Folks don’t seem to be as openly emotional in church quite the way they used to be when I was a kid. I know, the practice of “rejoicing” has always been frowned upon by many town churches and at least one country denomination I could name, but for the most part it’s been an accepted facet of religious worship around here ever since the first white settlers came in. I don’t think that the present lack’s caused by any extra or worse “sin,” as some preachers I know have been accustomed to speculate. Sin’s always been a favored hobby everywhere. The angriest sermon I ever heard preached on that particular subject came from a man who later got into trouble enough to make Jimmy Swaggart or Jim Bakker blush—or maybe to feel sorry for him instead. Customs, habits, and fashions simply change over time, and that’s all there is to it. So as best as I can figure, the more or less fashionable method of “rejoicing” nowadays is to close your eyes, tilt your head upward, look as pious as you’re able, and wave one arm back and forth over your head—or perhaps on an extra special Sunday, both arms although I get the impression that’s a minority habit. Too many elbows can quench the Spirit, I imagine.
Even so, this whole modern demonstration can be performed quietly, without the main facet I remember from my youth: shouting. Sometimes that shouting could get loud, its accompanying physical actions could get extremely physical, and there’s a sort of hilarious charm about the old-time way of doing things that mere eye-closing, arm-waving, head-tilting, and pious expressions just can’t compete with. I more or less grew up under the preaching of Don Fraley on Boyd Branch, and when Preacher Don got excited and you happened to be sitting in or anywhere near the pulpit, you didn’t merely get your face slapped; he’d play virtual tetherball with your head or, if you happened to be like Zacchaeus, short of stature, he’d do crack-the-whip with your entire little bitty self. In spite of Preacher Don’s example, though, a younger exhorter (the same kid who wanted to sic Elisha’s bears on an older colleague for criticizing his skipping school) once tried some of the same antics on me and I must confess it didn’t work out quite so well for him. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but age hath its privileges. Youth doesn’t-eth.
Physical demonstrations weren’t limited to the preachers, of course. One old fellow I recall in particular would waltz you all the way from the back of the church to the front if he got happy enough, and one time he became so enthusiastic during a foot washing that he accidentally punched a woman right in the kidney, requiring her family to rush her from the church house to the emergency room. And this was only one of many such folks I’ve known. But the most dramatic case of this sort I ever saw was a neighbor who, for some reason, became determined to walk the backs of the pews during a shouting time. Now, if you’ve never seen that done, it’s a sight to behold, and although I never felt any urge to try it myself I imagine that any practitioner of the pew-walking art must strike some sort of balance—no pun intended—between foot coordination, hand clapping, shouting, and any other accompanying expressions of joy he or she might attempt. Thus pew-walkers were held in very high esteem in some quarters, perhaps for a similar reason I once heard a deacon admiringly describe one of his favorite preachers: “When you hear him start to cluckin’ like a hen, you know the Spirit’s just all over him.” In other words, when somebody climbed up on a pew back, you knew…well, you get the idea.
And so sure enough, one very happy Sunday night during a time of general rejoicing my old neighbor began to carry out his resolution. Climbing onto the back of the last pew on the left side of the church, he balanced precariously, then stepped to the next, then the next, and began to clap his hands above his head. His expression was rapt, as if he could see beyond the veil of this life through to the glory world, and then suddenly his feet slipped. One leg went down on one side of a pew, one on the other, the point of impact was directly in the middle…
And THEN he started shouting.Those were the days.