New Year’s Eve

 The sacred hush of Christmas Eve 1949 gave way the next morning to the excitement of Christmas Day. My brothers and I got up early, opened presents, and played with our new toys. If we were lucky, snow would be falling sometime soon, and the pond would have enough ice for skating. The week after Christmas was a dizzying sequence of playing with toys and seeing the neighbor kids and our cousins. We were allowed to stay up every night past our usual bedtimes to play caroms and table games and put together jigsaw puzzles. After all, it was Christmas break with no school. Even as we enjoyed these days of playing and holiday eating, our minds turned to the next great event: New Year’s Eve.

I knew about New Year’s Day, the first day of the next year, and I understood that years changed numbers on New Year’s Eve, just like my age changed on my birthday. But I’d only heard about New Year’s Eve, the actual time when one year passed away and a new one was born. I had never taken part in celebrating it, at least not at midnight, the actual turning of the year. We kids had always gone to bed too early. At age ten, the day took on a new importance. For the first time, I would be allowed to participate in a New Year’s Eve celebration.

I was thrilled when my parents announced that we would go to church at about ten o’clock at night and stay there until midnight. I began to wonder what it would look like when the New Year came. Would there be a line across the sky just as the New Year arrived so I could see the difference between the New Year and the old one? Would the new sky have a brighter color? Would the stars be bigger and brighter? Would there be a new star like the Christmas star? One thing I did know: I wanted to be outside, looking up at the sky, at the actual moment of midnight.

My parents explained that the church would have a “Watch Night Service.” Everyone would “watch and pray” as the New Year approached and then sing, stand, and kneel before God as it arrived. We often knelt to pray in church, and I felt certain we would kneel at least once during this special service. The Watch Night Service seemed awesome and holy to me, just the kind of thing that the people in Bible stories might have done. I still thought the people in our church were pretty much the same as the biblical children of Israel, especially since I thought they had brought the clock of the covenant all the way to Elmore, Ohio. But I was worried about all the singing, standing, praying, and preaching we had to get through before the New Year arrived. I wanted to be outside at the moment the New Year began. What if we were late?

The Watch Night Service began with solemn singing and Scripture reading in the sanctuary followed by a short sermon about commitment and devotion to God and the passage of time. Then the men and boys and the women and girls went to separate rooms in the basement to wash each other’s feet like Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet before he was crucified. In the two rooms, people paired up to wash each other’s feet in metal basins of water, mercifully warmed for this purpose. I was paired with an older man. While washing my feet, he talked quietly about God’s love and the humility of Jesus. The same thing was going on all around the room, and presumably in the room for women and girls. The end of the old year was like the end of a time in our lives, and we were finishing it just as Jesus had ended the time of his earthly ministry.

After footwashing, we returned to the sanctuary and sat quietly. Aunt Lucille played a slow, thoughtful hymn on the church’s new organ, and we were instructed to think about the passing of the year, the passing of our lives, and the holy importance of the year ahead. When everyone was back in the sanctuary, it was time for communion, which we called “The Lord’s Supper.” Brother Lee, our pastor, reminded everyone of the seriousness of taking communion and of the danger of taking communion unworthily. Then he began to recite the sacred lines about Jesus breaking bread and telling the disciples it represented his body.

Following the instructions about how to receive the bread and the grape juice, symbolic of Jesus’ body and blood, we went row by row to kneel at the altar for communion. As we each ate a piece of bread and drank a tiny cup of juice, we were enacting something Jesus had done near the end of his life on earth. The organ was played softly again, and again we were instructed to think, this time about the shortness of life and our purpose for being here on earth.

Anxious for what was ahead, I peeked at the sacred clock on the wall. It was 11:50 p.m., only ten minutes before midnight. Now the swift passing of our lives became more urgent and more important to me. We needed to finish the service before midnight so we could actually see the New Year arrive. I watched and waited for something to happen, but people just sat there, praying silently, while the time on the clock kept moving forward. Finally, at about 11:55 p.m., Brother Lee stood and said it would be fitting for us to begin the New Year in prayer. He asked everyone to kneel in the pews so we could “pray in the New Year.”

We all knelt to pray, and my heart sank when I thought that I might not be outside when the New Year swept across the sky. We prayed and prayed, and finally Brother Lee said that the New Year had arrived. We stood, and he gave a closing prayer. Just after he said “Amen,” there was a loud boom outside. Unable to wait another second, I ran to the back of the church and out the door to see the sky. Another boom sounded, and I looked to see the line in the sky I had imagined.

The night was clear, and the stars were bright, but I couldn’t tell by looking at the sky where the New Year began and the old one left off. I had missed the actual midnight moment. I had missed seeing the line across the sky. The New Year had come when we were praying. The booms we had heard were large fireworks shot off a couple of blocks away, not the sound of the New Year crossing the sky. Other kids came out, and we listened to the noises in the night. Firecrackers were set off a few blocks away, people banged on pan lids, and a bell rang at a church on the other side of town.

Suddenly we heard blam blam! Both barrels of a double-barreled shotgun were fired one after the other only a couple of houses away. “Somebody is shooting a shotgun!” one of the kids yelled. We waited for the gun to be fired again, and for a moment the night was quiet. Then we heard something we hadn’t heard before: ping ping ping followed by a more rapid ping ping ping ping. All along the row of parked cars in front of the church the pinging sounded like a rain shower beginning, only sharper.

