Our church, like a lot of churches, has shrunk. So we sold our big meetinghouse and started holding services in a rented storefront. Our worship is now simpler, more informal.
Our music director plays an electronic piano, not a multi-manual pipe organ. Today’s prelude was Fond D’Orgue by Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers, 1632-1714. It must have been composed for organ, but now it was played on a single keyboard, boiled down to a simple melody.
As usual, my mind was on other things—mainly the progress of my historical novel, which I am now revising. I was thinking about changes I would make in Chapter 22, when Nivers’s tune broke through.
The simple fall of pure tones stopped me cold. In a startling moment, the tune became an attribute of the Divine.
It is more my style to cast God as a supporting player—essential, yet secondary—in my own grand maneuvers.
What is God for, if not to support me?
Along came Nivers’s tune, a pure thing, existing in its own plane, its link to a long-dead Frenchman moot.
My work—no matter how worthy, no matter how inspired—is a hardscrabble of striving and becoming, a smudged object of trade.
But a tune, a color, a shape, a tree, a stream—is all being. Is God manifested.
God dwells at the heart of things, always in flux yet never changing. The facets of God’s transformation flash like signboards on country stations at night as we go barreling through on the fast express with rarely a glimmer of recognition.
But the God of tunes and colors and leaves and fishes is always accessible. Is present to us in that sabbath state when we hear music and forget our customary concerns.
This is a guest post by Millie Sommers (1889-1971), my grandmother. In 1969, at my request, she wrote a memoir of her life, mostly telling about her early days, around 1900. She wrote 13 pages, in clear, crisp longhand. I have broken it into three parts for easy reading. It is verbatim, straight from her pen, except for a few additions of my own, in [square brackets].
I was the oldest at home, and was more of a homebody, not caring so much for getting out and tearing around as some liked to do.
There was always plenty to do at home outside of school hours, and then we didn’t have automobiles those days to race around in. We had parties of different kinds quite often especially in the winter. When they were out of town we often went in bob-sleds—a farm wagon bed on sled runners, with straw in the bottom to sit on.
Of course there were dances, but I didn’t care for them, and my folks didn’t like them either.
They were mostly public dances in a hall, and some not very nice to go to.
They didn’t have dances in schools & for teenagers as they do today.
Roller Skates and Old Maid Decks
Then Roller skates came in & as we had no cement walks those days, the skating rinks were in a hall or opera House. Very few had their own skates, whoever operated the rinks had skates for rent.
I was never very good at it, but I always went and tried. But ice skating was simply out for me. I was too clumsy or too big a coward or Something.
My father was never a very religious man, but he never would allow a deck of cards in the house, even a deck of “Old Maid” as was popular then.
So I never learned to play cards & didn’t care enough for it to play much, or try to learn.
In summer & fall when the leaves came down, we would rake the leaves into ridges or walls for the houses we would layout, marking off rooms etc. This was mostly the girls games. We also played hide & seek quite a bit in the evening, and caught lightning bugs under the street lights.
When some cousins or neighbors came to visit in the evening, especially in the winter, we kids would play what we called “Dark Room,” which was Hide & Seek in the comparatively dark bedrooms or other unoccupied rooms. It was a lot of fun but I wouldn’t have liked my children playing that game, as the rooms were not very presentable when we were through, as we crawled over & under beds and other furniture etc.
My one enjoyment was reading, and I had a little trouble with my eyes. The folks would hide any books I was reading, but I usually dug something out to read. My grandmother [Johnanna Marie Elizabeth Nybro Gunstenson Reierson Anson] lived next door at the time, and she was as much of a reader as I was. Of course they didn’t have magazines and librarys in most every town as they do now.
One day she bro’t out some magazines that were yellow with age, but they surely had a lot of good stories in them. I don’t know where she got them, but she had a lot of them & would bring out a few at a time. So I had a “Field Day” for quite awhile. She came from Norway, but these were American magazines.
My younger brothers and sisters cared for a few different things that I did not.
But as I write it, it seems like practically nothing compared to what they have today, but we never knew about anything else, so we were satisfied.
We always had an organ, a reed organ as practically everybody had. We didn’t have pianos at that time.
My mother taught me a few pieces to play by ear when I was quite young, long before I was of school age. & soon I could play practically anything by ear, or rather any tunes I had ever heard.
Then one day while looking in the instruction book I accidentially [sic] caught on as to how the notes were placed on the scale & what it all meant. So after that I played also by note. None of my sisters or brothers ever learned to play much.
I have always played in churchs [sic], Sunday Schools, School etc. without ever having taken a lesson.
I never have learned the pipe organ & very little on Electric organs, tho I have always wanted to, and still do.
Being oldest of the family, I naturally learned to cook & sew very well & did most of the sewing for the family. Those days we couldn’t go to the store & buy ready-made clothes as we do today.
