Tuesday, April 19, 2011

That Old Time Religion

In the little white church I grew up in, we got two pieces of frond pinned into the shape of a cross on Palm Sunday. To a child who observed the Methodist children spilling from their church waving long green fronds, our crosses, browning at the edges with the straight pin threatening to stick you through your springtime frock, it seemed a little chintzy (does anyone but my family use that term to mean 'cheap'?) But our little white Lutheran church was focused on Scripture and I can well understand now the symbolism linking the Palms of the Sunday at the beginning of Holy Week with the Cross of Good Friday. Our hearts were prepared by the liturgical calendar, from the pre Lenten Sundays, through Ash Wednesday and the Wednesday night services of Lent. We attended the Lord's supper service on Maundy Thursday though I don't remember attending the traditional watch services of Good Friday of the bigger church in Jefferson City.

The church was so beautiful on Easter Sunday. Those were still the days of new Easter dresses for little girls (Laura and I got to wear new dresses our grandmother had sewn for the first time on Easter morn), festive hats for grandmothers for sure and corsages for all the ladies. Pastor's vestments and the altar cloths were gleaming white brocade. I'm sure we had cold Easter morns, but I can only remember sunlight warming the pews in the hues of the stained glass borders of the frosted Gothic windows. Our church was old but dignified with white painted altar, pulpit and Baptismal font and stamped tin ceilings. The pews were finished with type of reddish black varnish the consistency of just overcooked taffy. The slightest increase in the temperature made one's coat, dress, or bare skin adhere and leave an imprint. We were strongly adjured not to wiggle during church; I am sure the constant sucking sound of skin and pew separating was distracting to serious worshippers!

After the somber minor keys of Lent, the Easter hymns lifted the spirit even before the congregation started singing. I didn't remember at first, but today my favorite hymn came back to me word for word: 'I Know that My Redeemer Lives'. Church was packed and everyone sang loudly if not tunefully. Our organ boomed from the choir loft above over the heads of the congregation, milking every chord and foot note. It took stamina to sing all those verses when our organist played at such a dignified tempo.

We spent this Palm Sunday service watching Alissa receive her confirmation. I listened with interest as each child's Bible verse was recited aloud. I chose a verse from Isaiah for my confirmation; it was meaningful to me then, but I would have a difficult time choosing just one now! Our confirmation instruction took place in our old Sunday school building for three hours Saturday mornings. I don't remember now whether it was every Saturday or not, but I do recall taking it all very seriously. Our pastor was a young man in his thirties; my father, who served as treasurer of the church and choir director at different times, thought his sermons lacked intellectual vigor. But our church education was old school in a way that had vanished from the public schools at least a generation before. We answered questions posed to us about doctrine and the catechism; we were tested and graded; we were expected to memorize the creeds, the books of the Bible, the Ten Commandments, the sacraments, the differences between Catholic and Protestant, the answers to the doctrinal questions of Luther's small catechism. We recited our memorized answers in front of the class. Like I said, no one teaches that way anymore. But it sticks with you!

We had a children's choir led by a lovely silver haired woman with an accent named Mrs. Karr. She had a trained soprano voice and much patience. Once a summer she invited all the kids to her home to swim in her swimming pool.....quite a treat! I rode in her Cadillac one time as well..another memorable experience for a girl raised in Dodge Darts and Volkswagens.

Our Baptist Easter hymns are second to none for joy and energy. With no Easter stations on XM playing the tunes weeks ahead of the celebration, we don't hear or sing some of these hymns much as I'd like to. While our Easter services lead from joyful noise to joyful noise, it still seems a shame to restrict "Low in the Grave He Lay" to but one Sunday a year. So many songs, so little time!!!

Years ago our church had Sunrise service Easter morn as early as the sun rose, especially in years when Daylight Savings time had not yet taken effect. We would quietly crawl from bed, donning the minimum of finery, and head for town. No one was completely awake and the skies were still gray. Typically, the air would bear a chill. The church would be dim and those gathered would murmur among themselves bringing to mind the women heading to the tomb that first Easter morn. We were part of the wonder, the first that day to hear the marvelous news in the Scripture that 'He is not here'. Without the fanfare and celebration of the later Easter service, we latter disciples bonded over the centuries with those first visitors who could not yet rejoice because they did not yet understand what had taken place. What a wonderful experience that sunrise service was....prayerful and hopeful.

The baking supplies are gathered for the Easter morning coffeecakes. The eggs will be boiled and dyed, later to be hidden, lost and found....or lost. We will have to work this Easter morning, but not until we meet again in the morning hours to see the empty tomb. 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.'

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