I have seen articles about the concept of “dechurching”, which basically is folks who used to go to church and don’t anymore. The reasons are many; 

  • Covid played a role but not as much as we might think.
  • We are so busy with social, athletic, and work conflicts
  • There is a fracturing of community with frequent moves into and out of town; 
  • discontent with church scandals of all levels and types, 
  • everyone is so darned tired;
  •  just so many reasons not to go to church anymore. 

Experts estimate that about 40 million adult Americans are dechurched. 

I want to talk today about RECHURCHING: (not to be confused with RESEARCHING, which I did in libraries professionally for over 40 years)

The topic is RECHURCHING: How I stopped taking the CCoL for granted and became a deacon, in a mere 40 years.

My late husband Ray and I moved into Littleton in March of 1972. In due course our daughters Lisa and Mollie were born and baptized in my mother’s Federated church in Bristol, NH, where we had married in 1970. For ten years, we lived about a mile from here and drove past the church thousands of times. Each time, I said to myself, THAT IS MY CHURCH. Never darkened the doorstep, though. 

I had started writing for the late lamented LITTLETON INDEPENDENT weekly newspaper around 1978 and, always on the lookout for a good story, I discovered that the pastor, Rev. Bill Beldan, was also a firefighter. Good feature story, I thought. The editor agreed and I wrote the article. It was one of the few pieces I wrote for them that was reprinted in another publication, in this case a magazine for firefighters. They retitled the story “Fighting Fires, Fighting Sin.”

I think that was the ultimate draw that led Ray and me to the church with our girls in tow. We came to church, and by Geoge, we liked it. The congregants, the services, the activities, the opportunities for growth were attractive. We quickly became members, about 1983 or so. 

I will admit that I was not as engaged with the church as Ray was. He had been raised Missouri Synod Lutheran (pretty much defines conservative) and was swept up by CCoL. He joined the choir, he took adult education classes and even co-taught one with Carol Savage about aliens; he was involved in Everett Reed’s extensive education program, Littleton School of Christian Living,  and went on Wellspring retreats. The ladies loved him. After a number of years, he burned out and it was a struggle to get him to any church events or worship services.

The girls came to Sunday School and at least one VBS, then grew up into youth groups. We all enjoyed the many retreat weekends to Oceanwood camp in Maine.

Meanwhile, I was drafted for a variety of committee positions. I was appointed to the library committee but never showed up (if there were any meetings, they didn’t tell me about them. I suspect I wasn’t paying attention.)

I was appointed to the Littleton Council of Churches, but I never went to one meeting. I taught Sunday School for kindergartners (not my calling no matter what Jane Lyons says about my teaching Tom’s class, yes, the one with the Hoisington twins writing on the floor). I tried again with Sunday School for the teens; besides our usual kids, I had Bobby  from the group home on Newtown Road, whose favorite thing to do was back rubs, no matter how inappropriate; and I also had a teenaged girl from Korea who spoke very little English. No curriculum could span these gaps, so we talked about teen suicide, cults, and similar topics. I “graduated” to leading the middle school youth group, then the high school group with Chuck Urian. Still not my calling.

I started to understand that I could make a difference when the Korean teen wrote me a letter from U Mass asking if a group that had  approached her was a cult. I replied, tactfully, that it well might be.

By the mid-1980s I was floundering, stressed, overwhelmed with caring for a seriously ill child and a husband whose health was declining. At one point I wrote a letter resigning from all committee work to “take care of myself”. Which translated into taking care of everyone but me.

I was a desultory congregant. I would be here for holidays and the occasional service when I was asked to take part. If you gave me a task, I would show up. I have only missed two of the women’s retreats, one when Lisa was sick and recently as I recovered from surgery. When I was on the Mission Committee, we put together a collection of my newspaper columns as a fundraiser; appropriate, since many of them were about church activities like holding the fort in the nursery during services and, yes, women’s retreats.

I think it was the women’s retreats that turned the tide for me, moving me from almost DECHURCHED into RECHURCHED. Tapped for the stewardship committee for the recent renovations, I found myself engaged more and more with church folks, church events, church services. And I enjoyed them. And I got to know many great people. Made friends. Good friends. Got to sing, which I do with enthusiasm if not real operatic skill. Learned some leadership skills that have served me well in all stages of my life. Got reappointed to the Littleton Council of Churches, which turned out to be a great group of interesting folks (renamed during my term as the Greater Littleton Interfaith Council). 

