Thursday, November 28, 2013
An Autobiography of an Old Church Pew
An adaptation of a short story by W.R. Evans
I am an old church pew, an ordinary pew—like the ones you folks are sitting in now. I belonged in a nice, ordinary church—something like your church. My church was made up, for the most part, of ordinary, everyday people—people like you. People who got together every Sunday for worship, who gathered with their families and friends for special holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.
As some of you may have already discovered, one of the pleasures of old age is thinking back over one’s experiences and telling stories about people we have known. I find it helps me remain more thankful for all of God’s blessings I have now, and it enables me to hold onto my hope for the future when I consider what He has already done in the past. And since this is the evening before Thanksgiving Day—a time in which we reflect upon God’s blessings—I thought you might be interested in hearing my story. You see, it could be about some of you. Perhaps it will remind you of some of the ways God has blessed your life.
I came from a great oak tree, which stood with a lot of others on a rounded hill in Northern Minnesota. From the top of our hill we could look down on a small lake hemmed in on all sides by a forest that stretched in every direction as far as we could see. Standing in the middle of a scene like that through the changing seasons, how could one help but feel the presence of God?
Since the very beginning of God’s creation, my family has always offered service to others. Our shade furnished a resting place for weary travelers, our branches have sheltered nesting birds, and our beauty and wealth of colored leaves were a pleasure for the eyes of all those who came to gaze and marvel.
We were used to visitors in our countryside. Families with picnic baskets, campers with tents, hikers out to fill their lungs with the smell of the forest, and children picking flowers, shouting at each other, laughing and trying to whistle like the birds. Mine was a happy, beautiful world. That reminds me of one of my favorite hymns —“Beautiful Savior.” Won’t you sing it with me?
Hymn #537, v. 1-2, “Beautiful Savior”
Beautiful Savior, King of Creation,
Son of God and Son of Man!
Truly I’d love Thee, Truly I’d serve Thee,
Light of my soul, my joy, my crown.
Fair are the meadows, Fair are the woodlands,
Robed in flow’rs of blooming spring;
Jesus is fairer, Jesus is purer,
He makes our sorr’wing spirit sing.
But one day men came with strange equipment that we had not seen before. They seemed to have found what they were looking for as they said we would make excellent lumber—whatever that was. I was one of the trees that they cut down, trimmed, and hauled away.
I soon found myself in a great woodshop. The strange surroundings made me uneasy, but the smell of newly sawn wood was exhilarating. And, according to an inherited desire to serve, I felt willing to be put to any use that the craftsmen might determine. Sometimes the treatment was almost unbearable—marking, sawing, planing, shaping, and sanding—but I was sure that it was necessary to prepare me to serve others, so I submitted to that preparation.
Hymn #698, v.1, “May We Thy Precepts, Lord, Fulfill”
May we Thy precepts, Lord, fulfill
And do on earth our Father’s will
As angels do above;
Still Walk in Christ, the living Way,
With all Thy children and obey
The law of Christian love.
After many days someone came to the wood shop where I was and called me a “church pew,” and I wondered what new adventure lay before me now.
It didn’t take long to find out. I was soon carried to a very beautiful place with an atmosphere of peace and serenity where I was placed with many new friends exactly like me. I was to serve as a “family pew,” in a sanctuary, a house of worship. The quiet peace of that first night in my silent new home reminded me vividly of midnight out on the hills of our forest and as I heard the echo of the organ and human voices I was sure that the same creating God was present.
Hymn #907, v. 1, “God Himself Is Present”
God Himself is present; let us now adore Him,
And with awe appear before Him.
God is in His temple; all within keep silence,
Prostrate lie with deepest rev’rence.
Him alone God we own, Him, our God and Savior;
Praise His name forever!
Morning came. The sun, rising higher and higher in the sky sent majestic colors creeping along the aisles of the church. Suddenly, I heard a bell ringing. It was like the bell from the village church by my woods, which had called generations of people to worship God. Then I knew that this must be the day of worship and that people would be coming to this church.