But I never cared too much for sweeping, dusting etc. I would rather do outside work, such as shoveling snow, carrying coal, wood etc. and as my brothers were a lot younger than I, I could always do that. One thing I remember that I had forgotten about, where a short time ago something in a paper mentioned the fact that when we set the table, we always turned the plates upside down over the knife, fork & spoon. I think maybe on account of dust etc. as we usually left them on the table from meal to meal along with salt, pepper, Sugar, vinegar etc. which were in a caster (a sort of merry-go-round) which was in the Center of the table & was high and would hold up the Cover.
We always covered the table with a thin white cloth or a mosquito bar or something.
Feel the Burn
We usually had a summer kitchen for summer use, as we had no gas, electricity, or even kerosene stoves at that time.
We would move the kitchen stove out there every spring, unless we had two stoves as some had.
But it was nice to get the stove out of the way so we didn’t have to look at it in hot weather.
Then there was usually a rag carpet, which had to be taken up each spring & cleaned.
We burned quite a lot of corn cobs in the summer as they made a quick fire & would cool down quickly when we were done with it.
Later we had a kerosene stove, and then a gasoline stove. That was something! but a lot of people were afraid of them.
There were no furnaces in those days. As for heating stoves, they were also moved out and in, spring & fall, or at least set back in the corner, and decorated a little during the summer. These burned coal or wood.
Then there was the Base Burner which was a large heating stove, with small squares of ising glass [sic] all around, through which the fire glowed and looked real nice. They burned hard or anthracite coal with very little smoke or soot.
We didn’t always have transportation of our own but our grandparents lived near, on a near farm at first, then in Middletown they lived next door. So we went with them quite often. Of course we didn’t go places like folks do now a days, and if we went to Springfield or some place farther, we went on the train. To go to Greenview (10 miles) on the train we had to change in Petersburg. But we went that way every once in a while.
While living in the country, we went to Church & Sunday School sometimes at a Country Church.
Then there were always Decoration Day services at the Cemetery about 2½ miles from town.
There was a speakers stand, and they would take an organ out from town. I sometimes played the organ at these services. Later when a band was organized they played too.
Then on 4th of July we usually went to Greenview. They had a large grove there at the edge of town, and there would be a program. Everyone took a picnic lunch, but I can’t remember that there were any tables. They just spread the lunch on the ground.
The water supply was in large barrels, set around the grove. There was ice in them, and about a dozen tin cups fastened to the barrel with long chains, and eveyone drank. (Real sanitary)
They also had fireworks, but of course not as elaborate as they have today. But we all had firecrackers, sparcklers [sic] etc.
Next Week: All the Comforts of a 19th Century Home
. . . in my merry DeLorean–but, of course, modified with nuclear fuel compartment, flux capacitor, and date/time indicators!
Time travel is nothing new. People have been doing it for eons. Everybody from H.G. Wells to Doctor Who. They travel in time machines; they leap across time by hypnosis; or sometimes, they just stumble through an unseen portal that happens to be in their path.
You can travel Forward into the Future, or Backward into the Past. Travelers to the future discover new civilizations, which are either utopian dreams or the stuff of nightmares—seldom anything in-between. (The most shocking plot twist would be if the hero landed in a future society just as ho-hum as our own, differing only in trivial details. I suppose it’s already been done.)
Into the Past
The other kind of time travel, Backward into the Past, is more interesting to me because it is based on reality: a real world that we know did exist, once upon a time. People who travel to the past either want to right some wrong in the present; or they simply hope to be detached observers . . . but somehow, they can’t quite avoid Interfering with the Fabric of Time and Space. Often with amusing consequences.
One of the best time romps of recent decades seems to go both directions—at least such is the implication of its title: Back to the Future. Everybody has seen this film, directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by Zemeckis with Bob Gale.(NOTE: If you are the only person in North America who has NOT seen it, put down this blog right now—just leave it open, face down, on your reading table—and go see the film. Then come back and finish reading this post.)
The title is a bare-faced marketing ploy. The filmmakers knew people would not have much interest in the Past—just mention “history” and observe the yawns—so they put the word “Future” in the title. To support that concept, they filled up the early scenes with gee-whiz gadgets, most notably Doc Brown’s gull-winged sports car with the Y-shaped gizmo inside that makes time travel possible.
But then, Dear Reader, the bait and switch: When Marty McFly climbs in and steps on the gas, the souped-up DeLorean takes him straight to the 1950s—an era when his own dorky parents were mere angst-ridden teenagers.
This movie is all about the past and how its influence seeps into the present. Setting it in the Fabulous ’Fifties gave Zemeckis and Gale dozens of cute cultural references to make viewers smile. But this tight screenplay has no room for idle nostalgia. There’s no archival footage of Chuck Berry doing the Duck Walk while performing “Johnny B. Goode”—but we do get to see Marty McFly do a fair imitation of it in a scene that helps move the plot forward in an entertaining way. All the while, Messrs. Zemeckis and Gale exploit every nostalgic-comic possibility from the situation.
