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Old Seventh

By David Andrew Dugle ~

In an era long before televangelism and megachurches, before the Age of Muscular American Fundamentalism, my grandfather made sure that all of his grandchildren had a Christian upbringing. Every Sunday he drove us all the way across the county to his church, Seventh Presbyterian.

Seventh was built of Ohio’s bedrock in 1849. Not as big as some, it was however equipped with a powerful pipe organ and magnificent stained-glass windows, especially the rose window, enormous and multi-hued, above the main entrance. Its grandeur was awesome, in the fullest sense of the word.

The first time I went there I was only a few months old, being baptized. After adding a couple drops of water (Poof! Instant Presbyterian!) I was taken to Seventh’s stately services weekly. Stately? Our church didn’t try to be entertaining as such. In fact, our services were relentlessly bland – there were no snakes, no speaking in tongues, no miracle healings, not even an incense censure. But we did have music.

Long before Jesus Christ Superstar, Seventh’s music was all traditional hymns, performed by choir and organ. I loved the way the bass notes of our organ rattled the high windowed walls and the bones of my skull. Our choir wasn’t as impressive as a throaty gospel group, but still, along with that stained glass light show, our music moved me deeply. Riding those piped harmonies, I tried to float closer to God and Jesus. I desperately wanted to be good and do what God wanted. I liked the idea of the Prince of Peace healing the sick and helping the poor. I very much desired to be holy. I prayed with all my might.

Even so, questions grew in my mind with each year, especially at Easter services. Why does Jesus’s dying save us? What was Jesus sacrificing, really? And what’s with all the bunnies and colored eggs? It simply confused me; understanding wasn’t to be found nestled next the confections in the ersatz green hay of an Easter basket. Seventh’s answer was simply, “Have faith. Don’t question.” Perhaps I asked too much. Indeed, I did find much balm and beauty in the Testaments, but when wrestling the weightier theological conundrums, especially after attending my first funeral and realizing there is an end to this life, I found little to grip, no way to pin and defeat them. Still, I was attracted to Jesus’s compassion and non-violence. Even though I didn’t understand those well-exercised apologies for the crucifixion given at Sunday School, Jesus himself always appealed to me, and that was enough.

Why does Jesus’s dying save us? What was Jesus sacrificing, really?

Have faith. Don’t question.
And that was the way that Jesus came to me in the Atomic Age, when satellites first orbited an Earth that was billions of years old. You see, my family, even my pious grandfather, never did insist on a literal Genesis. In fact, we often visited the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum right after church. Reason was always there in our lives. Still, I never doubted that Jesus was real, but some Bible stories were not.

As we grew through the 60s, my grandfather started to have health problems. Without his shepherding; we stopped attending Seventh and our family’s faith faded. In my teen years flower power soon saturated the culture and my thinking. Seventh Presbyterian’s dogma was left behind; the psychedelic chords of acid rock replaced my grandfather’s hymns.

I can’t go back now. I couldn’t go back even if I wanted to. Sadly, Seventh Presbyterian suffered a disastrous fire at the start of 1971. The elegant mahogany pews are all ash. The thunderous organ that shook my soul, those lovingly crafted windows that illuminated the faithful for so many years, are all gone. Only my regard for a human Jesus, for his message of compassion and peace, remains.