I grew up in a family that went to church every Sunday. Period. I was never forced, nagged or bribed to go to church. We just went. It’s what we did as a family from the time we moved to Ridley Park until I left for college.
I realize some will think that cruel and unusual punishment. Others will applaud my parents for bringing us up that way. Whatever. It was a different time, a different place and a different culture.
I’m not writing this to condemn anyone. I just got to thinking, “What do I remember from church growing up?” I don’t remember anything about church before age 8, when we moved to Ridley Park from Bucks County. But a few things do linger in my memory. (Not many, but a few.) For the record: I grew up attending St. Mark’s Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Ridley Park, PA.
First, I don’t remember a single sermon my pastor ever preached. I don’t remember if he read his sermons or if he spoke extemporaneously. I don’t remember if he was fascinating or boring. All I remember is one phrase that I remember him using a number of times: “The rolley-coaster to hell.” I don’t know the context of that comment, but it sticks in my mind. I never want to be on that ride! Someday, I’m going to use that phrase.
Our family always sat in the same place each Sunday. Third row on the aisle on the left side. That was our family’s spot.
I remember a number of times when I sat to the left of my dad and to the right of a lady who smelled absolutely horrible. I mean days-old-garbage, a-whole-year-old-gym-sweat-socks, Pepe LePew, I’m-going-to-hurl malodorous. I had to bury my nose in my dad’s suit to survive. After that Sunday, I always tried to sit closer to the center aisle with my mom.
We used the same liturgy every Sunday for those eleven years. Lutherans will know what I mean when I say Red Hymnal page 5 (non-communion Sunday) and page 15 (communion). Knew it by heart. Didn’t ever have to glance at the hymnal for the liturgy. And no one ever complained.
There were no children’s sermons. In fact, children didn’t go with the parents to the communion rail. My mom and dad would go up for communion separately, taking turns watching us three kids. There was no way they were going to leave us alone for any length of time.
When I was old enough to acolyte, we acolytes would compete with each other to see who could light or extinguish the six candles the fastest, without hesitation. It’s harder than you think. One fraction of a second too quick, and you’ll have to cover the candle a second time to put it out, and you lose. Acolytes also weren’t allowed to look at the congregation. Ever.
We sang the same communion hymns every time we had communion. So we knew all them by heart, too.
I remember learning to sing parts in church. Each verse I would sing a different part, either soprano, alto, tenor or bass. The practice helped me in future auditions and music theory classes. I still sing a variety of parts to this day, along with a few favorite descants.
I remember some of the people. Mr. Scott was the organist. He was the best noodler I ever heard at the keyboard. He could transition between any key with God’s given style and grace. I remember Mr. Wagner, who sang a lot of tenor solos and was the Cubmaster of our pack. I remember Mr. and Mrs. Buss, who were good friends of our family and talented choir members. I remember Mr. and Mrs. May who had three boys about the same age as me. I remember the pastor’s wife, Mrs. Sallach, who had a beautiful, powerful, operatic soprano voice (ala Sandy Patti).
I remember my job as church janitor during high school. It didn’t pay much. Somehow my pastor convinced everyone they didn’t have to pay minimum wage because they were a church. But it was money. There were forty-four wooden pews in our church — we (I always had a janitor partner) dusted them every single Saturday with two Endust-infused Handiwipes. Our church had a preschool and kindergarten. I knew exactly where they kept the snack cookies, how to get into the closet where they were kept, and how many I could eat without anyone noticing. I learned how to gracefully use a string mop weekly, and annually strip and wax all the linoleum tile floors.
I remember that our church didn’t have air conditioning. We did have several large fans that could have gotten a B-17 off the ground that got us through the hot summer months.
It’s a good exercise for me to remember what I remember. It humbles me with the reality that what people remember about their church experience isn’t what I hope or expect. Someday, someone will write something about me and my ministry to them, and it will be quite amusing.
Through it all, I was weekly fed with God’s grace. When I got to the seminary years later, what they taught me sounded familiar. I had great catechetical instruction. After I got married and had a family, I never had to beg, coerce or bribe my kids to go to church. It was a part of the fabric of our family. And for that I am very thankful for the efforts and routine of my parents and my in-laws, who established that pattern in the hearts and souls of my wife and I.