Monday, November 07, 2011
Swan Songs XIII--worship
Last night, in church, I got to thinking how it was, 45 years ago, when, for the first time, I stepped into the very same church I'm now in, not still but again. In 1966, I was a college freshman, and First CRC was the closest house of worship to the campus. We walked, all us guys nicely attired in dark sport coats (I may even have been in a suit!), white shirts, and those skinny ties that back then were all the rage.
We all looked alike. It was the mid-Sixties, still the days of Ozzie and Harriet, and our nicely cut hair--our mothers had just left--was short and appropriately righteous. Not a single hippie among us. We looked like Mormon missionaries right here on the streets of Sioux Center; but then, everyone did. We were in our Sunday best.
Last night in our church, a deacon, a fine Christian man with a wonderful family, a professor even, wore old jeans and a shirt whose tails deliberate flapped out of his pants when he picked up the offering. In 1966, my mother would have been horrified to think that her son went to church with his shirt untucked. May as well wear your pajamas. Church is the house of the Lord, after all. Forty-five years ago, church was a different place.
Today, our elders sometime wear cargo shorts. Back then, 1966, I can guarantee you that, in the hardwood pews of a jam-packed First CRC house of worship, the very place where we worshiped last night, in chairs not pews, there were no shorts. Even though it had to be hot, really hot. And there was no air-conditioning either.
Oddly enough I remember best going to that church that first Sunday night, an evening service. I wouldn't have thought of not going at night, but this was my very first Sunday at a Christian college; and I was still, by rote, my parents' child, even though they were a very safe 500 miles away.
We sat up in the balcony--I remember that, and I'll never forget watching these darkly dressed big families come streaming up there, filling the place to overflowing. I remember the families, in fact, or at least some of them, even though I didn't know them at all. The place was jammed, and when we sang, the roof lifted, I swear. I've never claimed to be a musician, but I love to be part of a church that sings, and First Church--good night, did they sing!
Everything was positioned differently then--the preacher seemed a football field away, way up front beneath the pipes of the organ. Today, we all want intimacy, not authority, so the pastor--not the preacher or the dominie, certainly not the dominie--stands behind a pulpit on what was the side of the church. We form a kind of sweet semi-circle around him, as if he's whispering, even though the sound system is much superior to what there was back then, if there was one.
Last night, there was but a fraction of the old crowd. A few really loyal families still take their kids along, but otherwise attendance is scattered at best--and significantly graying. When we sing, I can hear myself, which is not a thrill. Only rarely do I get goosebumps from congregational singing.
Of course, years ago, what we sang was drawn from a much, much thinner folder. Aside from a few obscure psalms, most of the repertoire had been sung in copy-cat liturgies since hymns were officially sanctioned and the Dutch language abandoned--several decades at least. Last night, as almost every night in church these days, the praise team introduced a song and encouraged us, as they always do, to start in with them once we're comfortable. Some of us never get there. And last night's musical accompaniment was a guitar, a flute, and a violin--beautiful. No one touched the organ.
Sometimes I miss the way we used lift the roof, but then when we shifted the pulpit around the church's interior, we also broke the dynamics of sound. And, sometimes this old bald guy misses the old songs and psalms, misses bellowing from the bottom of the diaphragm. Sometimes.
But, back then, it didn't take long and my freed soul (my parents so far away) began to feel an uncomfortable regimentation about streaming along in what seemed an almost mindless fashion into the boxy balcony of First Church at night. Other guys kept going, I'm sure, but I didn't. I started to exercise my will, my freedom. I wasn't particularly afraid of the church's authority. I was just a college kid. No one knew me. I wouldn't be missed. I started to question whether I even had to go. And soon enough, I didn't.
Back then, we were all alike really, even the students. If we came from Bellflower or Edmonton or Hudsonville or Oostburg, we'd all worshiped with the same songs and the same order of worship. Religion itself was a familiar litany. We'd all memorized the same catechism. Most of us had "joined church" just the year before, when we graduated from high school. And then, almost all of us guys wore the same thin ties. Not that many years before, every one of our forebears had clopped around in wooden shoes.
The church has lost its authority, an authority that could be and often was deeply repressive. Forty-five years ago, in the very same church I worshiped last night, the place was bursting at the seams; but an unmistakable regimentation ordered the lives of its people, most of whom wouldn't have dared stay home and watch football. They feared God and feared the church--some of them at least. Of course, if they had a television at all, you can bet it wouldn't be turned on on the Sabbath.
Today, that regimentation is history, and that's why, in part, the congregation last night was a fraction of what it was almost any Sabbath eve of the year, 45 years ago.
Yet, I'd bet anything that the level of spirituality in this burg these days, the spiritual aspirations of its residents, their soulful commitments--those who choose spirituality at least--is just as high, if not higher. Every last Dordt student has a t-shirt or two ordained with a bible verse--I wouldn't have worn such a thing when I was 18, but then it would never have dawned on me to wear shorts to church. Go figure.
We live much more freely these days, in every way. For years, I've felt somehow uncomfortable (this is confession) on Sunday morning when the entire town--I mean it--goes off to church simultaneously. Somehow that's always seemed a little too brave-new-world-ish. Being part of that wholesome Sabbath processional has always irritated me a little, late-Sixties guy that I am.
And it's still observable. Today, on any Sunday morning, if you stand on the stoplight corner downtown, a thousand SUVs full of people are trucking off to worship
But not everyone anymore. Times have changed substantially. Once upon a time, people feared the church. Today not. Today, some of the people in those cars on any given Sunday morning aren't going to church at all. They're on their way to Wal-Mart.
And that's not all bad.