Thursday, June 9, 2005

The Preacher’s Corner
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter

“It’s two minutes after and service has not begun”

Some people make a fetish of being on time, others do not seem to be ruled by an internal clock. My congregation includes both sorts of people; our attendance can double during the first hymn.

I believe that people are simply born one way or another, and that the experience of spiritual rebirth does not necessarily affect whether one is on time. Whether being late is a sin I will leave for others to say, but I know one husband and wife who settled the issue by going everywhere in separate cars.

Apparently being late for church is nothing new. A priest in medieval England commented that the men of the church would stand outside discussing the affairs of business and agriculture long after the ladies had gone in to begin the service. The men would come in only when a warning bell was rung to indicate that the priest had reached the point in the mass where the miraculous transformation of the bread and wine was about to occur.

The ushers in my home church down in the Delta followed this custom, so that being an usher became a coveted job. They would stand outside until the minister called for the offering, and then after it was received, they would retire to count the collection. A new preacher came who felt the men needed to hear the service, so he moved the offering to after the sermon. This caused such a disagreeable reaction that the minister had to move to another parish.

Worshipers are not the only ones who can run late. Once in Rosedale, Miss., the florist was delayed one Sunday getting flowers to the Presbyterian Church. The service was well under way when the front doors flew open and an embarrassed florist rushed down the center aisle and plopped a lovely arrangement upon the altar, not even looking over her shoulder as she beat a hasty retreat.

Brides are famous for being late. (It is socially acceptable for a bride to be late, but God help the groom who does not appear at the appointed time.) On one occasion at our church in Chicago, the organist had to play for an hour and a quarter while the bridal party made it through from the suburbs during one of the city’s famous traffic snarls on the expressway.

As if to get even, the organist played the traditional wedding march for that bride’s procession down the aisle. He had a panel of colored lights on the organ console that the sexton would press to let him know when the wedding party was in place. (This system never worked!) Something went wrong and the organist finished the wedding march too soon. The poor bride had to make the last fifty feet of the wedding march without any musical accompaniment. I shall always remember the congregation’s breathless hush and the sound of her high heels clicking on the stone floor.

Lest you think we preachers are censorious on this subject, I recall when our camp director at Oxford had agreed to preach for a congregation down Delta way. He dutifully wrote “Preach at GRN on his appointment calendar, and on the Sunday in question,

Robert went strolling into the First Presbyterian Church of Grenada only to find the church’s pastor on the scene and ready to conduct his service. It was only then that Robert remembered that GRN in his book stood for “Greenwood” and that the organ there would already be playing to gather the congregation for worship.

Once I almost forgot a wedding. There had been no rehearsal for the ceremony, and fortunately I was close by, pecking away at my computer. Maia Miller was catering the reception and phoned me from the kitchen, wanting to know where I was! I got myself ready in record time, and I hope the bride and groom were none the wiser. They have been unique among couples I have married by sending a gift to our church each year on their anniversary.

By far the greatest stickler for “on time” Presbyterianism was an usher at our church in Chicago named Earl Darr. Earl had been the usher at the church’s north door by the pulpit for 35 years.

It was not the busiest entrance, but Earl was glad to be “a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord,” and was among the most regular of this church full of regular members. He was also among the most long suffering, as the story I am about to tell will disclose.

One Sunday, as we were waiting to go to our seats in the chancel, Earl was studying his Hamilton watch with just the hint of dismay on his usually smiling face. I was standing close to him, and so heard this church loyalist’s reluctant complaint. It was, as far as I know, his first in 35 years!  

Over the solemn tones of the booming organ, Earl whispered in my ear, “Mr. Winter, it is two minutes after eleven and you people have not begun the service!” 

Then, said Earl, with a sweeping gesture as if to trace the movements of a clock: “When Dr. Anderson was our minister [that was a full generation before], Dr. Anderson always entered the pulpit precisely as the second hand of his Hamilton swept across eleven o’clock.”

Harrison Ray Anderson, like Earl Darr, had begun his working career as a railroader. Both had kept their railroad watches and would compare them for accuracy every Sunday before the service, just like an old time engineer and conductor used meet beside the locomotive to do. Earl had been a timekeeper for the Santa Fe Railway.

Until then I had thought our church was as stiff and proper as ever a church could be. Then I realized from what we had fallen. I have preached in fear of being late ever since!


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