when I was 12. Since then, we drive two and half hours south each October for a broadening weeklong combination of preaching and Pennsylvania Dutch food.
Some families vacation in exotic places where they can sip piña coladas and gaze over seawater that actually looks blue. Our family vacations at church. Some ears have learned to relish the caws of tropical birds. Ours have tuned to the sound of 85 Bibles flipping 10 ways during one sermon.
This year I returned to the historic conference to find its nostalgic components unaltered: Cars still thundered on the overpass outside. The same man, bearded like Lincoln and seemingly preserved in wax, shook everyone’s hand. The same fellow still flipped the tapes and set out the extra chairs. The same men, aged, boomed from the pulpits in the King James. We still hoped the fire inspector wouldn’t come by, since we more than maximized the space. The round white mints at the back of the sanctuary were a monument to my childhood.
From where I sat, I surveyed the coiffures and permanents of the other attendees, and smelled their hotel soap. I sat on the right-hand side of the little church, a refurbished bank, in the same place I sat at the age of 12 on the night I first really understood the gospel. Before that night, I never understood the significance of Jesus’s death. Everybody dies, I thought. But in one sermon at that Pennsylvania bank, an old Missouri preacher told us that Jesus took our hell. He took us right into the Gethsemane garden and let us watch the blood-sweat bead on the Messiah’s brow. I learned about the wrath of God, and understood that Christ matters.
My conversion was a slippery, silent miracle, that matched the words of a song we sang:
“I ask no dreams, no prophet ecstasies,
No sudden rending of this veil of clay.
No angels visitant, no opening skies,
But take the dimness of my heart away.”
Some 19th century troubadours composed those words to parade across the bars of the hymnal and across so many hearts who met God through them. Each black note hangs like an upside-down trapeze artist. The song tells my story.
I didn’t need any fireworks. No one knew it had happened, not even me until later. And yet it changed everything. That is how I understand the Holy Spirit. He meets me in trapeze poetry. Wherever the truth is. He continues to do this. And it is quite an experience.
So I sat in the pew this week, back after four years of collegiate growing pains. Two young girls I knew as children came in the back door, metamorphosed into beautiful young women who did not remember me. Katharine, who used to be 8, has lovely golden hair and is 13. Gracelyne is 14 and had learned to fly airplanes since I saw her last. I used to think old people came to this conference. Now I know I am one of them.
Despite graduating to a new age bracket, I realized keenly that I carry my 12-year-old self forever inside me. I hope Gracelyne and Katherine are tucking the same kinds of memories away in their hearts.