So it's Sunday, Feb 24th. Again I'm guilty of "forsaking the assembling of ourselves together". This is the end of my second month of my Church-fast. I will go back to Church one day...probably one day soon. But for now I'm sort of resting and licking some wounds. My problem is finding a church around here I even want to attend. I have promised myself I will never ever attend a Mega-Church again. At least not as a member.
That's my personal preference and this isn't a rant against churches so that's about all I'll say about that.
But this is a post about Church. Not the building...not a denomination. Not even the body of Christ in General. This is about Church. More specifically, it's about the way Church looks and sounds and feels now, as opposed to when I was a kid and a young adult.
I attended what was affectionately known as an "Independent Baptist Church". Now, that very term can bring shivers to many, and twitches and nervous tics to some. It was a rule-driven, legalistic, sometimes Pharisaical local body back then. But to be honest...it had a couple of things going for it that the stereotypical IBF church didn't have. The rules got crazy for a while...as was the trend back then. But it was different from most other IBF churches in that:
(A) the pastor wasn't a poorly qualified, part-time truck driver from Lizard Lick Louisiana. He was a very intelligent man with a Bachelors in Bible and a minor in Education from a real college. He taught school in the public school system for a few years. He was articulate, thorough and seldom used the devices of "Proof Texting" or extravagant pulpit storytelling to make his point. (although he had many guest evangelists who could guild a lily like a pro)
(B) The Pastor genuinely loved his people. Really, deeply, loved them and knew them individually. In retrospect I think this was what made him become a "Fundy" for such a long period of time. He didn't start out that way, and they have since moved far more toward the middle and away from legalism. But I think the years spent in overzealous rule-making were because he loved us and was worried about our lives here. It is that very reason that I long ago moved from anger and bitterness I felt toward these folks, to genuine love and appreciation for them. They messed up...like many parents do. But they did it in the course of trying to love us and wanting the best for us.
(C) The other major difference was that--as I alluded to before--they left this mindset years ago. This is rare because usually individual members will leave the legalism but whole churches seldom do. But this group did. Maybe they aren't what you'd consider "contemporary" now, but they sure aren't what they once were.
I left this church in 1990 never to return, save for an occasional visit. It took years to undo the damage the legalism had done, more years to develop my own Theological beliefs, more still to find the confidence in those beliefs to stand on them unapologetically and finally...a lot of time just to understand those folks and to forgive. Once I got to that point...many years ago now...I find that I miss them. And while I could not become a member of that church, simply because I worship in a slightly different fashion, I could attend services there and really enjoy myself, and further...I could appreciate the differences and relish the rich history of that place.
I find myself lately really missing certain aspects of that church above others. Some things that really shaped me and left indelible marks on my soul as a boy of 9 when I first started going there, then as a teenager, and finally as an adult. There are things I remember of that place that I wish I saw at work in The Church today. Things that were beloved traditions, and looking back over 40 years that have come and gone since I first attended that church, they were things that I wish we still held dear.
There are those among modern churches who decry some of these things as hokey, or embarrassing, or old-school. Some traditions, they even maintain, are unbiblical. Sometimes I think the people making these claims and accusations are simply still so burned by the practitioners that they just haven't forgiven yet and as long as they are wounded, they can't see the beauty and forgive the ugliness. And there was ugliness. And you don't have to forgive until you are ready...so don't read this as a rebuke.
Nevertheless there were some aspects of "Old Time Religion" that I find myself longing for as I approach the half-century mark. Here--in no particular order--is my list.
Wednesday Evening Prayer Meeting. Now first of all, nothing was more beloved among my friends growing up than Wednesday night prayer meeting. Why? Because it started at 7PM on a school night. That means you got there at 6:45. Which means you left your house at 6:15. Which means by the time you got home from baseball practice at 5:30, you barely had time for a shower and dinner before you left for church. Since I attended the Christian School at the same church, eventually the administration did away with Wednesday night homework. So we had an evening off. Plus, my mother sang in the choir...which practiced after the service on Wednesday night. So I didn't get home before 9:30. All that free time! If only they had laptops and cell phones back then.