Reality is Bumpier than Fiction
Marty’s task is to rescue his father, a teenager in the ’Fifties, from the personality flaw that made the McFly family’s subsequent life a disaster. Through the simple device of having the brilliant, eccentric Doc Brown inhabit both time frames, Marty is led to shred the pre-formed shape of the Time-Space Continuum and write a new future. That is, you know . . . a new present.
Marty’s woes of today trace directly to his parents’ woes in the past. If only the past could be fixed, the present would turn rosy.
But real life is not that simple. What if a great heartache of the present stems directly from a triumph or blessing in the past? What if you must do your grandfather an injustice in his boyhood to prevent injustice to your family in the present?
Such imponderables make me dizzy. Which is why I will probably continue trying to write fiction that only suggests the depth and complexity of life in earlier times, without trying to trace the tangled skeins of causality through decades or centuries.
Nevertheless, reading time-travel adventures can be a delightful diversion. I’ve mentioned before the intriguing works of Jack Finney, who had a time-travel fixation. Right now I’m reading Stephen King’s experiment with time travel, titled 11/22/63. Maybe I’ll comment further in a future edition of this blog. Stay tuned.
And now, for something completely different:
What do you suppose this thing is? Any guesses? Tune in next Tuesday, and I’ll try to remember to tell you the answer!
We show up for choir rehearsal fifty minutes before the Good Friday evening service, ready to do our time-hallowed chore.
Our pastor, with a smile, points out something new. In the entry hall, on exactly the corner of wall where your eye would naturally expect it:
It is astounding. Our Strategic Planning Team has installed signs to assist first-time visitors. They give just the information that visitors have been needing ever since the church opened its doors!
This sudden case of our old congregation Doing Something Right For a Change, and with only six months’ prior discussion, lifts a corner of my spirits, unexpectedly. Our church has been shrinking for at least thirty years; I have lost hope for its survival beyond the next crisis. But now, this new lettering stands against my creeping despair, stuck boldly on the wall, staking a claim on the Kingdom yet to come.
When the shock of it subsides, we go ahead and rehearse our music.
At seven o’clock the service begins. We are thirty-one souls, counting the pastor, the music director, the guest musician, the ten choir members, and two small children. The twenty-nine adults are mostly grayhairs, but there are also a few middle-aged stalwarts and even a college student home for the weekend.
Good Friday Worship
Good Friday is the most somber day in the Christian year. We’ve been remembering the death of Jesus on the cross for two thousand years. There is nothing light or hopeful in it. But we mull it over with God in worship once a year. It’s always pretty much the same.
Our church’s usual Good Friday evening service is a modified “Tenebrae” service. Candles will be extinguished, one by one, amid scripture readings and music. When all the light has been snuffed out, we will go our ways in silence, to wait for Resurrection morning.
This year’s Good Friday music includes five hymns for all to sing: “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Beneath the Cross of Jesus,” “What Wondrous Love Is This?”, “Ah, Holy Jesus,” and “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” There are two piano solos from our music director, Robert Eversman; and oboe and English horn solos by Claire Workinger.
About the middle of the service, we regulars in the choir sing “Worthy Is the Lamb.” Accompanied expertly by Robert on piano and Claire on oboe, our anthem reaches a solemn grandeur two steps above the potential of our imperfect voices.
Church members stand in the pulpit and read scripture—familiar words from Matthew, Luke, Isaiah, and John, telling of Jesus’ sacrifice for our sake. The pitches, the tempoes, the accents and articulations of their voices are all different, but their seriousness of purpose is all the same. Terry’s old voice wavers and weaves its way through the text, suggesting more truth and light yet to break forth from ancient verses; Becky’s young voice is clear and declarative, grounded in the present, looking forward.
When Jesus has once again been crucified and prepared for burial, we turn out the remaining lights and go home.
From my seat in the choir I have watched and listened to my friends in faith. Most are people I have known for years or decades, in holy covenant with the Lord. Two or three are more recent friends, but as a general thing I have many years’ accumulated exposure to the diverse outlooks of our members.
Their approaches to religion—the private religion deep in one’s heart—are quite varied. Some are conventionally pious, all the way through (yes, that really is who they are). Some are imbued with a secular outlook that largely conceals the “religion” or “spirituality” living in their souls. There are many blends of the sacred and the profane. Some members may be just confused; others, awestruck observers of life.
What strikes me tonight is their steadiness in attending to the task of worship. Liturgy is said to be “the work of the people” in worshiping God. And so it has been on this night. Each member of this tired, dwindling, cranky, much-loved church—from the freshest/tenderest to the oldest/most battle-hardened—came here to voice a shared agenda of ancient worship, right smack in the midst of all the uncertainty and mayhem of life. Just to do what we have always done, because that’s what we do . . . because God matters to us.
Thank you, Lord, I hear myself pray—thank you for these people, my friends, who come at your call to worship even in the darkest times.
However few in number, however poor in spirit, there is something real, authentic, and perpetual—not duplicated elsewhere in our lives—when we gather for worship.