8:50 a.m. Chaos.
Flying clothes, gargled conversations full of foamy toothpaste, wobbly stacks of syrup-covered plates, a skipping CD on the stereo downstairs (someone yelling at someone to turn it off), stomping feet, a mist of perfume, and, finally, the slamming of multiple car doors like gunfire. A brief silence, then pounding feet back into the house, then out of the house. Car door slams for the last time and the family van rumbles out of the driveway.
8:56 a.m. Peace. The house sags with relief.
I am in that van, where chaos continues to reign. Little brothers in the back seat, bickering. Mother in the front seat, singing. Sister beside me, tuned out. Father, driving, lecturing on time management. I clench my teeth together. I should be used to this by now. It’s just the Johnson family going to church. It’s like this every Sunday – the mad rush that doesn’t get started until too late, the speedy drive to the church, the apologetic walk up the aisle to our pew in the front. Why the chronic latecomers have a pew in the front, I’ll never understand. Once the minister said, “I know I’m really late when the Johnsons are here before me.” My mother laughed loudly while I cringed in horror.
This week we have guests accompanying us. They drove separately. They also started getting ready earlier than us, at 8:25 a.m., after they’d eaten their fill of waffles. I’ve tried to explain to my father that waffles are a bad choice for Sundays, since only two people get a waffle every other minute. It’s even worse for us kids when we have guests, since they get to eat all they want first. Once, all the waffle batter got used up and my father tried to console me with French toast. I hate French toast, made with the stale ends of whole-wheat sandwich bread and cooked with those crispy egg bits around the sides. Syrup and eggs should never go together.
Our guests walk up the aisle with us, smiling broadly. They must be anticipating the unusual worship experience in such a tiny country church. I intensely dislike church. (Mom says I can’t say “hate” anymore.) I go only because the guilt complex has been ingrained so deeply into me that I somehow believe I’ll be a worse person for not going. Plus, until I move out and get my own say in matters like this, I don’t have any control; my parents make me go. Oh, and there’s nothing else to do out in the boonies on a Sunday morning when I don’t even have my driver’s license yet. Sucks to be fourteen.
I disappear into that dreamy headspace I escape to every Sunday morning, then I suddenly realize things are different today. Instead of the regular roly-poly, white-haired former-Catholic-nun-turned-United-Church-minister waddling down the aisle, there’s a tall, stick-like man with wispy white hair and round platter glasses. It’s Mr. Sharpe, an ordained lay preacher from another church in our parish. I perk up and poke my sister Sarah who wakes up and notices. Her resulting facial expression is horror.
Sarah and I know that life becomes considerably more exciting when Mr. Sharpe is around. Once we went cross-country skiing with a friend of my mother’s who kindly invited Mr. Sharpe to come along because she’d heard of his great love for skiing. We met at the trailhead, my sister and I mute with shock at his outdated get-up. He wore a skin-coloured, skin-tight, full-length body suit with a big furry cap. He strapped on some old-fashioned wooden waxed skis that he must have stolen from a museum exhibit, wooden poles included, and took off at breakneck speed down the trail. Sarah and I followed in a state of total preteen humiliation, trailing behind this seemingly naked man on skis who raced through the bush. To top it all off, we bumped into an older boy in the parking lot whom we both had a crush on. He was there with the high school ski team. We were there with you-know-who. It was utterly mortifying.
Mr. Sharpe makes his way to the pulpit and I then notice the replacement organist, as well. Marcella’s white perm is barely visible over the edge of the organ railing. At that point, I realize we we’re in for a real good time. Mr. Sharpe announces the first hymn and Marcella plays the obligatory intro that turns into an entire verse. We launch right in, Mr. Sharpe bellowing his heart out with passion for the Lord. He’s a leader, all right; only problem is that he’s gradually getting off the beat. Soon he’s a full bar ahead of the plodding organ and the rest of the congregation. I think the problem will resolve itself at the end of the verse, but no, he plows onward, not even waiting for the organ to start at the top. He finishes the hymn a full two lines before the rest of us and stands, happily oblivious, humming along till we all finish. I didn’t know it was a race to the end; he’s acting all happy that he won.
Mr. Sharpe reads from Scripture, first alerting us to the fact that his left hearing aid isn’t working properly today. (You don’t say.) Sarah’s grinning and I’m more awake than usual. While in the middle of reading, we hear a loud voice:
“You forgot to turn the microwave on.” It’s coming from the organ. “You forgot to turn the microwave on!” Marcella yells again.
Mr. Sharpe stops reading and casts a suspicious look in her direction. “The microwave?” he asks. Sarah is giggling and I’m more alert than ever.
“Yes, the microwave!” she bellows. “Or, I mean, the microphone.”
“Ahh!” Mr. Sharpe beams with understanding. “But it’s already on.”
“I can’t hear you,” Marcella argues. Mr. Sharpe fiddles with the device and returns to the Scripture. I bet God loves interruptions like this. I’m holding back giggles and my mother gives me a sideways boot.
Mr. Sharpe announces the sung response to Scripture, but there’s only silence from Marcella’s side of the church. He clears his throat: “Time for the sung response to our Scripture reading.” More silence. We’re all looking at Marcella, who’s sitting perfectly still, staring straight at Mr. Sharpe. He turns and walks right over the organ, leaning down to say loudly, “Please may we have the sung response for the Scripture reading?”
Marcella snaps to attention. “If you want me play it, you’ll have to find the music for me. I have no idea where it is.”
Mr. Sharpe’s face registers fear for a few fleeting seconds, then he smiles gallantly. “No, we’ll just skip it today. Moving right along, folks…”
I glance over at our guests from the city. They’re in a state of shock, coming from the large, urban, progressive Mennonite congregation that they belong to in Ottawa. I feel a perverse surge of pride in my small country church. They think they have a vibrant church? I’ll give them vibrant!
The sermon proceeds relatively smoothly, except for Mr. Sharpe’s tendency to speak uncomfortably loudly – likely a side effect of his malfunctioning hearing aid and Marcella’s complaint about not being able to hear him. We can surely hear him, though my inhaled snorts and shaky gasps for air in an effort to quell my laughter inhibits my ability to register whatever profound message he’s communicating.
Soon it’s time for the Minute for Mission. “I’d like to call on Gloria to come up and read,” Mr. Sharpe calls out.
Ruth stands up, as planned and printed in the bulletin, and walks to the front. She reads the Minute for Mission, describing the allocation of the day’s offerings.
“Thank you, Gloria,” Mr. Sharpe says as she returned to her seat.
“You’re welcome,” Ruth responds.
Everyone has broad smiles on their faces by now. Mr. Sharpe wraps up the service with a partially hollered prayer and we go on our way. Once home, my parents try to smooth over the morning’s events with our shell-shocked guests. Nervous laughter, shrugging shoulders, waving hands. I hear words like, “You know, well, small town life…interesting characters…eccentric…challenging,” and, quintessentially Mom: “We’re part of congregations for many different reasons, some of which we don’t even understand ourselves.” The guests murmur and mumble polite agreement, though I know they’re really thinking, “WTF?!” I am. Unlike my mom, I prefer to know why I’m part of a congregation than to believe blindly it’s some divine placement, but heck, if every Sunday were as interesting as this week, church would a regular blast.
(Inspired by a real-life service at my parents’ small country church in Muskoka)