“It’s the bullets landing!” yelled one of the kids. “The shotgun bullets are landing!”

Just then there were more shotgun blasts. Blam! Blam! They were coming from the same yard they’d come from before. We waited, and the ping ping ping and then the more rapid ping ping ping ping ping came again.

“Yea! Yea!” we cheered and ran back into the church to tell the others. By the time everyone else was outside, the night was quiet again. There were no more shotgun blasts, so we kids could tell everyone about the shotgun bullets landing on the cars. Some of the women thought this was terrible, but some of the men said it probably wouldn’t hurt anything.

While the grown-ups finished talking, we kids listened for more sounds of the New Year, but all was quiet and still. Soon we were snuggling down in the back seats of our parents’ cars, heading home for our first sleep of the New Year.

It had been a good way to end the old year: a church service that included washing feet, having the Lord’s Supper, singing, and praying in the New Year. I didn’t see the line across the sky when the New Year came, but I heard something even better: powerful blasts from a shotgun and the clatter of pellets landing on cars. Surely it was a good start to the New Year, and 1950 would be a wonderful year of peace and happiness.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Google “1950” to see how well that last sentence worked out.

The Death of Sunday Night Church

The Death of Sunday Night Church

August 14, 2016

Sunday night church was the most evangelistic of our weekly services at the Elmore Church of God in the 1950s. The hymns on Sunday night were more personal and convicting than those on Sunday morning. They spoke of sin, death, and man’s willfulness. The sermon on Sunday evening pointed directly to the altar, and there was a heartrending altar call at the end of each service. I myself was under conviction during several Sunday night services, fearing death as an unsaved sinner, possibly in a fiery crash on a curve beside the Portage River on the three-mile trip home from church. The darkness outside underscored the darkness of the world, and we could feel the need for protection against both.

The need for our sheltering sanctuary was brought home to us one dark and stormy Sunday night when our pastor issued an alarming prophecy. His voice rose in a nearly falsetto tremolo and he prophesied: “The day is coming when the doors of churches will be closed on Sunday night all over America! The doors will be locked, and the churches will be dark and cold. Many churches are dark already on Wednesday nights! How long will churches have services on Sunday night? I’m telling you, my friends, that dark time is drawing near.”

This was electrifying news to me. This was 1951, I was eleven years old, and I could envision the threat. Communists had raged across China, and their atheistic dogma was already bringing a living death on the Soviet Union. Hitler’s totalitarian fantasy was a fresh memory, and it might return. Could America be next? Hearing the preacher’s prophecy, I imagined a decree coming from some future tyrant, ordering that churches be locked up on Sunday nights. Wednesday night prayer meetings might be outlawed sooner. A cold, dark, and frightening image of the future came to my mind’s eye. I pictured our little congregation as a light in the coming darkness. We seemed to be heroic, meeting on Sunday night, even when the lights would soon be going out in churches all over America.

As a young, barely Christian boy, the thought of closing the church on Sunday night was both chilling and liberating. Canceling Sunday night church would be an offense against God, I thought, but wouldn’t I then have more time to play? Couldn’t I then do my homework on Sunday night, rather than on Saturday or on Sunday afternoon? I must have been hearing the enchanting voice of Satan, pointing out my gain in the face of the church’s loss.

Indeed, Sunday night church was often a challenge even for kids. If we were lucky, we would have played hard all afternoon, worked ourselves into a lather, and would require at least a change of shirts before leaving the house. For our parents it was an even greater challenge. They had to corral all their children, provide a stopgap supper, and herd them into the car. Parents’ chores could be especially hard in summertime when the sun hung temptingly in the sky until after time for church. In winter, the cold weather tried to intimidate the faithful, and cheery electric lights pleaded with them to stay at home and read, pop popcorn, or play table games. And these temptations were mild compared to the onslaught of television that would soon come with full force, later reinforced by Christian cable TV and even later by online church services. Sunday night church faced an array of Philistine armies.

Note: It came to pass, not suddenly but eventually, that Sunday night church was abandoned in at the Elmore Church of God and at similar churches across the land. The preacher’s prophecy in 1951 was fulfilled, but not in the way I expected. No dictator or legislature has ordered that churches be closed on Sunday evenings. Sunday night services in Elmore ceased while my back was turned sometime between 1957 and 1987. By then I barely noticed the absence of Sunday night church because the churches I attended during that time either had abandoned it or had never had Sunday evening services.

In fact, some churches remain open on Sunday evening, and as recently as 2014 there was a lively online discussion of Sunday night church instigated by Thom S. Rainer, president of Lifeway Christian Resources. Mr. Rainer lists reasons that might explain why churches ever had Sunday evening services, as well as reasons they have been so widely abandoned. He offered no conclusive explanation for why some churches still have Sunday night services, but he offered several forces that have contributed to their decline. This discussion is available at this link

Clock of the Covenant coming in 2016

My next book, The Clock of the Covenant, will be published by Xulon Press in 2016. Target date for the print edition is September 15, 2016.

The book is a collection of stories about life in a small congregation of the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) in the 1940s and early 1950s. The stories are comical, tragic, or poignant in turns. The theology of the church is embedded in the stories and elaborated in short essays late in the book.

People who grew up in similar churches may see themselves in some of the stories. Some may be surprised to see how different church life was then. People from other church traditions may find this pattern of church life quaint, even archaic. These are among the reasons I wrote the book.