There is one overriding reason, purpose for coming to church on Sundays, Pastor Skonnord, the new minister at the Gimli Lutheran church said this summer, that is to praise the Lord.
“Holy, holy, holy, praise God Almighty,” that sort of thing. Lutheran hymns aren’t all that singable. If God has a good ear, he must flinch at some of my off key singing. I’m saved by the choir. They guide me down the righteous paths of sound. Some hymns make no sense musically so I just stand there and listen.
I agree with the pastor. We’re there to tell the Lord we worship him (her?) with our songs and prayers. The sermons sometimes enlighten, sometimes befuddle me and I think I’d better read, re-read that bit of scripture again. The readings for the day are usually interesting and it’s nice to have them read by various members of the congregation. Getting people to participate is good.
There are some things that are new or, at least, that I don’t remember from when I was in Sunday school. This pastor and the one before him take some time to sit down on the steps leading to the altar and have the children of the congregation gather round while he tells a story with a moral to it. I think everyone enjoys it. The problem is that some Sundays there are no children. It’s not a good omen. A worse omen is the number of signs I’ve seen on churches in the last few years offering the building for sale. They end up becoming restaurants or music schools. Thank goodness, I don’t know of any that have become banks.
The other new practice is stopping the service and having people go about shaking hands and saying “Peace be with you.” I like that. It gets people out of their pews, makes them have direct, physical contact with each other. Not exactly Holy Roller stuff that my father used to describe at some church he went to in Winnipeg for a time but nice. Since we’re not persecuted and persecution helps more than anything to make people feel like a bonded community, we need other things to bind us.
After the service, the minister and his wife stand at the exit to the foyer and shake hands with the congregation as it leaves. It’s good but I sort of feel sorry for his wife. I’m glad that when I was teaching high school that the school board didn’t expect my wife to come to parent-teacher meetings to shake hands with the parents. I was pleased to see the Pastor’s wife wearing slacks. The Pastor even suggested for one service that people wear shorts. There was going to be a BBQ after the service. I waited for thunder and lightning and a booming voice, not of God but of the church elders. When I was a boy, a new minister’s wife wore shorts to cut the grass on a hot summer’s day and the wives of the elders called on Jehovah to strike her dead. There was a possibility the poor woman was going to become a human sacrifice or have the letter S for shorts branded onto her forehead.
The best part, even though it’s not the reason for going to church, is coffee after the service. You get your coffee, some home baked dainties, and you sit down at a table with five other people and catch up on news. When we do that, I sort of feel that it must have been like that when Christ and the Apostles were preaching and teaching. Afterwards, people gathering together on the hillside or in the courtyard to discuss news. That helps to create community.
I know it doesn’t sound all that exciting but when I’m in Gimli, come Sunday, my feet just lead me down the sidewalk to the church. When I leave, my steps seem lighter.
Compared to the past, it all feels rather un-judgemental, liberal, socially correct with no imprecations, threats, warnings, being hurled from the altar, no wrath. I get the feeling if a minister today showed wrath, the congregation would try to get him psychological help. Wrath’s out. Warm and cuddly is in. Away in a manger has taken over from you will burn in hell, sinners.
I keep sort of expecting wrath. Or at least weirdness. When we lived in southern Missouri, I tried going to the local Lutheran church and quit because the altar was draped in the American flag. “Onward Christian Soldiers” was sung every service. Some congregation members had bumper stickers that said, “Kill a Commie for Christ.”
In Iowa, we didn’t get a chance to quit. We got fired. When the white, middle class, social climbing congregation discovered I was a graduate student, a church elder took me aside and explained we were not welcome and that we should attend church with people of our own social class. Being white didn’t cut it. The purpose for going to that church was definitely not to praise the Lord. It had something to do with houses of a number of square feet and a minimum income. I got the uneasy feeling as we were escorted from the premises that the money changers had taken over that temple, lock, stock and barrel.
One of my favorite writers is Ebenezer Henderson. He went to Iceland in 1814 and this is how dedicated he was, he stayed over the winter and continued his work of distributing Bibles in 1815. He says in a preamble to his book, Iceland, or, The Journal of a residence in that island, during the years… that his purpose in visiting Iceland “was exclusively to investigate the wants of its inhabitants with respect to the Holy Scriptures”. Now, that is dedication. Iceland in 1814-15 wasn’t exactly Denmark or France or anywhere else, for that matter. Reykjavik was a few houses buried in snow and assaulted by wind. Henderson fortified himself with enough books to last the winter.
He says that so great is the devotion of the people to the Lord that even though a family is so distant “from any place of worship…that they can only attend twice in the year, in order to receive the sacrament; and even then they do not repair to the parish church, but to a Bænahus, or house of prayer, situated at a considerable distance in the desert, where two other solitary familes meet with the clergyman for the above purpose.“ For shame, for shame, I think to myself when I‘m lying in bed of a Sunday, get thee to thy feet and hie thee to church. Or something like that.
Henderson didn‘t lack in wrath. Rain marooned him at a farm called Finnstad. He hoped to socialize with the family. However, he found them guilty of “Sloth, swearing, and slander“ and learned that the children had been guilty of composing Nidingavisar, satirical songs about the local priest “and almost every person in the parish“ and even helped other children to compose such songs about their own parents. “They were sentenced to be beaten with a rods at home by the constable of the parish, and to stand public penance in the church, as a warning to the congregation.“ The parents were fined sixty-eight rix dollars.
Jesus whups me, this I know, for the pastor tells him so. Harsh at this may seem, it was fairly lenient. In England, I believe, they were still hanging seven year olds for stealing hankies. Being beaten with a rod for making fun of the pastor seems fairly merciful.
In spite of that Henderson says “In their general habits and dispositions, the Icelanders are a very moral and religious people. They are carefully instructed in the principles of Christianity at an early period of life, and regularly attend to the public and private exercises of devotion. Instances of immorality are in a great measure confined to such as frequent the fishing place, where they are often idle for days together; and where such as have made proficiency in wickedness, use every effort to ensnare and corrupt their young and inexperienced companions.“
I wonder what he would have thought of the Riverton Hotel in the heydays of the cat trains hauling fish from north? Or the Gimli parlour when the whitefish boats came in? He would have waxed apopleptic. And had a stroke.
Times change. We‘ll leave wrath to the unhinged right wing ministries who make the news hour for protesting at military funerals, against Jews, against gays, against anyone their narrow minded bigotry disagrees with. We seem to our credit to be separating our prejudices and bigotries from our relgion.
When I was a child, the church, influenced by the Norwegian Synod, was closer to Ebenezer. There was more hell and less heaven. Maybe being liberal, non-judgemental, non-punitive isn‘t so bad. I admire Ebenezer but I guess I‘ll take Jesus Loves Me over Hellfire and damnation.