Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Why I'm Going to Hell

(aka: Why I Can’t Go to the Congregational Church in My Hometown for a Christmas Eve Service Ever Again)

When I was growing up, my family belonged to a church. It was a Congregational Church, and we went every Sunday. Looking back, I remember it more for the sense of community it gave me for any Biblical learning that took place.

When my family moved to Maine, my parents looked to find a church right away in an effort to get us better connected to our new community. We started at the Congregational Church, but found that the ministers weren’t as engaging as we’d like. We tried the Unitarian Universalist Church, but felt it wasn’t as denominational as we’d like. Then we tried the Methodist Church, and felt we had found a winner. The Minister was engaging and gave interesting sermons (even for those of us who were in 7th and 3rd grade) and the music was wonderful.

People greeted us with smiles and welcomed us to the church that first week... and the next week… and every week after that for 6 months. And finally we decided that we weren’t going to find a new church that gave us the same sense of community and belonging as our old church, and we stopped going. This worked out well for my sister and me, as we weren’t too keen on getting dressed up on Sundays to go sit in church and listen to someone talk (even if he was good at it). Even though we no longer attended church regularly, we still went on Easter and Christmas Eve. However, when the minister at the Methodist Church moved away we lost the very weak ties we had to that church, and realized we might need to shop around for another church for Christmas Eve services.

We ended up at the Congregationalist Church again, and found the service to be decent. The minister was the father of a schoolmate of mine, and there were always a few highlights such as the “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” sung by the youth choir (song that is linked to is an approximation of the arrangement actually sung by the choir – not quite the same tune, but definitely in the same spirit) and the singing of “Silent Night” by candlelight at the end.

Over time, however, the Christmas Eve service went from decent to bad. It was a gradual process – so gradual that we didn’t notice it right away. It began with a few obscure Christmas songs being added into the service. Now I’m all for introducing the congregation to new songs, but I believe that at a Christmas Eve service, people want to belt out their favorite hymns, and not new ones. The musical director at this church apparently feels differently and likes to use the Christmas Eve service as an opportunity to introduce new and never-before-heard-by-anyone-in-the-congregation tunes.

The congregation always dutifully trudges through whatever obscure song has been chosen, while the choir sings loudly in an effort to help us find our way. That method worked ok for a few years, but the choir has shrunk over time, and is now down to 13 people. Additionally, the youth choir is no longer in existence, so the singing of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is now done by the “Youth Choir Alumni,” so depending on the year, this can either be impressive, or… not.

Which brings us to tonight…

On our way to the Congregational Church, we joked about finding a new church for Christmas Eve service, because the obscure musical selections had gotten so painful, so I guess I was primed for a breakdown before I even knew it.

We arrived at church a little later than we usually do, and ended up in the back row. We sat down and looked through the program and found the youth alumni choir and some Christmas classics such as “O Come All Ye Faithful” “O Little Town of Bethlehem” “Away in a Manger” and “Silent Night.”

…And then there were the not-so-classic tunes such as “Watcher, Tell Us of the Night” “Jesus, Our Brother, Strong and Good” and (I am not making this up) “Sheep Fast Asleep (Japanese carol sung in English).”

Well, we got through the Processional and the Invocation with no trouble, but this is where the wheels began to come loose. The choir (made up, I remind you, of 13 people) sang an anthem that either needed to be sung by many more people or by people who had confidence in their singing skills, because there were a good many points in time when the piece was actually painful to listen to.

The First Lesson was fine, followed by our first obscure hymn “Watcher, Tell Us of the Night” which the congregation managed to plod through acceptably. The Second Lesson was also fine, followed by the choir singing an anthem that was actually almost sweet. The Third Lesson was fine as well, but it was followed by the obscure “Japanese carol sung in English” and that, dear readers, is where I began to lose it.

It started with the music when I went to look in my hymnal and found I couldn’t read the words. My dad saw my confusion and pointed to the bottom two lines, which were written in English. I giggled, then got ready to sing. Except when it came time to sing, the congregation just couldn’t do it. There was a lot of soft humming and words kind of coming out, and I’m sure everyone really was trying, but no one seemed to be able to get the tune, and the choir that was only 13-strong couldn’t sing loud enough to lead us (or weren’t all that confident in their ability to sing the song either). And so despite a fine effort to keep singing, I began to laugh. Not an out loud laugh of course, but the quiet, to-yourself kind.

Except that everyone knows that keeping a laugh in only makes it bigger and stronger, and no matter how much I tried to breathe slowly and contain my laughter, it just kept coming. By the time the second verse began (thank goodness for everyone involved that there were only two verses), I was shaking in my seat from my laughter and because she was sitting next to me, watching me struggle to contain myself, my mother had joined me.

I was crying because I was laughing so hard, and leaned over and asked my mother for a tissue. She was also bent in half laughing, but managed to find a pile of tissues in her pocket. However, when she pulled them out, it became clear that they had changed consistency since they were originally put in that pocket. You see, while tissues that have recently been placed in a pocket come out in one piece when grabbed, tissues that have sat in a pocket for a time actually crumble when removed. Which, of course, is what happened when my mother reached for her tissue supply. So instead of handing me a tissue, she handed me multiple shredded pieces of a few tissues.