Still, I didn’t get it. I spent hours of my last few working years RESEARCHING where to move for retirement. Florida? Virginia? North Carolina? Maine? New Hampshire? But some little voice in my head said, “Don’t move away from your support system.”) (This is probably the same “little voice,” which I call God, that drew us to Littleton in 1972, a town we had never heard of in a region, METROWEST, totally unfamiliar to us, to see a house that was not right for us, but in the process passing a cute brick Cape we couldn’t afford that became our home for 40 years. The same “little voice” that showed me the “First floor apartment for rent” sign sticking out of a snow bank on King Street, in an iconic Victorian farmhouse, my perfect perfect perfect retirement home.)

I found myself able and willing to play a larger role in the life of the CCoL. The music program here is vitally important to me, so I was on the Music Committee for several years. 

Right about there, life for the Brackens hit the proverbial fan. My daughter Lisa, who had struggled with health issues her whole life, became sicker and needed more of my time. My husband’s diabetes and assorted frailties escalated. I went into Super Caretaker mode. Over about a year, Lisa was hospitalized many times and finally went on hospice. She died at the age of 40. During the whole awful process, CCoL folks were beside us, holding our hands and praying. Marilyn, now one of my dearest, most supportive friends, came instantly after Lisa died, and Roy Webster was there with us in the apartment we moved to with the help of Leo Loughman, the Terrells and others.

In one of the most astounding events EVER, I stood up in church one Sunday morning during concerns and celebrations and asked for help moving Mollie’s and Lisa’s household goods from a third floor apartment (no elevator) in Acton to a third floor apartment (no elevator) in our apartment building. An hour later, 22 folks from CCoL turned up to make the most amazingly smooth moving day ever.

Finally I realized how CCoL had changed my life and made it livable. Not long after Lisa was buried, Ray’s health worsened and I could not take care of him so he moved to Life Care. All the stress caught up with me and I finally had the heart valve replacement surgery I needed, followed by a trip to Life Care (our 47th anniversary celebration was me rolling on a gurney past Ray’s room and calling out greetings.) While I was in rehab, I enjoyed many visits from CCoL friends and chats on the veranda with the awesome Hazel Plummer. (Thank you God that she is with you!) Sitting in my room one day, Lin LeBallister noticed an oddity near my incision. It turned out to be a massive MRSA infection that put me back in the ICU for a week. Mollie and I think Lin saved my life with that observation. By the time I got home, Ray was fading. He died on hospice at Emerson, and Marilyn was among those with us when he passed. Within a month, Mollie had surgery with life-threatening late effects that sent her to MGH ICU for many days. CCoL friends and our wonderful neighbors drove me to Boston hospitals for months.

(In case you are keeping score, for 4 family members that was ICU stints all around in 5 facilities, including one mindblowing day when Ray was in the ICU at Lowell General with a heart attack and Lisa was in the ICU at MGH. Right around there, after almost being one of those wrong-way highway drivers in my stress and exhaustion, I realized I should not be behind the wheel. I have lost track of all the CCoL folks who drove me all over the area for months until I recovered. I don’t dare name them for fear of forgetting someone, but you know who you are and I am deeply appreciative. 

I was moved to the WELCOMING committee, which is like deacon training: greeting folks, following up on new parishioners, writing notes and cards, doing what we can to grow our congregation and attract new folks. From there I became a deacon.

That is the Readers’ Digest Condensed version of my life at CCoL. I have at least two friends who are jealous of my home church and would join if one didn’t live out of state and the other is Jewish. When groups talk about aging in place and who will support their later years, I always brag about CCoL. Apparently not all churches are like us. Maybe that is why so many people are DECHURCHING?

What does all this have to do with today’s scripture reading? you are probably asking yourself right about now. Everything, my friends. I have been a lifelong poster child for life’s ups and downs, and I am still standing. I am standing among you. I could not have survived the last decade without the love and support of CCoL, congregation, congregants and community. Weary, yes, sometimes, but still standing. To quote a lovely song, “you are the wind beneath my wings.” With God’s love and support, the eagle soars still.