Saturday, March 16, 2002

Encounter: The New Year's Party

Awe, wonder, joy, reverence for life.

I spent much of my childhood in a small town in North Texas that had a population sign reading 570 for as long as I can remember. We were pretty well divided between Baptists and Methodists although there were a few Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ members in between. Most of the Baptists were pretty strict about having fun. It was considered a sin to drink, dance, smoke or play cards. The Methodists were somewhat less strict, but they believed it was possible to fall from grace and we knew that their faulty theology was probably responsible for their loose morals. My family were Baptists, but we were almost as easy-going as the Methodists. Most of the men in my family smoked cigars occasionally and my father smoked cigarettes. We enjoyed my grandfather's homemade blackberry wine over ice cream and my grandmother's special recipe eggnog at Christmas and we loved games of all sorts which included various varieties of card games. We were a family of musicians and the children all loved to dance.

My grandfather had a tall Edison Victrola with two drawers full of those thick old records ranging from Sousa marches to Caruso to foxtrots. We especially loved the foxtrots. My cousin and I would wind up the Victrola and dance ourselves silly around the living room carpet. There were no dance halls in our part of the country, thanks to the vigilance of the church. Community events consisted of church ice cream and watermelon socials and Sunday picnics. Then one year the Methodist Church announced that they were going to host a New Year's Eve Watch Party.

That was the year I turned thirteen. There wasn't a lot to do in Howe, Texas and the prospect of attending a New Year's Eve party was the most exciting thing I could imagine. Especially since the Methodists seemed to have more fun than us Baptists although that consisted mostly of being allowed to play card games. I had seen pictures of New Year's parties in magazines with people wearing funny hats and dancing and throwing streamers and confetti so I imagined that was the kind of exhilarating experience that was in store for us. The prospect of being allowed to stay up past midnight was almost more than I could stand.

That evening I joined the crowd of young people that arrived around 8:00 for the festivities. We played games, laughed and joked around, drank punch and consumed fudge, cake, popcorn and sandwiches and I wondered where the streamers and noise makers were and when the dancing was going to start. At about 30 minutes before midnight we were ushered into the church sanctuary and solemnly seated in the wooden pews that formed a semicircle around the chancel with its dark carved pulpit and Lord's Supper table. We sang a few hymns and heard a short address by the preacher. I glanced at the clock on the wall and could see it was getting close to midnight and started getting nervous. If we didn't finish up there soon, we might be late for the big event. The New Year was almost upon us. Then about five minutes to midnight we were all asked to bow our heads in silence and pray in the New Year asking forgiveness for our sins and promising to make a fresh start on our task of discipleship. And if there were any among us who had not yet accepted Jesus Christ as our Savior, there would be an altar call following midnight and we should all be praying for any lost who might currently be among us.

That was the longest and most miserable five minutes I had spent in my entire life. I could see the minute hand on the clock moving closer and closer to the hour and every cell and nerve in my body wanted to jump up and shout and run around the building shooting off firecrackers and ringing bells and and waking up the whole town. While the rest of the world was singing and laughing and dancing, we were being asked to sit covered in sackcloth and ashes in a grave.

I wonder how many other thirteen year olds that were there that evening started down the pathway of agnosticism as I did. I find it impossible to believe that God doesn't enjoy us having a good time. Otherwise, why would we given a world so filled with so many good things! Music, love, laughter, dance, starry nights and gilded sunrises. Life should be a celebration of wonder and anticipation, filling up and bubbling over, exploding with mirth. Those were the times I've always felt closest to God. "Let us shout for joy to the rock of our salvation." (Psalm 95) Jesus and his disciples were criticized for enjoying parties and being drunk and disorderly. The critics must have been Baptists or Methodists! An Encounter with God is something to celebrate, yet how many churches conduct worship services like funeral services. How many churches send their children out to "children's chapel lite" so they won't disturb or, God forbid, babble or laugh during the sermon? How often is Communion celebrated like a wake? In the words of St. Teresa, "God preserve me from sullen saints."

Thank Linda Underwood for this one:

All this talk of saving souls
Souls weren't made to save,
like Sunday cloths that
give out at the seams.

They're made for wear; they
come with lifetime guarantees.
Don't save your soul.
Pour it out like rain on
cracked, parched earth.

Give your soul away, or
pass it like a candle flame
Sing it out, or
laugh it up the wind.

Souls were made for hearing
breaking hearts, for puzzling dreams,
remembering August flowers,
forgetting hurts.

These men who talk of saving souls!
They have the look of bullies
who blow out candles before
you sing happy birthday,
and want the world to be
in alphabetical order.

I will spend my soul,
playing it out like sticky string
into the world,
so I can catch every
last thing I touch.