That was the kid-friendly part. And it's funny. But what I really remember about Wednesday night prayer meeting were the prayers. The Pastor would bring a brief lesson and then he would review the prayer list. A real printed prayer list that you got when you came in. He would go down through each one of them and update us on the condition of every person. Because he knew the condition of every person. He was a shepherd. He knew his sheep, not just his flock. There is a difference.
After that, he would open the floor to anyone with a prayer request. Some of them were the same ones we'd heard for years. A lady asking for her husband to be saved. A dad praying for a wayward kid. A job need. A car accident and some hurting neighbors. An elderly man in the hospital. Our President, Our Nation, Our Church. There was always the mysterious "unspoken" request. Too important or embarrassing to ask public prayer for specifically. But a plea for the body to simply "pray for me". I know some question the theological soundness of this, and I get it. But it was a part of the picture...
Then the Pastor would ask one of the men in the Church to open us in prayer, and after that he would say, "Anyone who is lead may pray...and I will close as the Spirit prompts." (This was as close to a Pentecostal leading of the Spirit as we would ever experience) And then it began.
As a young boy, and then a teen-aged young man, this next time affected me in ways I never even understood until much later in life. I sat there with head bowed, eyes closed...most of the time...and I listened intently to the prayers of great and godly men who I had grown up around and been influenced by. Usually a deacon would open us up. Maybe "Dad" Stanley, who was likely the oldest human being I ever met. Maybe Jim Riggs, or Bronard Long, or Dave Lewis. One by one, as one person ended his prayer, another would begin his or her own personal petitions. Great voices of great people who were as much a part of my life as my family were. In fact they were my family. The pastor's wife would pray, and her sweet voice...still retaining the faintest hint of her Michigan heritage...would be soothing. Then Mel Henry, who served God through great pain most of his life, and whose son was and is one of my dearest friends. Art Wilson, Mrs Tuten, Mrs. Noack, Some of them had personal requests they had been making for years. A friend on the mission field, a son in the military. Two voices always made me smile as I sat there with my head bowed and soaked up this special time. One was Harry Flohr. Mr. Flohr was perhaps the most Christ-like man I have ever met. Unselfish, serving, giving, loving, busy doing the little things that nobody would notice unless they were left undone. Plowing the parking lot if it snowed. Driving a group of teens to a Youth Group outing. Opening his home for a massive sleepover or lending his RV for a class trip. He prayed for certain missionaries, he prayed for our pastor, he prayed for our nation. He was among the first men I saw as a hero and a role model. He had hands the size of a garden shovel and a loving smile and wonderful sense of humor.
The other voice I loved hearing was Harold Alexander. He had a drawl that gave away his North Carolina birthplace and his two youngest daughters were classmates of mine and among my best friends. We all grew up together and I spent a lot of great times at their home. When Harold prayed it was like listening to Andy Griffith in a church in Mayberry.
I learned how to pray from these folks. How to respect God, but ask boldly. How to remember the important things to pray for. How to pray effectively. ...and how to live a life that backed up standing and praying out loud in a church service where everyone knew you and everyone knew whether these were merely empty words, or the voice of a real believer's heart. I still think of those Wednesday nights and those warm, special prayer times, and those men and women who taught me in Sunday School, cheered me at baseball games, encouraged me when I preached a 5 minute sermon on Good Friday with the other "Preacher Boys" and some...like Meredith Stafford, my High School Creative Writing teacher, remained a part of my life even today, and still cheer my exploits.
I miss those days and that feeling of family. I miss knowing that my pastor knew me. Really knew me and wanted the best for me. In hindsight, the good far outweighed the bad. It just takes some time to see it that way. I know not all "Fundamentalist" churches came out of that mindset and returned to sanity. But that one did. I also know the pastor cared a great deal. He wasn't the CEO of a large corporation He wasn't running the church like a franchise with satellites popping up all over the country. He was busy tending his flock. This flock. He was imperfect, fallible, and human. But he was a pastor. A shepherd. There are a few things he could teach a contemporary pastor about doing the job.
I'll stop here. Tomorrow we'll look at another of the great traditions of my generation. See you then