A Lesson in Tradition

Every Sunday morning of Wilbur Faber's youth, his parents took him and his sisters to church three-quarters of an hour—to the minute—before the janitor rang the bell at five minutes of.

Week after week the family waited in the parking lot—just sat and waited all together in the car—until Julius Prinsen got out of his car, stood up straight, jerked his pants up around his waist, watched for a moment as his wife, Hermina, stepped out of the passenger side, then started walking to the west door of the church. That was the signal. At that moment—twenty minutes before the bell was rung—the Fabers got out of their car and walked up to the big doors on the south side.

Wilbur's father always nodded to Julius Prinsen once inside the sanctuary, and his mother sometimes exchanged a pleasantry or two with Hermina. Then all of them, plus three or four other families, ritually took their pews—the ones they sat in service after service. The Fabers' pew was sixth from the back on the west side. Always it was sixth from the back, west side.

Wilbur's father, you see, was steeped in tradition. As a result, so was Wilbur.

After every meal, Wilbur's father would read either a Psalm or a devotional message from the little booklet they received in the mail from the denomination. And then he prayed. Always, Wilbur's father prayed. That was the way things were done. No one ever questioned it.

When Wilbur grew up, he went away to college for a year or two, then came back to town and became a mechanic, just like his father. But somewhere along the line—I'm not sure exactly where—something went "ping-ping-snap" in the motor that ran Wilbur's life. Once he was married, he started coming late for church; what's more, he started laughing at his parents' old, silly Sunday rituals—all of them except church, that is.

At thirty-five Wilbur threw off the yoke of all that tradition. He told his wife that he'd had enough of the old ways. He said he'd grown up with so many prune faces in church that he'd thought worship was nothing but rehearsal for funerals. He told people they ought to be throwing out all the old slow psalms and bringing in some new ones— snappy ones that would get the whole congregation up on their feet and swinging their arms.

In Bible study groups, Wilbur liked to make people mad by saying that sometimes he wanted to stand right up and yell "Amen," even though he knew it would send some people into cardiac arrest, his own parents included.

Wilbur didn't hate his parents, really. He just decided that they'd been dead wrong about some worship matters. So Wilbur adjusted the steering column of his own life: whenever he'd even think of the word tradition, he'd swerve madly in the opposite direction.

One summer Wilbur and his wife, Marian, spent two weeks doing volunteer work in Mississippi. They were stationed at a small mission center for poor people, mostly blacks, who lived in little more than tar-paper shacks on the long, low cotton fields of the Mississippi delta.

On Sunday, Wilbur and Marian worshiped at a rag-tag, frame church just outside of town—a black church, where not a soul showed up until five minutes before the preacher stood up in front. Wilbur liked that.

And he loved the music. All full of energy, he thought.

The sermon went on too long, in Wilbur's opinion, but what made it interesting—even if he didn't quite understand it all—was the way the people talked back to the preacher, punctuating the whole thing with "Amen's" and "Praise the Lord's" that turned the preaching of the Word into a conversation. A big lady sitting in the row ahead of Wilbur and Marian would twist her head around every once in a while and let out a "M-m-m-m, yes," as if she had just taken a big bite of something sweet. So Wilbur tried it himself— "M-m-m-m, yes," he said at one point. Marian stuck an elbow in his ribs.

During the service the deacons took at least a half dozen offerings. Every ten minutes or so some guy would stand up and ask for a little more money.  Wilbur thought that made the idea of offering much more meaningful. He figured when he got back, he'd say something to his preacher about it. All of a sudden Wilbur was sure that the old way, taking collection just once, turned the beauty of giving into something cold as a fender on a January morning.

The preacher, a short, bald man in steel-rimmed glasses, sang when he prayed. It wasn't really a song, and it wasn't really not a song, but it went on and on; and when it was over, some of the folks in the church started in on prayers of their own. Wilbur didn't always understand what they were praying about, but he liked the openness, the fact that everybody had a part in the prayer. Two women walked right up to the front and kneeled when they took their turns. One of them went on for ten minutes at least, her arms swaying and swooping as her voice turned and twisted the way a fancy pigeon can roll through the air.

The thing is, Wilbur thought he'd seen something with real life and vitality, something jumping with Spirit and enthusiasm. Not at all like the First Church of the Ice Box back home. He thought of himself as a better man for having seen what he figured was the other side.

Two hours later Wilbur and Marian came out of the church and looked over the far reaches of a bean field stretching out west toward the river. To the north, a row of magnolias glistened in the thick heat of the mid-July sun.

"That was something, wasn't it?" Wilbur said.

"I didn't get it all," Marian said, "but it sure was different."

A black man named Elroy, a youth worker at the Center, showed Wilbur and his wife where a good-sized tub was buried in the ground, tangled in weeds.

"Look at this," he said, pointing down at the cracks in the cement.

"That's for baptism, I bet," Marian said.

But Wilbur didn't get it. He was still full of the service. He brushed a couple drops of sweat off the corners of his eyebrows. "I sure did enjoy that service, Elroy," he said. "It sure was a blessing to me."

Elroy looked as if Wilbur had just spoken in another language. "It's all there is, is old people," he said. "Didn't you see that? Just old people and a couple of children." He put both hands up on his waist. "Look here," he said, pointing again at the tub.

But Wilbur didn't get the point.

"Don't you see?" Elroy said. "It's so terrible traditional. It's going to have to change some if they're ever going to get any young people to come."

It was the word traditional that made Wilbur choke, as if he'd suddenly gotten something caught in his gas line. He sputtered a bit.

When he got back home, Wilbur told people that Mississippi had been a good experience. He said he'd come back a wiser man—maybe a bit sadder too, but wiser for all of that.

James Calvin Schaap (jschaap@dordt.edu) is a writer and professor of English at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.