Which, of course, got us laughing even harder. Which, of course, got us crying even harder. And all the while, Dad on one end next to me, and my sister on the other end next to my mom dutifully struggled through “Sheep Fast Asleep.”

The above story was embarrassing enough, kind readers. Though we didn’t have people sitting behind us to see our hysterics, we did have the ushers standing in the back and they were sure to have seen us. I pulled myself together by the end of the song, but the story does not end there.

Of course it doesn’t.

Because it was in the Fourth Lesson that something that might not have been funny if I hadn’t already been on the edge, became hysterical. The Fourth Lesson is Luke 2:13-14 “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests’”

Well, that’s what the Fourth Lesson would have sounded like if the minister hadn’t coughed when he got to the “Glory to God…” part. He stopped and cleared his throat and tried again. Same cough, same place. He excused himself and cleared his throat and took a drink of water and this, gentle readers, is when you learn why it is that I am going to hell because when this minister was struggling to read a passage from the BIBLE – the Holy Book – and he kept coughing at the exact same place over and over again, I laughed.

Yes, I laughed. It was a quick, loud burst of noise, which I immediately attempted to cover with a few coughs, but I didn’t fool anyone. I re-focused and tried to calm myself, but (you can’t make this stuff up) it happened AGAIN. Third try – same cough, same place. I was doubled over, shaking, clutching a crumbled, useless tissue to my face, but I did find some comfort in hearing the rest of the congregation let out a few nervous giggles.

So the Minister turned the Fourth Lesson over to the Associate Minister, who managed to read the passage with no coughing interruptions. We got through the Fifth and Sixth Lessons and their Carols and Anthems and were back on track to finish the service with no more losses of focus, until The Offertory Anthem, as sung by – you guessed it – the Youth Choir Alumni.

Last year, there were at least 8-10 young adults who got up to sing, but tonight there were just 6. And after the first section where there are many high notes and long phrases, it was clear that no one had practiced this song since they last sang it a year ago, and they knew it. And so while four of them diligently sang on, two of them worked hard to sing while suppressing giggles. Which of course made me lose it again.

I once again pulled myself together for the Doxology, and then my favorite part – the lighting of the candles. The church lights get turned down and everyone stays seated and holds a lit candle in front of them. As the notes from “Silent Night” faded away, we listened to the prayer and benediction, and then the congregation stood up to sing the final hymn (“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”). I had managed to quiet my laughter at this point, finding some calm by focusing on the beauty of the familiar songs I was singing, so I wasn’t prepared when I heard my sister whisper to my mom, “Mom – Wait! We’ve still got a song to sing!” and turned to see my mom putting on her jacket and getting ready to leave instead of standing to sing the final hymn.

Again, a fit of giggles. Again, I got it together to sing the hymn. The organist began the Postlude and I have never seen people leave a church so quickly as we did. It was very nearly a run to the car, and when we got in it, we collapsed into laughter. Yes, it was embarrassing to have reduced to a pile of laughter and tears in the middle of a Christmas Eve service, but there was something to pure and so joyful about that emotion - and about sharing that moment with my family - that I don't regret it. Not one bit.

All the same, we think perhaps it might be a good idea for us to try a Christmas Eve service at another church next year.


brushfiremedia said...

God loves laughter, so worry not.

And if he doesn't, then I say: "To hell with him!"

I think we're all safe on that score though.

That post really made my day!

GirlTuesday said...

oooh, excellent story!

ps. i TOTALLY relate. i'm not allowed back to Christmas Mass either. except in my case, my sister & i were doing the singing--a duet on the alter, facing the congregation. she started singing, i started laughing. never recovered. tried the whole coughing fit and everything.

i'm like the youngest person ever excommunicated from the church.

CDG said...

*That* was a Christmas present all wrapped up in a blog post! Next year, just go caroling. What gets you closer to the divine than sharing song with your neighbors under the stars?

Kevin said...

Ooh. Great post, Phoebe. It makes me feel a little bit better about my breakdown in Christmas Eve Mass at the Parish that used to be called Notre Dame and is now called something like Holy Agglomeration of all the Catholic Parishes in Central Maine.

Anyway, when the priest (who has expanded in size massively since last Christmas Eve) started out his Christmas Eve sermon by comparing God to a pet owner and us to the pets "who just can't understand the ways of the pet owner," I kind of lost it. Actually i really lost it when I turned to my sister and meowed and she insisted on calling herself God's Kitty for the rest of the evening.

And there weren't even as many old acquaintances to stare at as in the past. So mass was really a disappointment this year.

Thanks for the story, I feel so much better.

Anonymous said...

Oh, i love it, Phoebes. We're still at the same Unitarian Church but they've recently added an addendum to the hymnal which includes a number of multicultural hymns -- kinda like your translated carol.
They DO have "How could anyone ever tell you..." in it, which made me proud to be a Unitarian (and an Alford Laker). I love that song.

Meesh said...

Oh my! The same thing happens to my sister and me when we make our annual trek to church on Christmas Eve! My parents' church still does the traditional carols, which I'm grateful for. Both of us have fairly low voices, so we always sing an octave down. We do fine unless we look at each other during the hymn, at which point we begin cracking each other up. My poor mother, who happens to be a deacon in the church, pretends she doesn't know us. So if you're going to hell, you'll have some company!

smukai said...

See you there, at least we will be good company!