As they came, there was a happy, excited stir as they expressed their pleasure as seeing me and my new friends in their church. As the organ started its beautiful music, a pretty young woman chose me as her place to sit. I was pleased that I would begin serving even on that first Sunday.
A pleasant and handsome man also came to sit in me. The young woman seemed as pleased as I was with his presence. They were both very pleased with me, or else they were pleased with each other, for they smiled a lot during the service and happily sang the hymns from a shared hymnal. I heard a murmured prayer of thanksgiving for the beauty of love that proceeds from the heart of God to the hearts of youth, teaching them love for one another.
Hymn #649, v.1-2, “Blest Be the Tie That Binds”
Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The unity of heart and mind
Is like to that above.
Before our Father’s throne
We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims, are one,
Our comforts and our cares.
Each Sunday morning they came and sat close together. There seemed to be an increasing joy in our company and I hoped that we could go on like that forever. However, one evening something different was happening in the church. Someone lit all the candles. The organ played, but John and Mary did not come! Strangers sat in me and I wondered about John and Mary.
I could hardly contain my surprise and joy when I saw Mary coming down the aisle in a beautiful white dress. She was lovelier than ever that evening. But she passed me by and went down to the altar where she met John and some others. The pastor spoke about promises to love and care for each other, about God joining this couple, and then he prayed for them. As the organ played, they hurried down the aisle past me again.
But the next Sunday, they were back to sit close together on me. The sermons they heard each Sunday opened their hearts and minds to the love of God through Jesus Christ, and pointed them to the life to come through faith in the only Savior of sinners. Their lives were enriched by their worship of God, where they heard the life-giving Word, received the absolution of their sins, and celebrated Holy Communion, the Sacrament of Jesus’ own body and blood given for forgiveness and the strengthening of faith.
Hymn #637, v.1, “Draw Nigh and Take the Body of the Lord”
Draw nigh and take the body of the Lord,
And drink the holy blood for you outpoured;
Offered was He for greatest and for least,
Himself the Victim and Himself the Priest.
Then one Sunday, John came to church alone. I was disturbed, but John did not seem to be. He seemed to have matured overnight. I thought I read in his face a little more seriousness, a little more earnestness as he prayed and listened and worshiped.
When Mary did come back the next Sunday, she was carrying a fluffy pink and white bundle that made strange noises which caused Mary and John to look to each other and smile. A few minutes later another fine young couple, who turned out to be sponsors, walked with my Mary and John and their bundle to the front of the church where they met the pastor by the baptismal font.
Hymn #601, v.1, “All Who Believe and Are Baptized”
All who believe and are baptized
Shall see the Lord’s salvation;
Baptized into the death of Christ,
They are a new creation.
Thro’ Christ’s redemption they shall stand
Among the glorious heavenly band
Of ev’ry tribe and nation.
When the pastor said, “Margaret Louise, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” I knew the bundle was a baby. And I hoped she would come to me every Sunday morning in spite of the funny noises.
Well, my prayer was answered. In what seemed like an incredibly short time (for a tree), there were six occupants for me to care for each Sunday morning—four little ones sitting in a row between John and Mary. There was Margaret, and Bill, and Betty, and little Charlie. Sometimes they kicked me and scratched me, but I was so proud of them that only the joys of those years are remembered now. They learned each Sunday the wonderful message of the love of God given to them in His Son Jesus.
Hymn #588 “Jesus Loves Me”, v.1, 4
Jesus loves me this I know
For the Bible tells me so,
Little ones to Him belong
They are weak but He is strong.
Chorus: Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me.
Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.
Jesus, take this heart of mine,
Make it pure and wholly Thine,
On the cross You died for me,
I will try to live for Thee.
Chorus: Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me.
Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.
Each Sunday they learned of the forgiving love of God in Jesus and the comfort and power of the Holy Spirit. They were warned of the temptation of the Devil that might confront them and how they must stand strong in their Christian faith. And they learned from their parents how to worship the Lord. I saw them grow in the grace of God, in faith and understanding, until each of my little ones, in his or her turn, went forward to profess openly a faith in Jesus Christ at His altar on Confirmation Sunday.
Hymn #687, v.1,2, “Thine Forever, God of Love”
Thine forever, God of Love!
