Monday, November 22, 2010
The Sign of Devotion
My closest association with this parish occurred when I matriculated to the Senior College. I still have vivid memories of the installation of Charles Evanson as Pastor. Who could forget the image of Adalbert Raphael Kretzmann with his giant gold pectoral cross complete with a large ruby! I had read his The Pastor at Prayer and The Message of the Symbols and was suitable impressed with the new Pastor simply because A. R. was there to read the Gospel as he as installed.
I was there when the stark, modern paraments and banners gave way to the Jacobean frontals and the chancel had an appearance more consistent with its architecture (something that has continue to refinement both in the chancel and chapel). I communed there, taught catechism there, was a part-time janitor there, served as occasional organist there, and spent hours in the Pastor's study. I was ordained a deacon there in November of 1976 and served at the altar and visited sick and shut-ins until the end of my Seminary years in Ft. Wayne. I was married there by my Pastor Evanson in 1978.
As poignant as those memories are, I often think back to something far different. For most of those years, in the front pew before the lectern, sat an elderly woman. She was there most Sundays and other services as well. She had great difficulty walking and her general mobility was limited. I watched her both from the vantage point of several pews behind her and from the sedelia of the assisting ministers to her left. Often I could not keep my eyes off of her. She held the hymnal in her arthritic hands and it was a labor to hold the book but she would not let it go. She sang with the hymns even when no sound issued forth from her lips. She insisted upon standing and kneeling throughout the service. Anyone who saw her face could see this was painful and severely taxed her energy but it seemed that she was determined to keep up the effort. I know Pastor Evanson had spoken to her about not needing to do this. I had as much as said to her "What is worth all that effort?" But still she continued. I do not know for how long because after my first call my visits were mostly once annually and eventually I noticed she was gone.
Some might say "Why" to this woman who worked so hard to stand and kneel as part of the congregation -- it is not necessary and, some might add, it is not worth the effort (since she was behind the rest of the folks most of the time). But I grew to admire her and to greatly appreciate the piety and stubborn will that would not relent or give in to the limitations of age and mobility. She was there to worship, to worship as she had for many, many years. She was not going to give up -- even if continuing were painful and laborious.
So often the outward actions of our piety are easily discarded. We give up such things as meal time prayers, bed time prayers, and other things learned from our families as part of the practice of our faith. We cast aside the familiar rituals and routines of old when they become too demanding to us or when we feel we have outgrown them. We disdain the physical actions of worship as mere formality or ritual in favor of a personal and individual piety that is more "spiritual" but certainly less physical or concrete. We abandon our familiar places in the pews to find seats more comfortable. We stop kneeling as soon as we can come up with an excuse. We sit and do not stand through the service because we have aches and pains. We don't even bother to open the hymnal when we feel the book is too hard to hold and we stop singing as soon as a tickle in the throat suggests we might be coming down with something. Often, we are left with worship that is, at least in our minds, "spiritual" but what it really has become is worship that is easy, that does not require much effort on our part, and one that makes us feel comfortable.
The older I get the more I appreciate this woman's example. A few years ago my one knee was acting up so I gave up the genuflection during the creed (at the incarnation) and substituted a profound bow. It was liturgically correct but the memory of this woman's fierce devotion and piety made me feel foolish for giving up the ancient practice simply out of fear of twinge of pain. So now I genuflect during the creed (even though some Sundays I honestly wish for a cane to help me back up). I do not have to do this. It is a personal rebellion to the fleshly side of me which insists if it hurts it must be bad, if it is hard I should find an easier way, and if it requires too much from me I should give it up.
I will continue to kneel and stand and sing out (with what my family often finds as a voice too loud) even when these are taxing upon me... It is because they take something from me, that I find them so valuable...
A note of follow up...
Now don't get me wrong... I am not saying that those unsteady on their feet have to go against reason and medical advice. I am simply saying that piety is by nature a sacrificial act and the actions of our piety are often uncomfortable to our bodies or foreign to our culture. I simply refuse to give up because of inconvenience, difficulty, or pain... Each of you must make your own decision and choice in this.