Sundays were special days at our house. Boring too. None of us kids were allowed to ride bikes or play catch. After dinner and clean up, we were encouraged to read The Banner, our church denomination’s weekly magazine.
I had to attend worship services twice each Sunday unless I could feign a headache or when I was asked to babysit a sibling.
Morning services at our church started promptly at 9:30 a.m. Most arrived at nine to claim their special seat. At home, Dad sounded the first alarm about that same time: “The car leaves at five after nine. Be ready!” His pronouncement spurred furious activity as the other four of us fought for a brief turn in the single bathroom. No leisurely primping or prolonged sits allowed. You did your business and vacated promptly.
Our family was never to be late for church, though one time we were. I can smile about it now, but it wasn’t funny then. On that ominous Sunday, Dad had begun a second round of horn-honking from the driveway. Long, angry blasts. We kids quickly scooped up our allotment of three peppermints each, along with a dime for church and a nickel for Sunday school.
Dad exceeded the speed limit on the way there and Mom offered a prayer the traffic light at the bottom of the hill would smile green. We skidded to a stop outside the church door. Nobody was walking in. This was not good. We knew we were doomed when we began to climb the steep stairs up to the back of the sanctuary. The ushers were lifting the doorstops that held the inner doors open for those who had been prompt. In shining mahogany splendor, these massive gates slowly drifted toward each other, a ritual announcing the sheep were now in and the rest of us were out.
Mother grabbed the end of one door just before it closed, pulled it back and pushed us inside. The elders and the Domine (the preacher) were walking in. Mother’s face and neck turned beet red.
The usher motioned us down to the very front row, a journey that seemed to take forever. The furrowed frowns on the faces of those we passed displayed their disapproval. The whole place hushed. At the front row, the usher stood at attention, rocking on his heels. He dawdled enough so everyone had ample time to crane their necks at the string of Post family trickling down the aisle, our eyes downcast.
We quickly adjusted ourselves on the bench, our seating sequence dictated moments before the march began. Dad joined us after the Invocation and during the singing of the first Psalm. A stern look from him reminded us we were on display and we’d better behave.
Sitting in the front row meant enduring a two-hour service that left us with stiff necks from looking up. The preacher pranced and pontificated, his voice rising and falling in cadence. I couldn’t see his face, but I had a good view of his gray striped trousers and his shiny shoes. I wondered if he got them shined at the barbershop. Whenever we stood up to sing from the Psalter, the preacher would sit down. I thought that was rude.
The sermon started after the preacher read the Bible, closed it, looked out over the congregation and said: “Dearly beloved.” When he uttered those words, I reached into my pocket for my first peppermint. We had been given one peppermint for each of the three points in the sermon, or so I assumed. Mom told us to make believe we were wiping something off our lips when we slipped the peppermint in. “We don’t want to make others jealous,” she warned.
When the preacher said something like: “secondly,” we would sneak the next one in. We sucked this one for as long as possible because this was usually the longest third of the sermon. When the preacher said: “finally,” and I was pretty sure he was starting his third point, I slipped the last peppermint into my mouth. On rare occasions, the preacher would throw us off track by adding a fourth point or a second “finally” with a long conclusion as a chaser.
Sure enough. On that very Sunday when we were imprisoned in the front row, the fountain of words sprinkling down onto my head dribbled into overtime. The sugar high began to wear off. I fought to keep my eyes open. My eyelids came together. Dad reached over my sister and give me a sharp poke in the ribs. It hurt, but I kept silent, eyes opened wide. Mercifully, the magical “A-men” followed soon after. The congregation would all shuffle in their seats and the preacher would offer an applicatory prayer.
After singing one last Psalm, the preacher raised his arms like an eagle and gave the benediction. He then stepped off the pulpit. With elders in tow, he marched to his assigned exit to greet worshippers as they left. Once outside, the men immediately lit up cigarettes on the sidewalk. The smell drifted back into the church as I made my way to Sunday school.
I no longer miss the formal routine of the worship of my youth. I prefer hearing some modest babble among the attendees as they greet each other before the service begins. I like the mixture of clothes too. Some worshippers dress informally while others prefer suits and ties.
The solemnity and predictability of worship at every Christian Reformed Church in the Fifties offered comfort for many. Most worship services these days leave room for spontaneity and surprises. We are learning to laugh, to applaud, and even utter a hearty ‘A-men’. I like that.