Hear us from Thy throne above;
Thine forever may we be
Here and in eternity.
Thine forever! Oh, how blest
They who find in Thee their rest!
Savior, Guardian, heav’nly Friend,
Oh, defend us to the end!
The years flew by. One morning I heard Margaret whisper to a young woman that she was getting married. Then before I knew it, she was absent from her place. Soon Bill and Betty went away to college and I saw them only on holidays. The sweet baby face of Charlie had turned into the handsome features of a young man. Later, he went to the big city to work there.
How strange it was, and quiet for me then. I imagine John and Mary felt it even more than I. But the empty nest had its upside for them, too, as once again they were able to sit side by side holding hands during the sermon and sharing the same hymnal as they joyfully sang. By God’s grace, time had not eroded their love for one another, nor had it lessened their faith and love for God.
If anything, their prayers were more earnest now. For the years had brought experiences, and the experiences—both joyous and painful—had broadened and deepened their faith as they learned to take everything to God in prayer.
Hymn #770, v.1-2, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”
What a Friend we have in Jesus,
all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
Ev’rything to God in prayer!
Oh, what peace we often forfeit,
Oh, what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry
Ev’rything to God in prayer!
Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged,
Take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a Friend so faithful
Who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our ev’ry weakness—
Take it to the Lord in prayer.
One day Mary came alone. She was dressed in dark colors and I knew as she prayed through her tears that John would not come again. As this devout woman poured out her grief to God and confided in Him the loneliness of her heart, there was a living presence that gave the peace of God that passes all understanding. Through the power of God’s holy Word, she was strengthened and assured of God’s tender love and care. And she knew that because Christ had died on the cross and rose again to life, that one day would she see John in heaven.
Hymn #461, v.1 & 7, “I Know That My Redeemer Lives”
I know that my Redeemer lives;
What comfort this sweet sentence gives!
He lives, He lives, who once was dead;
He lives, my everlasting Head.
He lives and grants me daily breath;
He lives, and I shall conquer death;
He lives my mansion to prepare;
He lives to bring me safely there.
And then one day after many years of faithful attendance, Mary did not come any more. Look as I might for her friendly face, only strangers came to sit in me and to listen and worship.
One rainy Sunday morning there came another woman who reminded me so much of Mary with all her sweetness and charm. Something about the lady’s quiet, thoughtful ways made me realize that she was in sorrow, a deep sorrow that was breaking her heart. And the pain in her heart showed on her face. Eventually I realized that this was my Margaret, grown prematurely old with the hardship of the years since I had seen her so young and happy.
Something in the prayer she breathed, as the pastor prayed the general prayer, revealed the cause of her pain. God had given her a woman’s most precious gift, a little child. But in His loving wisdom, God had taken the tiny infant back to His heart again. So Margaret had come to seek the consolation of the Word of God in the old family pew.
I felt it surely must have been the hand of God when the pastor read the Scripture lesson that morning—“I am the Resurrection and the Life.” It was the familiar text that Margaret had heard so many times while sitting on me long ago. As Margaret heard the text again, she remembered and she believed. And again she place her trust in Jesus her Savior.
Hymn #729, v.1 & 6, “I Am Trusting Thee, Lord Jesus”
I am trusting Thee, Lord Jesus,
Trusting only Thee;
Trusting Thee for full salvation,
Great and free.
I am trusting Thee, Lord Jesus;
Never let me fall.
I am trusting Thee forever
And for all.
The sermon was heard, the prayers prayed, the benediction pronounced, and Margaret and her husband rose and went out to face their lonely world. But they no longer felt so alone for they walked in the everlasting love of their Lord. I rejoiced because I knew the love of God was a very important part of Margaret’s life once again.
The days turned into months and the months into years. Other families came to sit in me and grew up worshiping the Lord, but none were ever so faithful as had been my first family. One Sunday I realized that it was Easter again. The sun was again streaming in with the colors from the stained glass windows. It was a time to celebrate, but I felt sort of awkward. Though a crowd filled the church, I was empty. Some folks tried to sit in me, but the ushers, for some reason, excused me from service that morning, whispering something about having been reserved especially by someone for “memory’s sake.”
