Thursday, November 8, 2007
The Preacher’s Corner
Naked lady and hippies shock Walter!
Last week I told you about my friend — no my mentor, Walter Markiewich, senior houseman at the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, where I served as a seminarian and then a junior minister for eight years before coming to Holly Springs.
In that innocent time, more than twenty years ago, Walter had oversight of all aspects of the set-up and operations of that large, rambling old church, and provided what passed for security in the era before the church had to hire watchmen. The building was open all day every day, as well as most evenings, so he had to keep an eye open for any disturbance that might develop.
Disturbances of a minor nature did often occur — and finally we realized why when a psychiatrist at the state hospital mentioned that whenever a mental patient was released, they always suggested they “plug in” to the single adult groups at our church, where food and companionship were always available! (We thanked the good doctor for his confidence, but reminded him that we were not equipped to provide professional care for seriously disturbed individuals.)
I could recount many situations, but the one that comes to mind took place on July 3, 1976, the day before our nation’s Bicentennial. July 4, 1976 was a Sunday, and every minister who preached on that day can recall what an awe-inspiring occasion it was. We all tried to find words expressive of the moment, some succeeding better than others.
Our minister, Dr. Davies, was a Welshman, and thought that the Bicentennial Day might be an appropriate time to invite our church’s retired pastor Dr. Harrison Ray Anderson to come back and preach for the occasion. In his day Dr. Anderson had been one of America’s great preachers and was a great student of American history, beloved for his stirring sermons on patriotic anniversaries.
By his own determination, Dr. Anderson had not involved himself in the life of his old church after retirement, and had moved from Chicago to a wonderful wilderness home high in the Rocky Mountains, where he loved to hunt and fish. Thus it had been 10 or 15 years since he had mounted the high pulpit of the Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Boulevard in Chicago. Needless to say the congregation eagerly waited their esteemed former pastor’s homecoming.
Dr. Anderson was quite feeble by this time, and he and Mrs. Anderson arrived on Saturday to stay with Dr. and Mrs. Davies in the manse, which was connected directly to the church. Mid-morning that day, Dr. Davies buzzed Walter that he was bringing Dr. Anderson over to check out the sanctuary, so he could re-acquaint himself with the room, and see if he could make his way unassisted up a difficult flight of stairs into the pulpit.
While this was going on, Dr. Simmons, our organist, was finishing up his customary practice work in the choir loft. Now, the choir was raised high above the chancel, separated from the rest of the church by a high wall, richly carved with religious symbols. When Dr. Simmons went into the loft to practice, he locked a door at the entrance, climbed up to the organ console, and could not be reached except by a special telephone that was equipped with a flashing light instead of a ringing bell. (This was to avoid accidental interruptions during services.) In the day before cell phones, this seemed a very “high-tech” arrangement!
Dr. Simmons also had a three-light signal mounted on the organ console, with red-yellow-and-green indications, to apprise him of progress of brides down the aisle at weddings. Walter was in charge of sending the alerts, and I will say that the operation of this technology did not bring forth Walter’s best talents. Either he would become anxious or perhaps (as was his way) he would be swept away with matrimonial sentimentality, but we could count on the fact that the red light indicating that the bride had finished her processional and was waiting at the altar would be flashed on too soon! I shall never forget standing there as the officiating minister and hearing the awful staccato sound of one poor bride’s high heels clicking on the cold slate tiles of that floor as she labored down the last half of that long aisle in silence — the Wedding March having been abruptly terminated by the premature flash of the red signal light to Dr. Simmons facing backwards at his high perch.
At any rate, while practicing at the massive five-manual keyboard on this particular Saturday, Dr. Simmons noticed something peculiar out of the corner of his eye. There, having unhooked the protecting rope and gracefully ascending the pulpit stairway, was a highly attractive woman, tall and lithe, swathed in a willowy white gown of gossamer-thin chiffon, billowing in the breeze that was coming in from the windows opened to provide some relief from the sultry summer heat. (Many Chicago churches were not then and are not now air-conditioned.) Before he could cry out in protest, the lady arrived behind the pulpit, untied the bow at the top of her gown, and allowing it to fall to the floor, struck a naked pose, resplendent like a classical ebony statue one might see in the Egyptian museum at Cairo.
Speechless, the highly proper Dr. Simmons immediately buzzed Walter, who was already en route to the sanctuary in the company of Dr. Anderson (a model of Presbyterian probity) and Dr. Davies, as well as Jim Fleming, our ever-genial associate pastor. The three walked in a side entrance to the sanctuary just in time for Walter, Jim, and Dr. Davies to catch sight of what was going on!
As Dr. Anderson’s eyesight was very poor due to advancing age and the onset of cataracts, Dr. Davies and Jim quickly suggested that before looking at the pulpit, perhaps he would like to step outside and see the church’s new van — another very new thing in the long-ago 1970s.
“Oh yes,” the elderly gentleman said, and so with Dr. Anderson hopefully none the wiser as to the “changes” that had come to characterize the sedate old church he had left some 15 years before, the three did an about face and walked out of the dimly lit sanctuary, chatting excitedly about the ministry possibilities of a church van, and leaving Walter and Dr. Simmons to persuade the interesting lady to don her clothes and go back whence she came.
However, just as the men stepped out into the parking lot (which was another of Walter’s domains), they noticed that the gate was open — again, Walter’s custom, as it was Saturday morning and not much was happening at the church that day.
As they walked up to admire the sparkling new van, a dilapidated van suddenly lunged into the lot through the open gate and started turning “wheelies,” screeching its tires at high speed in the center of the lot. It was a group of genuine “hippies” — high on who knows what, finishing up their romp of the night before from Rush Street, a strip of night clubs that ran a block behind the church, parallel to the more prestigious Michigan Avenue on which the church fronted. Rush Street was — well, let us say — not known as a place of either cultural refinement or spiritual rectitude.
So Walter was summoned, excuses were made, and Dr. Anderson was herded back into the sanctuary for his inspection of the pulpit, now vacated by its recent seductive visitor, and appearing in its familiar Puritan plainness, just as he had left it so many years before.
Walter said he had never had such a day, and it called for a little toddy in his office down in the basement. Poor man — some days in the church can drive even the most stoical of Christians to drink — and I suspect that several of our church’s senior clergy (but not Dr. Anderson) joined him in seeking such solace as that wee dram of Jack Daniels might convey!
By the way, curiosity moved me to go and look in my collection of church bulletins to see what Dr. Anderson’s text and theme had been for the next morning’s sermon.
And with, I am quite sure, no reference whatever to the events of the preceding day, he preached for America’s bicentennial on “The Springs of the Republic,” taking as his text — however ironically — St. Paul’s stirring exhortation, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free” — Galatians 5:1 (KJV).
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