Thursday, August 4, 2005

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

Flowers can make a day stand out in memory

“They are only yard flowers,” they say, apologetically. But how delighted I am when church members bring home-grown floral arrangements to our services on Sunday. To me they are the finest of offerings, and add just the right kind of beauty to God’s house.

This is the season when local flower gardens are blooming, and for several Sundays we have had lovely arrangements — created in this instance by Jean Ann Jones. Last Sunday, we had some “surprise lilies.” I did not know why they were called “surprise lilies” until Virginia Lesley explained to me. (I had some in my yard, too, and had no idea how they got there — hence the name!)

Our florists do wonderful things, of course. They are professionals, and their artistry is a talent to be prized. But the local gardener cannot call in help from Fed-Ex to summon the floral elegance of Hawaii and Holland, so that all sorts of “out of season” blooming things can now grace our dining tables and our altars.

All things considered I think the home-grown arrangements are the nicest — just as I am pleased when someone brings homemade bread for the communion. There is something very right about the honoring of local seasons and varieties, and so I am pleased for every Sunday someone appears with garden grown flowers for God’s altar.

Many things the church needs can be produced at home. One of the most interesting was surely the wine used for communion many years ago in a little church out from Kosciusko. Our professor of philosophy in Belhaven College had gone with one of his “preacher boys” to administer the Holy Communion, which in our tradition, students are not allowed to do.

Dr. Preer was old and full of years and dwelt in dreamy philosophical light. So nobody was too startled when right in the middle of the service, he sipped the wine in the chalice and stopped to exclaim, “My, my — homemade muscadine wine.” Afterward when the clerk of the small congregation stepped forward to hand him an envelope with payment for his services, Dr. Preer refused to take it, saying, “Just give me that bottle of muscadine wine.” Muscadine is not a connoisseur’s wine — one source I checked called it “the moonshine of wines.” But it was the homey, local character of the creation that delighted Dr. Preer, I’m sure.

In olden days when food was precious, Episcopal and other Protestant ministers were routinely expected to consume the leftovers of the communion services with their families at the domestic table. Now proper reverence either requires that the celebrant consume the excess, or that it be poured out upon the earth from which it came. We put out our leftover bread crumbs for the birds, remembering Jesus’ words that “your heavenly Father also feeds them.”

Bringing cut flowers in the church is rather a new thing in the history of Christendom. At least in Great Britain the custom did not arise until the 1700s. Before that people just admired flowers where they grew in gardens. Churches were decorated from earlier times with boughs of greenery at Christmas, but the placement of flowers in Gothic cathedrals (as is commonly done today) is regarded by purists as a woeful anachronism.

Puritanism, which was one of the strains from which our church (as well as the Baptists and other churches in this region) derive, and the Puritans had no use for any “psychological” aids to beautify divine worship, including floral decorations for the sanctuary. Hard as it is to imagine now, several generations of preachers spent vast amounts of energy restraining the decorative energies of their women on this score. Fortunately Victorianism arose to temper Puritanism, and in this case, the Victorians encouraged beautification of the churches.

(People should remember, contrary to popular caricature, that the Puritans were “for” sex, but against outward displays of beauty, whereas Victorians were “against” sex, but encouraged all things lovely.)

The elderly minister under whom I served in Chicago was “old school” in some ways and would not allow flowers, except for Christmas and Easter. Our church has flowers only when someone provides them, and so it is a special occasion. I rather like the fact that they are not taken for granted. And when someone places flowers in the church or brings flowers from home, it makes the day stand out in my memory.

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