I was pleased when a well-dressed man and a very fashionably dressed woman finally came and sat in me. They had two little children and I could tell from their restless inattention that they were not accustomed to sitting in a church pew. I tried to be patient with them even though I felt that with all their wiggles and giggles they were acting very rudely.
I was only slightly interested in these folks who were sitting in me. They seemed like more of the ever-changing crowd that had been occupying me since the good old days when I really was a family pew. But something seemed slightly familiar about the man.
Gradually I recognized the features of my Bill. How successful he looked! Apparently he had been well favored with this world’s goods. His wife was a pretty woman, a trifle vain I thought, but she showed all the marks of culture and wealth. The dress and demeanor of the whole family indicated that good fortune had been showered upon them. Yet I could not escape the hardness in the look on Bill’s face. I wondered if he had been as faithful in his prayer life and his church attendance as his mother and father had taught him to be, and as he had promised God he would be at his confirmation.
The sermon that morning was about the rich young ruler who could not find happiness in his life through his wealth and through his high position, but who had true satisfaction offered to him in a complete, total surrender to Jesus Christ.
Hymn #783, v. 1 & 5, “Take My Life and Let It Be”
Take my life and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take my moments and my days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise.
Take my will and make it Thine,
It shall be no longer mine;
Take my heart, it is Thine own,
It shall be Thy royal throne.
In the midst of the sermon, a tear formed in Bill’s eye and trailed down a cheek that was now becoming somewhat softened by memories that came flooding back. And in the closing prayer he quite forgot his dignity as both eyes filled with tears and he bowed in humble prayer as his father used to do. I heard a sob and a whispered prayer that if God could forgive his careless ways, the faith of his father would be his faith from that moment on. I knew full well that if the wealth and ability of such a splendid man as Bill could be consecrated to God, my service as a family pew has been very worthwhile.
Many months later there dawned another Sunday morning. The sun was shining. The birds were singing. Again, the colors crept along the aisle as they had thousands of times. But this morning was to be different from the others. An elaborately dressed young woman came to sit in me. She seemed uncomfortable as she sat stiffly with eyes focused on the altar. Then I realized that it was my Betty, grown hard and sophisticated with the experience that the years had brought her.
I was very disappointed in her, for she was obviously so far removed from the love of God which her mother had prayed might be hers. It was all too evident that she, too, was disappointed with her life. She missed the love that had been proclaimed to her in my presence. She had come back to me, (well, actually to God), half cynically, as a sort of last resort trying to find the love and peace she really longed for. Trying to fill the God-shaped vacuum within her soul.
Hymn #700 v.1-2, “Love Divine, All Love Excelling”
Love, Divine, all love excelling, joy of heav’n, to earth come down,
Fix in us Thy humble dwelling, all Thy faithful mercies crown,
Jesus, Thou are all compassion, pure unbounded love Thou art;
Visit us with Thy salvation, enter ev’ry trembling heart.
Breathe, oh, breathe Thy loving Spirit into ev’ry troubled breast;
Let us all in Thee inherit, let us find the promised rest.
Take away the love of sinning; Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith as its beginning, set our hearts at liberty.
The pastor announced the text, 1 John 5:4-5: “This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.”
Betty listened half to the pastor and half to the memory of her mother’s voice. She whispered under her breath, “Faith? Was my mother’s faith better than my education, my culture, my social position, my works of charity? Is faith the way to the love and peace that she had?”
The sermon was finished, the organ was playing and the people passed quickly out of the sanctuary, greeting each other. But Betty did not stir. In the silence that followed I almost felt again the presence of John and Mary sitting there on either side of Betty. I think she felt it to, for she slipped to her knees crying hot tears. This was again my Betty and I knew it when she whispered a song—a song she had sung with John and Mary so long ago.
Hymn #878, v. 1 & 8, “Abide with Me! Fast Falls the Eventide”
Abide with me, fast fall the eventide
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes,
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies;
Heav’ns morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.
Then she rose and walked out of the church with a relief and a radiance on her face. I knew it was because she had recommitted her life to Jesus Christ, the one whom the pastor described as “He alone who can give to everyone who asks, eternal life, abundant life.”
