The past couple months our little church in Spring Mills has been experimenting with an outdoor service on Sunday mornings. And because we set up our chairs and portable keyboard in the grass next to Penns Creek, we advertise the service as Creekside Worship.
I am not a very religious person, but I like the communal aspects of churchgoing. I like the people, and the call to do good things in the community and in the world.
I enjoy a thoughtful sermon and the hymns I remember from childhood. When our daughters were growing up, it was good to give them the experience of our religious traditions and the great historical and literary heritage that is the King James Bible.
But I also tried to expose them to the other great world religions and let them make up their own minds about what they did or didn’t believe.
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Growing up in the South, church was our social life, our meat and potatoes and green bean casserole. We went to services three times a week, ate potluck Sunday afternoon “dinner-on-the-ground.”
We suffered through week-long revival meetings and learned what hell was like by sitting through heat-soaked hour-long sermons while beads of sweat rolled down our cheeks.
So much of my childhood was spent in church that I cannot separate the idea of religion from the sense of family.
These Creekside Worship services added a new element to the usual Sunday experience. I generally get distracted watching the ripples in the stream and the leaves turning their autumnal colors, but being in the natural world for an hour is a good distraction.
Then, last Sunday the distractions increased exponentially as we brought our pets to be blessed.
A dozen dogs were there, along with Charlie, our intelligent and attractive mixed-breed something or other. The dogs sniffed and barked, or the well-behaved ones sat quietly at the feet of their family.
Charlie barked at each of the dogs, and then during the hymns he howled along to the tunes. He was a bit of an embarrassment, but he didn’t seem bothered.
Many folks brought photos of their pets, both living and deceased. The pastor moved among the crowd, offering blessings to the dogs by name and to their families.
Those with photos brought them forward to be blessed, and there was even an urn of ashes from some still-beloved former family pet that needed blessing. It was hard not to be moved by the memory of pets goneby — Scout, the abandoned and neurotic mutt we took in and tried to love, or Pookie, long-time cat friend recently buried under a flowering bush on the hill behind the barn.
We will outlive our pets, but we don’t forget them.
I have never forgotten my first dog, Beauty, an Irish setter with long, flame-red hair, who wandered up the road one day and came to live with us until old age took her away.
When the pastor asked during the silent meditation to call out the name of a beloved former pet, I thought of Beauty, friend of my childhood. We wandered together through the fields of summer, and now she lies at my feet again, if only in memory, on a Sunday morning beside the creek.