I love gospel lecture films. The cameras play the audience, who are eager, smiling in rapt attention, waiting for the glorious gospel truths that are funny and sad, tearful but joyous beyond belief.
Each of my “early” services is also like a film — a horror story of eyes that don’t see and ears that don’t hear. And worst of all is the dreaded black — ‘The black’s a coming! I know it is! Black, blacker than the ‘abussos’ of hell.”
My dilemma is early worship! I have long resented it as the great divorce of joy. The crowd is big but lethargic. The spellbinding illustrations I use at 11:00 worship, at 9:45 only ricochet off steel faces and splinter into scripture shrapnel that gets embedded in the pews.
I have tried everything I can to interest them. I have asked them to blink twice if they are happy to be saved. A few do. If the minister of music says, “Let’s all smile,” a score of faces fracture into pseudo-grins that are halfway between a real smile and “gasid” indigestion! I have tried to titillate them with alliteration, but there is never any facial movement that lets me know they care I am finished with the attempt. At 11:00, a sermon is a sermon — but at early worship a sermon is a monologue in a wax museum.
It was years ago that I first began feeling this. A joke was always funnier at 11:00 worship than at the earlier service. A sad illustration was always more tearful. Gradually through the years all tears and laughter ceased at 9:45.
I can’t believe that only one hour can make such a difference in the aliveness of worship. There’s a dried-egg-on-the-face feeling about the early service! It is too short a distance from the hurried washing of the face, the combing of the hair, and the brushing of the teeth to “the Lord is in His Holy temple” time. The hurried dash from P.J.’s to neck ties is perhaps the real culprit.
So when the jubilant song leader cries, “Let’s all turn to hymn number 52 and just praise the Lord,” the average parishioner is still trying to get the last raisin from his bran out from between his teeth. His dead fingers turn the dead pages of his upside-down hymnal while he struggles with the raisin.
“Crown him with many crowns,” croons the happy chorister. “Now let’s all smile on this second verse,” he beams.
Three do!
One who does is Rex — Rex lives up to Annie’s doctrine. “You’re never fully dressed without a smile.” In fact, he has that “Something-good-is-going-to-happen-to-you and this-is-the-day-that-the-Lord-hath-made-so-expect-a-miracle” look about him. I need Rex since he proves that it is possible to smile in early service. Still I wonder, is it congenital? A touch of retardation? A pledge not to look like glum ones who feel they got to church thirty minutes before God?
Rex drives me crazy! What is he harboring that gives him such joy? He should go to 11:00 service where he belongs! Doesn’t he understand that at nine we get serious with God — and heaven help the first person who shows interest. Early worshippers are supposed to sit zombie-like where life signs remain few. A lock of hair falls over a glass eye. A fly buzzes past a bouffant hair-do and lands on the leather cheek of a man who appears to have expired on the third bar of the Doxology. I see the terror of the coming black — it cannot be aborted — the black’s a coming!
Standing for hymns is erratic aerobics — where four hundred souls all stand at opposite times. They wobble unsteadily and sway like a radio tower in a thunderstorm. “Alright, what a wonderful morning — let’s really praise the Lord — and be joyful and make melody in our hearts.”
Four hundred sets of eyes blink.
Rex smiles.
“Now let’s really sing the last verse of our opening hymn, Crown Him With Many Crowns — what a wonderful day that will be!
A man on the front pew shoots up with nasal inhalant.
One hundred fifty eyes shut off and then open.
The excitement is at a fever pitch now.
The hymn coronation begins with Artoo Deetoo joy!
Three latecomers — like foolish virgins out of oil — enter the service ten minutes late, slip into a back pew and sit down. It is a low-iron anthem — the sluggish singers trail the organ three beats.
I have written my own scripture. While it is not in the Bible, some defeated morning I will make it my thundering text for early worship.
Awake, O thou that sleepest!
Awake and slumber not in the sanctuary of the most High!
Thou art an offense unto light!
An abomination unto day!
Arise, awake and cry out!
Muffle the chasm of thy yawns!
For the tardiness of thy lethargy has risen upward as
The great snore of Revelation!
Lift up thy head and let thine eyes be open unto joy.
Till then early sermons will continue as my private purgatory. Worst of all, only early worship knows the dreaded black that swallows all light. The black’s a coming. The center of a human yawn is the blackest black known to man. It’s the black that gets me — it’s Easter sunrise fifty-two Sundays a year. The shivering gaze, the comatose stares — all of this can be faced. But when a man in the middle section of onyx faces opens his mouth, I know the black’s a coming.
I’ve seen it all before. The lower jaw unhinges. Down, down, down drops the chin like the maws of the worms of Arrakis. The black hole in his face enlarges until it is impossible to see anything else. I shout deep scriptural truths into the growing abyss. Words fly into the blackness past tonsils and cavaties. Then hell subsides. Slowly the great yawn pulls itself together. Up, Up up rises the lower jaw until all the black is gone.. Nothing is changed! There is only the same uncanny plastic face — eyes glazed, staring straight ahead.
Still, when the black is past I feel a moment of exhilaration. I have faced the demon mouth and won. Inwardly I sing a little “Te Deum.” Like Quixote I know I must fight on. Across the waxen faces, another mouth drops open. The blackness grows. The lower jaw unhinges and the black hole …
I cannot win forever. Someday the demon yawn will win and my tombstone will read like the local war memorial, “For all of those who died in the service,” to which someone is sure to ask, “Was that the 9:45 or 11:00 service?” All will know the answer.
Illustration by Calvin Miller

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