But Charlie did not come. I longed for his handsome face, and wondered what had become of him. I was now an old pew, out of style. There was talk of getting new pews, those fancy padded kind. And if that happened, I would never know about Charlie. But Charlie still did not come.
Then one cold winter afternoon, as the sun began to set behind a bank of clouds, gloom filled the whole place. Cold and darkness was settling in as I heard the train pull away from the elevator loaded with corn.
A few minutes later, I heard footsteps shuffling down the aisle. They made such an unusual sound in this holy place, and I felt a strange foreboding as a ragged, dirty tramp came into the sanctuary. It had happened before, but still I wanted to shrink away from him, for those men only came to sleep, not to worship.
I’m ashamed of it now, but the man was so dirty and smelled so bad I actually prayed that he would choose some other pew to sleep in. As I watched, he came straight toward me. But instead of laying down, he knelt down beside me. As he drew near to me, I recognized even in the gathering darkness, the once handsome face of my Charlie!
But oh, oh how he had changed! He was no longer a bright, mischievous boy. He was not a clean-cut youth. He was a broken man. It was a sorry tale of wasted life that he poured out as he confessed his many sins to God. A torrent of tears flooded upon me as he tried to sing the song that he had heard his father sing so long ago…
Hymn #570, v.1 & 5, “Just As I Am, without One Plea”
Just as I am, without one plea
But that Thy blood was shed for me
And that Thou bidd’st me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because Thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
Then Charlie stood up. There was a certainty in his step that I could tell hadn’t been there for a long time as he walked out into the darkness. And I knew that whatever his sins had been, he was now a forgiven man. And by the amazing grace of God, the grace He furnishes to the lost, Charlie would be found forever in that grace.
Hymn #744, v. 1, “Amazing Grace”
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind but now I see!
I am an old pew now. They say I have a certain comfort about me—not the comfort of a lounging chair, but the comfort which is far more needful, the comfort for troubled hearts, the comfort of prayers offered and answered. I am content to have spent my life as a family pew because I have been of service to God.
Down in my wooden heart, there are some things that I know. I know that the love of God made the mutual love of John and Mary sweeter and deeper than anything on earth ever could have done. I know that the faithfulness of John and Mary gave their children an example of faith to follow, which in times of their trials and temptations brought them back to the Lord through a stronger faith.
I can no longer speak of my first beauty, for I am old. But I pray continually, “O Lord God, heavenly Father, I thank you for the opportunity to serve you these many years. Thank you for all of those in whom through your Word and Sacraments you began, equipped, and renewed faith throughout the years. Thank you for John and Mary and the faith they passed on to their family. I ask that just once more before my time of service is done, that you would let some other family use me.”
To all of you in the pews of this church tonight, I want you to know that you are very precious to me, too. More importantly you are precious to our heavenly Father! He loves you so much that He gave His one and only Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but shall have everlasting life. He loves you so much that He gives you the gift of His Holy Spirit who calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies you and the whole Christian church through His means of grace.
With that in mind, I ask you to live close to Jesus—stay linked to His love in His Word and Sacraments. Come here regularly to hear the Good News of His faith, forgiveness, and eternal life. Come with thankful hearts to sing the hymns of His mercy and grace. And please, never let your pew be empty. It is so lonely without you.
I am very old and perhaps the day is not far away when I will be replaced, and some new pew will stand where I have served so many years. If it does, I hope it has a family like I had. In the meanwhile, even if I cannot really speak of any future for me, I can speak of your eternal future and the love that God has for all of you. Won’t you please join me in singing one more hymn?
Hymn #917, v. 1 & 4, “Savior, Again to Thy Dear Name We Raise”
Savior, again to Thy dear name we raise
With one accord our parting hymn of praise;
Once more we bless Thee ere our worship cease,
Then, lowly bending, wait Thy word of peace.
Grant us Thy peace throughout our earthly life,
Our Balm in sorrow and our Stay in strife.
Then, when Thy voice shall bid our conflict cease,
Call us, O Lord, to Thine eternal peace.
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