Louis Weeks: Can you go home again (and preach)?

Is it even possible to thank all the people responsible for teaching us the faith?

How many of you have had the experience of being asked to preach or teach for "home folks," the men and women who served as your teachers and preachers while you were growing up? Did the anticipation, preparation, discharge of responsibilities, and aftermath bear special valences?

They did for me. And perhaps this is instructive in assessing the emotions involved in leading "homefolks" anytime.

I recently returned to the Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tennessee, where my family belonged from 1947, the time I entered kindergarten, until 1965, when I was in seminary. My family then moved to help a new church development in a nearby community. I was pleased to be asked to preach for the church centennial celebration.

Both the Thomas Wolfe "homebooks" grabbed my imagination as I anticipated "going home" to be among folks who were midwives for my faith development. "You Can't Go Home Again" resonated more than "Look Homeward, Angel"!

I had preached only once before in worship there -- back when I started graduate school. This recently-minted seminary graduate had known so much more then. I laid down a sermon full of mandates and short on gratitude. I wondered as I got ready this time: would they remember that previous appearance? Would they expect another Jeremiad?

I noted a double dose of anxiety in deciding on appropriate texts and sermon topic. Do you look back on such occasions? Forward? What about tone? Do you go heavy? Light?

I felt the temptation to show off my scholarly knowledge of the Bible -- a feeling I lost or repressed long ago in other circumstances. But I wanted them to see the "value added" from my own work and growth. These were the people who had taught me the Bible, led the scout troop, directed the children's choir, quieted a fidgeting boy, answered the interminable list of questions, coaxed this young person toward ministry, and sent money to an impoverished seminarian.

I chose Deuteronomy 6 and 2 Corinthians 8-9 as texts, though I did not ask they read all three chapters in the worship time together. I focused on the generosity of the congregation over the decades and in their current ministries. I prayed with them that their future life together would continue the outreach and nurture which has characterized their faithfulness thus far.

I also introduced "Happy Birthday" as a Presbyterian song, written by the Presbyterian Patty Hill of Louisville, Kentucky, who helped start the free kindergarten movement that birthed a variety of pre-school institutions. Since my old church has a pre-school, they appreciated the connection and sang with gusto.

Evaluating the whole experience on the way home, I wished I could have been even more personal in thanking individuals. Then I realized I would not know whom to thank for so much of my nurture and that of my cohort in growing up among them.

I had assumed the folk song "Goin' Home" was the source for Dvorak's largo in "New World" Symphony. Chagrined to have mentioned this in the presence of a musician there and been corrected (gently), I know now the words came after the melody -- at least copyrighted words.

This misconception is a useful one in analyzing my Christian formation in a Christian congregation in Memphis. Only after singing the song could I begin to identify the words.

Louis Weeks is president emeritus of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, and author, most recently, of "To Be a Presbyterian" (Geneva).