"Church" Is Not A Palindrome, Part 2
I've decided to make the first "'Church' Is Not A Palindrome" post the first part of an at least two part series. Why? There were things left unsaid. Maybe I would have let it be but Jen offered a nice comment and Neil dedicated an entire post on his own blog to me and others who have found themselves mired in similar sin. You can find his post here. What I want to write about now isn't really in direct response to something either of them has said, though they both have some thoughtful, interesting, insightful things to say. Rather, their responses actually reminded me of what I was initially thinking about when I first wanted to write about me and my struggle to find a church. I didn't get to it in the first post because what I write here not often thought out completely. I kinda do that as I go along. Plust, I was getting sick (which I now am, officially), so I was pretty much coming in and out of it as I wrote. So, anyway, what I forgot is what follows.
I grew up attending a very traditional Southern Baptist church in suburban Jackson, MS. I loved it. I really did. That might surprise some of you who know my struggles with those kinds of churches as of late and with the SBC in particular. But I really only have good memories of those years. Sure it had its problems (I won't hash them out here; it's beside the point) but the people of that church instilled in me values, theology and a knowledge of God that has shaped who I am today. I was baptised at that church. I attended VBS every summer and dreamed of when I'd get to be in the youth group. My best friend's dad was on staff at the church. It seems like I was there all the time.
Now that church is all but dead, another mostly-empty church building (though this one of more traditional church architecture; it has a steeple and stained glass and everything) in a declining part of town. What happened? Any number of things, probably. I don't know. My family had moved by the time it really had to try to weather some real problems, not the least of which was staying traditional and fundamental in the midst of the changing church culture in America.
But as I think back, that tradition is something that I miss the most.
Every Sunday morning we would close the service by all standing and singing together "The Doxology," which is really just the last verse to another hymn called "Awake, My Soul, and with the Sun." If you were raised in a church like mine (and so many of us were) then you probably know the lyrics already. But if you weren't and, therefore, you don't, I've printed them for you below.
Praise God from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost;
Every Sunday from as long as I can remember until we moved our church membership when I was in the eighth grade, we sang that song, loud, boisterous and triumphant to the accompaniment of a piano and a huge pipe organ. For the longest time I wasn't even sure what the words were. I never saw them printed or was told where to look in the hymnal. Everyone just seemed to know them and eventually I did too. There was a mystery to it. It felt completely different than anything else I did during the week. It felt more sacred. Older. Other.
Just after Thansgiving we would dedicate a Sunday evening service to the "Hanging of the Greens" where we decorated the church for Christmas and officially began the Advent season that we would celebrate for the following four Sundays. During this service we would decorate two Christmas trees that flanked the pulpit. Only, they weren't called Christmas trees. They were called Chrismon trees because they weren't to be decorated with mere ornaments, but rather with chrismons, symbols from the life of Christ and His Church. You can google "chrismon" if you're completely unfamiliar with what I'm talking about but these would be ornaments in the shapes of shepherd staffs or chalices or mangers or crosses or flames, etc. The list could go on.
I remember there were hundreds of them. There would be tables in the lobby of the sanctuary covered in chrismons. On your way into the service, everyone in attendance would pick one up. And there was an unspoken rule amonst the adults that they were to never take the grapes. You see, all of the chrismons were decorated in white and gold... all, that is, except for the grapes, which were covered in purple and green sequins. These were left for us kids to try to get to first. If you were one of the lucky ones to get a bunch of grapes as your chrismon then you were the shiz.
The highlight of the service (well, the highlight for me and everyone else I knew) was when the pastor would go through the chrismons one at a time, carefully explaining to all present what that particular symbol represented and meant. If he was talking about your chrismon, then it was time for you to go and hang it on one of the two trees. You have no idea how much my knowledge of the story of Jesus was reinforced by hearing about those symbols year after year.
So, why do I bring those two things up? Because, in many ways, they epitomize "tradition" and have all but been abandoned in most modern churches (at least the ones I've visited). I mean, who sings "ye" in a song anymore? Yet they are representative of some of the things I miss the most. Sure, absence makes the heart grow fonder, but the memories I have about my practice of church in those years goes way beyond simple nostalgia.
Now, my problem isn't that I can't find a church that sings the doxology or decorates with chrismons at Christmas. If you remember, the main reason I gave for my recent absence in church attendance was that I have struggled endlessly to find one that I like. Yet when I think back the things that I "liked" are not things that I would be looking for now or that, if I encountered them, I would say that I did like.
My point is that my perspective is skewed. I'm looking for the wrong thing. A lot of us are. Neil's 100% correct. Of course, I hope Jen is too in that we are now far enough removed from the "worship wars" to recognize that thinking it was a war in the first place is ludicrous and that we can now have a greater appreciation for all expression and practice of worship of the one true God.
I wanted to write all this to basically say that I'm wrong. I've been doing it wrong. I want to fix that and do it right. It's just not that easy, though maybe it should be, but I'm working on it.
Though, if the next church I walked in had a table covered in styrofoam grape-bunches decorated with colored sequins it would make my deicision about which church to attend a lot easier.